Cuvée 2013

Most people outside of Ontario’s wine industry have never heard of Cuvée, and whenever I mention that “we went to Cuvée”, I am usually asked just what Cuvée is. I’ve heard it described as the “The Oscars of the Ontario Wine Industry” which likely was a good description of the event in previous years (more on this year’s changes below). We had the privilege to attend Cuvée 2013 as media guests this year. To say that this is a fantastic event does little to imbue the reader with the details of this wonderful gala – hopefully this post will shed a little light.

So, What is Cuvée?

Cuvée is a gala fundraiser for the Niagara Community Foundation, a foundation that has raised almost $20M and granted nearly $5M to local charities from its endowment fund. The weekend consists of the gala event on Friday night at the Fallsview Casino, and a passport program called “Cuvée en Route” where participating wineries and restaurants have special offers and/or exclusive tastings on offer for Cuvée weekend (Friday through Sunday). For example, a few wineries offered back-vintages and/or verticals of a particular wine. The passport is included with a gala ticket ($175/$200) or you can purchase them separately for $30. The event itself might be considered pricey, but given that the money raised is going to a good cause, and there is so much on offer in terms of wine, food, and entertainment, it is no wonder that they attracted more than 700 attendees this year.

Cuvee Hall

This was the 25th Anniversary of Cuvée, and they decided to do something different for the Grand Tasting (a walkround event with multiple wines on offer). In previous years, a large group of winemakers got together ahead of time and blind-tasted submissions, awarding Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals to the top wines in each category, and awarded an overall “Best Wine in Show”. Winemakers really appreciated winning these medals, because it was recognition from their peers, rather than wine critics or judges (more about that later). This year’s Grand Tasting format had each of the 40 participating wineries submit their top red and their top white. The Cuvée panel then selected reds and whites to give an even distribution. There were three wineries from the Lake Erie North Shore region, one from Prince Edward County, and the remaining ones all from the Niagara region. About 10 top chefs representing area restaurants were also present and served various delicacies ranging from appetizers to mini-mains and desserts (including an impressive cake and chocolate display). The Dairy Farmers of Canada sponsored a booth serving up some of the finest Canadian cheeses as well. Michael Lowe who rights for the fabulous Wines In Niagara blog covered the food in much more detail than I could here.

Just a tiny portion of the chocolate offerings!

Just a tiny portion of the chocolate offerings!

This event also marked the return of Après Cuvée. Last year, we noticed folks starting to depart around 9:30 in order to get into the the better bars within the Casino, effectively splintering the social gathering after hours. Après Cuvée was in an attached ballroom that was opened at 9:30. Inside there was a great cover band, local draught beers from Oust House, Silversmith, and Niagara College as well as an “Ice Wine & Bubbles” bar, more food, and coffee. It was great to see the party move into this area and many folks stayed right until the close at (actually after) midnight. With a couple hundred people involved in the wine industry in attendance, it is really a great social event and chance to engage with so many people. I have found myself in the throes of conversations that make the night fly by and the next thing you know it is over, and I still haven’t tasted this or that. I’m always amazed at how much of the stuff I miss!

Speaking to several winemakers,there were mixed feelings about the new format of wine selection. I had noticed the elation on their faces last year after receiving awards, and asked a few what they thought of the new format. Several mentioned that these previous medal awards meant a lot to them because the awards came from their peers in the industry. At the same time, the new format allowed wineries and winemakers to showcase a wine that was special and had a connection for them, although perhaps allowing each winery 1 red and 1 white each might have prevented the “whites area” of the room being deserted later in the evening. Another point I heard was that in the past, attendees gravitated to the medal-winning wines and effectively ignored the other wineries, so this was a much fairer event in terms of every winery getting “face time” with the everybody. Ultimately, it is such a great event that the positives far outweighed any negative feelings and I didn’t see anybody that wasn’t having a fantastic time.

Collection of Wines on Offer

Collection of Wines on Offer

Rick Van Sickle of Wines in Niagara does a great job commenting on all of the wines on offer here. I really enjoyed hearing the stories behind why each particular wine was chosen…it added an interesting element to each wine. Here then is what we tasted out of the 40 wines when we weren’t talking.

The Whites

Fantastic Chardonnay from Thomas Bachelder

Fantastic Chardonnay from Thomas Bachelder

2010 Bachelder Wismer Chardonnay: According to Thomas Bachelder, this wine took 12 months to ferment using wild yeasts…some might call it crazy to risk a wine for that duration of ferment (many are done in a few weeks). The wine speaks of minerality from the vineyards near Vineland. Apple, citrus and great acidity amid a fantastic smooth, buttery touch that leaves you craving more. I now understand why a Bachelder ON Chardonnay made the top of Rick Van Sickle’s top Ontario wines for 2012.

Deb chatting with Vida & Dave from By Chadsey's Cairns

Deb chatting with Vida & Dave from By Chadsey’s Cairns

2011 By Chadsey’s Cairns (Botrytized) Riesling: Winemaker Vida Zalnieriiunas explained that “noble rot” had affected the grapes before harvest due to the wet conditions in 2011. With lots of hand harvesting, they are both bunch selected and then berry selected to ensure that only quality fruit makes it into the crusher. This fungus has the effect of drying some of the grapes and concentrating the flavours, not unlike what happens with ice wine. Here the yin and yang come into play; Steely minerality and citrus of the County in perfect tension with the sweet, full-bodied juiciness of this special fruit. Delicious, and a novelty from this region.

