Jeff Innes: Ontario’s Most Underrated Winemaker?

So I was at a wine event and a fellow that’s been in the industry for quite some time mentions that he thinks Jeff Innes (winemaker at Palatine Hills Estates Winery) just might be Ontario’s most underrated winemaker. “Hmm.” I thought. I had been drinking Jeff’s wines from the Grange for a while and I certainly thought they were great wines…I mean I certainly wasn’t underrating him.

I had been enjoying Jeff’s new wines that I had seen from Palatine (1812, ZK28) since he left the Grange. So when I knew we had a full day free in Niagara, I contacted Jeff ahead of time to see if we could do a tasting with him at his new hangout – Palatine Hills Estate Winery.

Palatine Hills Estate Winery in NOTL

As we walked into Palatine we ran into the owner, John Neufeld, and his wife Barbara later appeared. There was a lot going on in the tasting room with vendors, and a multitude of other people scurrying about when we arrived so we really appreciated Jeff taking time out of his busy schedule to do a tasting with us. We’d been to Palatine Hills before and the impression we had was that this was a small operation. As we grabbed a glass and Jeff started the tour of the facility, it quickly became apparent how wrong we were. With 187 acres, and a lot of other fruit processed at the facility, Palatine Hills is a large producer of bulk wine in addition to being a winery. Owner John Neufeld explained that with the recent poor harvest in California, many New York state wineries have been looking for bulk wine and Palatine Hills has been happy to supply that demand. With twenty 20,000L tanks, and numerous smaller tanks, there is a lot of juice available for Jeff to experiment with. The buildings seemed to go on and on and included a wide array of winery equipment collected over the 14 years since the owners decided to make wine with the excess juice that triggered the winery in the first place.

Just Some of the 20,000L Tanks

So although wine was first pressed in 1998 (a Vidal Icewine), they didn’t actually open the winery until 2002. And that was a rushed adventure as the wines had recently won some Ontario awards but there was no retail outlet. In a matter of weeks the retail outlet was thrown together and the doors opened. As most visitors don’t see much beyond that small retail outlet, it is no wonder that most think this is a smaller operation.

With new branding, labels, marketing staff and winemaker, there is a new sense of energy at Palatine Hills that has found it’s way into the wine. Some wines will disappear, and others are being remade under the careful guidance of Jeff and the winery staff. Here’s what we tasted:

2010 Riesling: With a light nose of pear and even lighter floral notes (rosewater perhaps?), the green apple, pear, citrus and some wet stone minerality fill the mouth. Even though there is 14.2g/L or residual sugar, the finish is crisp and palate cleansing.

2010 Riesling

2010 Quattro: A sweeter wine very similar to the ZK28 “4 on 4”, the residual sugar is a bit higher in this one at 20g/L. The Gewurztraminer is only 10% but dominates the nose with floral and lychee notes. The palate has nice citrus, apple notes from the Chardonnay and Riesling, and the Sauvignon Blanc contributes some grassy notes and adds nicely to the acidity.

2011 Chardonnay: Just at the end of mallolactic fermentation (define) , the wine was still a touch reductive (define). Jeff showed us how you can actually hear the mallolactic fermentation in the barrles. 80% of the barrels used were 1 year old oak, the other 20% were older still. Interestingly, the oak for these barrels was form different forests, so each imparts slightly different characteristics on the wine. True to chardonnay, this wine had great apple and citrus notes with lots of acidity still because of the ongoing mallo.

2011 Sauvignon Blanc: Barrel fermented in oak (8 used barrels, 2 new barrels) and then blended with some tank fermented juice, Jeff’s been able to combine the best of both worlds. A fruit forward wine with apple and lemon notes, the oak is present but mild and gives a very creamy mouthfeel to the wine.

2010 Sauvignon Blanc: With more new barrels used on this wine, the oak is more dominant on the nose but the juicy fruit of 2010 is still there in balance. The nose indicates a big buttery mouthfeel (like those Chardonnays from the past that caused the whole ABC religion), but in this case, the nose lies. There’s lots of acid and tart fruit there to cleanse the palate and the finish is mouth-watering, not buttery.

