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Cuv?e 2008 Highlights

Cuvée 2008, the annual celebration of excellence in Ontario winemaking, is celebrating a banner year in more ways than one. The impending 20th anniversary installment featured a record number of wineries and a record number of wines entered into the competition that sees winemakers select the best bottles in a number of categories, including the fiercely contested best red, best white and best sweet wine classes.

   Fifty-five wineries submitted wines, with participating producers coming from all four of Ontario's designated winemaking regions. Wines from Niagara competed again submissions from vintners in Lake Erie North Shore, Pelee Island and the province's newest official wine region, Prince Edward County at a day long judging held in January.

   The quality and caliber of the wines entered, particularly the white wine entries, are also cause for celebration. Some of the best wines made to date in this province will be poured during the Feb. 29 gala at Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls. The top awards will be handed out that same night prior to a public tasting of wines alongside food stations featuring a range of talented Niagara chefs. Tickets are $200 per person for the black-tie optional event, which is a fundraiser for the Niagara Community Foundation.

   A collection of 60 wines from the competition were presented to wine writers Wednesday at a special tasting in Toronto. The line-up included the top scoring wine from many participants as well as some past winners in honour of the anniversary year.

   The collection included a mix of white and red wines - still, sparkling and sweet - including varietal wines and blends and a range of price points from a $10.95 bottle of Riesling to a $279.95 half bottle (375 mL) of Icewine. The Riesling was charming. The Icewine, not so much.

   The strongest (and broadest) categories included Chardonnays and Rieslings from 2006 and Bordeaux-style blends from 2005. Not to be overlooked were some dynamic Sauvignon Blancs, Gewurztraminers and an aromatic white blend comprised of myriad components (Hillebrand Estates Winery 2006 Trius White, $18.95), the sort of bewitching wines that could be dark horse candidates for white wine of the year.

   Here is a round up of noteworthy wines to watch for if you're going to the Cuvée gala or participating in the Cuvée En Route program, which sees special tastings and seminars staged at participating wineries Feb. 29 to March 2. Visit www.cuvee.ca for a full schedule of events. All wines are available exclusively from the winery unless otherwise noted.

   Celebrity Wines: Wines from Dan Aykroyd Winery, Mike Weir Estate Winery and Wayne Gretzky Estates were all featured at Wednesday's tasting. The submission from Weir, the serious and savoury 2005 Cabernet Shiraz ($17.95, available Cuvee weekend at Creekside Estates Winery) revealed the most star power.

   Chardonnay: The strongest Chardonnays of the tasting came from the barrel-fermented camp. Huff Estates Winery 2006 Lighthall Chardonnay ($29.95), one of the signature wines from a new producer in Prince Edward County impressed with its integrated oak and refinement, while The Niagara College Teaching Winery 2006 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($19.15) was the kind of luscious, big and oaky style that often takes top honours at awards competitions. The star, to my taste at least, was the Lailey Vineyard 2006 Old Vine Chardonnay ($29.95, released Cuvee weekend). Rich, complex and beautifully balanced - it's a wine that gets better each time I taste it.

   Riesling: Rieslings were consistently good, including strong 2006 vintage submissions from Ridgepoint Wines and newcomer Rosewood Estates, a new Beamsville winery; however, the one to watch for is the complex and citrussy Henry of Pelham Family Estate Vineyard 2006 Reserve Riesling ($14.95, available from the winery and LCBO), which probably was the hands-down winner of quality for price of this tasting.

   Gewürztraminer: The attention-getting white grape Gewurztraminer can seduce with its fragrant floral, fruit and spice components. Featherstone Winery 2007 Estate Bottled Gewürztraminer ($18.95) likely captured many judges' imagination with its intense aromatics and wonderfully balanced palate, while the Cave Spring Cellars 2006 Gewürztraminer ($19.95) showcases the earthy complexity and oily texture that make it a thrill for fans of white wines that are a little bit funky and offbeat. While very different styles, both are really exciting and enjoyable wines.

   Sauvignon Blanc: Two barrel-aged Sauvignon Blancs reveal the going strength of so-called Fume Blanc wines from Niagara. The Peninsula Ridge Estates 2006 Fumé Blanc ($26.95) is too beautiful to be overlooked. Winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas has worked magic blending spicy oak notes with his focused and fresh Sauvignon Blanc fruit. Meanwhile Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery 2006 Proprietors' Grand Reserve White Meritage ($24.55), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with another white grape Semillon, is bright and fresh with an appealing mix of citrus and herbal flavours.

   Cabernet/Merlot: Another strong category with multiple selections, the Cabernet blends were a serious bunch, many requiring time in bottle before they'll make their best impression. The wine that made me sit up and take notice was the Creekside Estate Winery 2004 Meritage Reserve ($34), the most serious and structured Bordeaux-style red wines I've tasted from Niagara's challenging 2004 vintage. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from warmer sites in Niagara-on-the-Lake, has surprising blueberry and cherry fruit flavours and impressive grip and intensity compared to the many softer and mellower examples produced in that vintage.

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