2009 Stratus White: I have the ’07 Stratus White from our previous visit so I was keen to see what the ’09 was like. Another beautiful assemblage, that depicted strong floral notes on the nose with citrus in the background. The wine was so smooth on the palate with loads of delicate fruit on a minerally, acidic backbone, and the finish was long and quite expressive.

Marc Bradshawn from Strewn shows off his Gewurztraminer

Marc Bradshawn from Strewn shows off his Gewurztraminer

2011 Strewn Gewürztraminer: I asked winemaker Mark Bradshaw why he chose Gewürztraminer, with such a large portfolio of wines to choose from. He told me that he just loves Gewürztraminer, and he thought this dry beauty was just the ultimate representation of the varietal. At only 3g/L residual sugar, it is unlike most Ontario Gewürztraminer which tends to be delivered in an off-dry style. With a beautiful nose of floral and lychee, the palate is true to the nose and refreshes with decent acidity before a fairly long lychee finish.

A Lovely White Assemblage from Angel's Gate

A Lovely White Assemblage from Angel’s Gate

2010 Angels Gate Carte Blanche: A very unique assemblage (blend) of 25% Sémillon, 25% Pinot Gris, 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Viognier, and 5% Chardonnay, this wine just keeps opening up and offering new sensations. The wine was unfiltered and aged in French oak which lends a slightly smoky vanilla notes. The resulting wine is citrusy, yet smooth and fairly full bodied with smooth, creamy butter notes. Finishes dry and crisper than you would think given the buttery notes.

2011 Coopers Hawk Riesling: I knew the LENS region could make great red wines, so I was surprised that the sole winery representing the region had a Riesling. Done in the great off-dry style of Mosel (or even the Niagara bench), this 2nd vintage for winemaker Rori McCaw showed great lemon-lime, tropical fruit, and decent minerality. The sweet mid-palate is cleansed with great acidity and a refreshing citrus finish.

Winemaker Jeff Innes of Palatine Hills Estate Winery

Winemaker Jeff Innes of Palatine Hills Estate Winery

2010 Palatine Hills Neufeld Vineyard Chardonnay: There’s a real mouth full of juicy apples in this full-bodied white from 2010. There’s hints of butter on the nose and indeed the sweet apple pie palate includes some decent butterscotch notes from the oak treatment and residual sugar. The finish comes across cleaner with citrusy-lemon notes.

2009 Ravine Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay Barrel Select (Unfiltered):
When I asked winemaker Shauna White why she had chosen this particular wine, she told me that this 2009 vintage had been one of the most difficult for her. The malolactic fermentation (MLF) that usually takes a few months ended up taken nine months and the whole time she was concerned that oxidation might ruin the wine. She stirred the lees regularly and kept monitoring each barrel and in the end it all worked out. It is a very elegant Chardonnay today with great acidity, fresh fruit, and layers of spice and tropical fruit notes that evolve as the wine warms. Shauna thinks this wine will age very well and I have to agree.

Shauna White from Ravine Vineyards with her "labour of love"

Shauna White from Ravine Vineyards with her “labour of love”

The Reds

2010 Peninsula Ridge Vintners Private Reserve Merlot: With notes of sweet dark fruit like plums and blackberries on the nose, the palate is remarkably dry and reserved, and the wine finishes with smooth but present tannins. It’s one of those wines that have a great structure and appears that it will age for quite some time, exposing more and more each year.

2010 Pelee Island Vinedressers Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Verdot: I’ll have to admit that I haven’t cared for some of the wines coming from Pelee Island, but this wine certainly changed my impression. I was told that the labels were printed incorrectly with “VQA Ontario” when in fact all of the fruit came from the estate (making it “VQA Pelee Island”). On the nose, it is all sweet spice, dark cherry, cassis, and some dark plum and spicy notes. The palate is quite reserved with loads of tart cherry and tart cassis right through into the finish. An impressive example of why we need to keep an open mind in tasting.

2010 Inniskillin Winemaker’s Series Three Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Being a huge fan of Cab Franc, I don’t miss any chance to taste these wines, especially from a great vintage like 2010. Winemaker Bruce Nicholson explained that with the three vineyards and very close vineyard management, they can pick and choose the best fruit with which to create this (under-priced at $23, IMHO) beauty. Typical black cherry and sweet spice, this one added some cigar-box notes to the nose, and the palate was complemented with a definite black raspberry sweetness.

2010 Colio Estate Vineyards CEV Signature Series Syrah: Another surprise from a winery I might have bypassed, but my Essex-area friend Gary Killops practically dragged me over to the booth. Winemaker Lawrence Buhler (recently installed here after leaving Peller) has created a beautiful (and again underpriced at $20, IMHO) French-styled Syrah. With a nose of black cherry and black currants, there is a definite pepper spiciness to this one. New American and European oak provide some dreamy mocha and smoky notes on the palate.

2010 Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet-Merlot: I have the 2007 version of this so was interested to taste the 2010. With a mix of 50% Merlot, and 25% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the dark fruit is very much center stage on this wine’s nose. The palate is slightly more reserved and the wine is structured for long term cellaring potential. I’ve had the chance to try a few Henry of Pelham Bordeaux style wines that have aged for ~10 years and they have all been impressive.

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