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Wine Spectator Calls

One of the teases on the cover of the current issue of Wine Spectator is "Exploring Canada's wine country." Listed under captions about New Zealand (Exciting Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir) and Chile (Great Values and More), those four words draw attention to the American wine bible's first report on Niagara's food and wine scene.

   The six-page feature in the May 15 edition highlights dining and lodging options, with brief (and encouraging) write-ups about the likes of Restaurant Tony de Luca, Stone Road Grille and Treadwell. Five premium wineries, namely founding VQA members Cave Spring Cellars and Inniskillin Wines and newcomers Flat Rock Cellars, Stratus Vineyards and Tawse Wines, are also singled-out as must-visit producers.

    Mitch Frank, an associate editor based in Wine Spectator's New York office, visited the Niagara region last October to assemble the travel feature. News of his visit was much discussed by vintners and chefs up-and-down the wine route. The timbre of the conversations underscored the importance of getting a positive review from the publication that is a go-to source of information for the wine trade (buyers and sommeliers) as well as serious consumers. Wine Spectator's readership is estimated to be in the neighbourhood of two million.

  As it turns out, there was little to worry about. The report puts the Niagara wine experience in an extremely flattering light.

  Frank relates the humble beginnings of the Niagara wine industry, outlining its beverage alcohol background of blending imported wine with "a small percentage of local wine..." and labeling it as Canadian wine. Mercifully he doesn't expose how this remains common practice with large volume producers.

   Instead, he accentuates the positive, explaining that "Today, the peninsula is better known for beautiful Rieslings, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and especially icewines produced by small, quality-minded wineries."

   Things turn a touch more critical with the wine reviews featured in the back of the book. The highest scoring wines, as anyone might expect, are Icewines from Inniskillin Wines and Konzelmann Estates. Wine Spectator's tasting panel also quite liked Flat Rock Cellars 2006 Nadja's Vineyard Riesling and 2006 Viogniers from Chateau des Charmes and Peninsula Ridge Estates.

   On the whole the tasting panel seemed more impressed with exotic whites and offbeat white blends (Hillebrand Estates 2006 Trius White and Stratus Vineyards 2005 Stratus White) than other selections. The highest rated red wines come from Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Reif's 2002 First Growth Cabernet-Merlot and 2002 First Growth Cabernet received ratings of 88 and 87 (out of 100) respectively, or very good on the magazine's scoring scale.

   Curiously Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two of the region's bright spots, didn't rate serious mention. That could be an issue of timing - the best examples are produced in smaller volumes and might not have been unavailable for the tasting deadline last year - or it might say something about what the American panel expects from those challenging varieties in a global context.

Wine of the Week:
Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery 2006 Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay
Niagara Peninsula $19.95 (268342)
   The family-owned and -operated Henry of Pelham remains one of Niagara's most consistent producers. There isn't a weak link in the expansive portfolio, which spans from dry table wine to sparkling and lusciously sweet wines. Winemaker Ron Giesbrecht's barrel-fermented Chardonnay always impresses with its richness and complexity of flavour. This new release is no different. There's a quicksilver vein of acidity that keeps things focused and balanced on the palate. This would be a great match for grilled salmon or seafood with a crème sauce. (LCBO Vintages)

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