Jeff then takes us into the “Riesling Room” (my name, not his). Given his 5 or more years working with Brian Schmidt at Vineland Estates, I’m not surprised by what follows. Jeff then introduces us to 3 different takes on Riesling, something we experienced with Brian a couple years ago. You see, sweetness and acidity play off each other in a wine like Riesling. Harvesting fruit early in the ripening cycle gives more acidic, drier wines, while waiting even a couple weeks can see the acidity drop drastically as the sugar levels rise. What multiple tanks harvested at different times allows then, is a palette of sweetness and acidity to play with so the talented winemaker can create an amazing wine.

2011 Riesling, Tank 1: A powerful nose of fresh citrus, the palette is all citrus with lemon, lime, (even some grapefruit peel) and a steely minerality. The wine is bone dry, and the high acidity is literally lip-smacking and mouth-watering at the same time.

2011 Riesling, Tank 2: The second sample has a nose of sweet stone fruit and honey. There is a thick mouthfeel to this wine that has light citrus notes behind the peaches and nectarines that tickle the tastebuds. The acidity is much lighter than the first sample.

2011 Riesling, Tank 3: This sample might have been between the first two in terms of sweetness and acidity levels, but coming off the sweetness of the second sample, it seems as dry and crisp as the first sample. In fact, I detect even more acidity than the first sample, although it doesn’t seem quite as dry as I continue tasting. I’m fond of off-dry Rieslings but this one is growing on me as a standalone.

2011 Riesling, Blend of 3 tanks: With a rough assembling of a blend, this one brings the three key elements into equilibrium. A nose of honey, peaches, and lemon lime. A slight sweetness and body in the mouth with more of those stone fruit notes. And a whopper of a palate cleanser on the finish – mouth watering acidity and nice mineral notes to make your mouth say “More, please!”.

2011 Gewürztraminer: With the traditional floral nose (rosewater) and fresh, tropical fruits on the palate, this wine is just begging to be paired with Asian food. SLightly off-dry, Jeff’s managed to keep the acidity high creating a perfect tension between sugar and acidity. The palate is juicy and has a medium, tropical fruit finish.

2010 Gewürztraminer: The nose of the slightly hotter 2010 says tangerine, lychee, and rose blossoms. On the palate, the fruits continue but add spice and mineral, with hints of citrus fruit adding intrigue. Again a nicely balanced wine. Medium-long, lingering finish.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: The oak, vanilla, and caramel notes underlying the rich fruit of this wine are a good indication of the 14 months spent in oak. This cabernet has been finished in a very European style – tons of dark fruit and spice but not at all jammy or sweet. There’s a very fine balance between the fruit, acidity, and tannins. The mouthfeel is luscious but not at all cloying, and ends with a long fruit and tannic finish.

2010 Cabernet Franc: I can’t wait for this one to bottle (May timeframe). With no hint of herbaceousness, this fruit forward beauty is a great example of why Cab Franc could be Ontario’s signature red varietal. Cab Franc does OK in poor years, but really shines in years with more heat units like 2010. There’s lots to like in this one with a great balance of ripe red fruit (raspberries currants, and cherries), light earthy tobacco, and sweet spice.

2010 Meritage: A mix of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, and Merlot, Jeff deftly blended this from the key components as we watched. With a great nose of dark and red fruits – plums, blackberry and black cherry, there’s a decent amount of acidity and tannins present that will only integrate and smooth out this wine with time in the cellar. The palate was luscious with those dark fruits, a note of sweet spice, and a decent core of acidity, ending with a long vanilla and blackberry finish. I thought this was quite drinkable now, so time will only improve this.

Winemaker Jeff Innes Deftly Blends His 2010 Meritage

This summer will bring the 1812 Ceremonies in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Palatine Hills is planning to be front and center in many of the goings-on. As noted in a previous post about 1812, there were a lot of war artifacts found on the property which gave Palatine the idea for the 1812 wines in the first place:

War Artifacts from 1812

There’s also some revamping of the tasting room planned which will likely involve some upgrades and a second washroom. The focus will remain on the wines however, and not on the building which I think is a good thing.

So, is Jeff Innes really Ontario’s most underrated winemaker? I couldn’t say as I haven’t met all of them yet, but I know he makes fine wine. One thing is sure – if he was the most underrated winemaker in Ontario, the access to great facilities and plenty of great juice at Palatine means he won’t be for long. Having nabbed double awards (best red wine, best Merlot) as selected by Ontario’s winemakers at Cuvee for the 2007 Proprietors Reserve Merlot , it is pretty obvious Jeff’s skills are being recognized by his peers. It won’t be long before everyone else catches on!

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