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Ontario Wines of the Year

It is difficult to remember a more exciting year for Ontario wine than 2007. New wineries came on to the scene and made a big splash, none bigger than the tidal wave created by Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery and Wayne Gretzky Estates. Young wineries, such as Creekside Estate, Thirteenth Street Wine Co., Tawse and Norman Hardie Winery, showed continued improvement in how they make and market their wines. Meanwhile, old guard properties, such as Cave Spring, Hillebrand, Inniskillin, Thirty Bench and Vineland Estates, refocused and refined their practices to keep them relevant and competitive with the new school of premium estate wine producers.

Of course, much of the excitement comes from the quality of the 2007 harvest, which is showing early signs of being one of the best ever vintages for Ontario. The question will be how each producer handles the fruit that came their way.

I found even greater excitement surrounding Ontario wine in the bottle. And, I wasn't alone. Lailey Vineyard, Thirty Bench and Vineland produced some of their best wines yet in 2005 and 2006. New releases from Le Clos Jordanne, the stunning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer from Jordan, Stratus Wines, including the special bottling Charles Baker Riesling, and the aforementioned Hidden Bench created quite a stir amongst wine circles in the province - and across the country.

The calibre of these wines got me thinking about what bottles would go into a case that really showcases the best of Ontario. I extended the same question to three smart sommeliers who have a real passion for home-grown wines: Sara d'Amato, sommelier of the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto; Lorie O'Sullivan, assistant sommelier at the Platinum Club Restaurant, Air Canada Centre, Toronto; and James Treadwell, sommelier/owner of Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine in Port Dalhousie.

The results were all over the board. Some panelists opted for older wines with impeccable pedigrees, as was the case of Sara d'Amato's selection of the stunning Cave Spring Cellars 2003 CSV Riesling. Others went for cutting edge wines that made their debut in 2007, such as the 2006 Megalomaniac Eccentric Savagnin or The Organized Crime 2006 Gewurztraminer. James Treadwell put both in his case of great Ontario wines.

Three of us split the case more or less democratically between white and red selections, while James Treadwell loaded up on white wines. Only two of the bottles he selected were red, which likely says as much about his view of what Ontario winemakers do best as it does about what Ontario wines work with food the best.

Here is a list of consensus picks, a mixed six of great Ontario wines. The full lists are archived at www.watersandwine.com.

Ontario Wines of the Year:
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Henry of Pelham Family Estate 2005 Reserve Baco Noir
Short Hills Bench, Niagara Peninsula $24.95 (461699)
Henry of Pelham's signature red wine elevates the humble French hybrid grape to the lofty heights of fine red wines. Spicy complexity, supple texture and overall wow factor make this an Ontario original. www.henryofpelham.com

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Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery 2005 Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyards
Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $40
Our top-vote getter, a barrel-aged blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, has been long sold out at the winery. Early tastings of the 2006 suggest an equally bright future. Watch for it next spring. www.hiddenbench.com

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Hillebrand Estates 2005 Trius Red
Niagara Peninsula $19.95 (303800)
The 2005 Trius Red is a spicy, serious Bordeaux blend that impresses with its generous and plush character. For $20, it's not only an impressive wine - it's an impressive bargain. www.hillebrand.com

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Le Clos Jordanne 2005 Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir
Niagara Peninsula $60 (034553)
Le Clos Jordanne received multiple votes though not necessarily all for this wine. The top-of-the-line Pinot Noir from the Franco-Canadian partnership is a wine that impresses with its core of fruit and admirable structure. This will be released at LCBO Vintages outlets in March. www.leclosjordanne.com

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Norman Hardie Winery 2006 County Chardonnay
Prince Edward County $35
Our top Chardonnay comes from newcomer Norman Hardie who has turned heads with the quality of his wines produced from Niagara and Prince Edward County vineyards. Released for $35, what's left of its 90 case production can only be found at restaurants. Hardie's Chardonnay Sans Barrique also received a vote. www.normanhardie.com

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Stratus Vineyards 2006 Charles Baker Wines Riesling Picone Vineyard
Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $35
The small production Charles Baker Riesling continues to impress with its second vintage. This is wonderfully lively with an intriguing perfumed quality and an engaging streak of honeyed fruit flavours. www.charlesbaker.ca

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