Advanced Sommelier and lover of all things fine and wine, living and working in the beautiful Niagara wine country of Ontario, Canada.
Niagara Wine Comes of Age
On a hot July afternoon, I find myself pulling in to yet another winery. It's the third one of the day and one of possibly hundreds I have visited so far in my life, but this one is already different. Not only is it my first time here, as it is new, but it is so new that when my companions suggest stopping there, I have serious doubts as to whether it was even open to the public yet. After all, there had been no grand social media announcements, no Instagram pics of a tasting room under construction, nor had I seen any job advertisements looking for service staff. Surely I would have heard something.
This particular winery held a spark of interest for me as a friend had worked harvest there, and he had spoken very highly of it. I was curious to see the place and try the wine, so I mentally crossed my fingers for good luck as I swung the car around the gravel lot to what seemed to be an appropriate space to park. Hopes buoyed by the presence of another car just off to the side, we head towards the building and, after a bit of confusion, locate the front door. Grab the knob, give it a turn and, voila, success! It opens.
Cloudsley Cellars: The Venue
Cloudsley Cellars has no tasting room (at the time of this writing, at least). It has no tasting bar, no display shelving, no cash desk, heck, not even a cash register, although I am sure this will change soon. We walk through the door directly into the production cellar where stands the proprietor himself, greeting us warmly from behind a plastic folding table while surrounded by (extremely high-quality French Oak) barrels of his wine. I can tell immediately that we are in for a special treat!
While scenes like this are somewhat more common in even more newly emerging wine regions such as Prince Edward County and places like Michigan and Nova Scotia, this level of wine intimacy is almost nonexistent in Niagara's booming wine tourism marketplace. Gone are the days of tastings accompanied by homemade pie at the Lenko family kitchen table. "Napafication" is in full swing here, as tourists flock in from all directions of the heavily populated southern Ontario/New York State/Ohio/Pensylvania catchment zone.
Giant polished tasting rooms are the norm now, with each winery seemingly competing to be larger and grander than the next. With the world suddenly sitting up and taking notice of Niagara wine, money has been pouring into the area from corporate and overseas investment over the short span of the past decade or so. Commercialization is an inevitable part of growth and success, and I accept that. However, this is also why I am suddenly so excited by the seemingly unimpressive scene in front of me.
This is all exactly what I dream of finding: a winery devoid of the usual impenetrable, curated layers of designer marketing that separates the producer from the consumer. Here stands the producer himself. Not a numbered company with a vague address in Grimsby—a man, proud to sell you his blood, sweat, and tears in the hopes that it will bring a measure of joy to your life.
And now we taste the wine.
First come the Chardonnays, both of which could easily, easily rival top Côte de Beaune, and frankly they also blew any Chardonnay from California that I have tasted in the past five years right out of the water (what has been going on with your Chardonnay lately, California? Yuck! But I digress.) Fermented with ambient yeast yet so clean with very pure varietal expression and not a trace of VA or volatile acid (vinegary aroma) or EA (ethyl acetate, which is created by the breakdown of VA and gives a nail polish remover aroma to wine), which is a nice change from all the "lifted" ambient ferment wines I have been tasting recently.
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"Lifted" is a polite term for wine in which VA and EA has been either purposely or perhaps accidentally or recklessly been permitted to develop, as many of the wild microbes that attack the juice when doing an ambient or "wild" ferment, acetobacter being the primary culprit, are tiny little VA factories. Some winemakers are not fussed by this, as the presence of VA and EA can mask other faults and at low levels can boost the impression of the fruit character of the wine.
Personally, I think that too many winemakers have been going way too far overboard with the "lifted" style lately. I do not appreciate how EA gives a sickly deathlike chemical sweetness to the nose, nor do I want to drink wine that smells like a nail salon. To me, it just screams lazy or inept winemaking, and giving it a softer name does not change the fact that it is a straight-up, widely recognized wine fault.
None of that nonsense is to be found here, though. Just perfectly lush and ripe Chardonnay with a distinctive zingy mineral structure and just the right amount of fresh acidity, with oak that is in perfect balance, just peeking through with complex and smooth secondary hints of sweet cigar tobacco, spice, butterscotch, and warm vanilla cream. We are two wines in and I can already tell that the overall house style of this winery is going to be what some of my industry friends refer to as FAW, or "fucking amazing wine".
Pinot Noir is next. Ah, Pinot Noir.
Niagara sits roughly on the same latitude as Burgundy and has a very similar growing season. If anything, we tend to be a touch warmer through the hottest part of summer, and we also have limestone bedrock, much like Burgundy, the classical home of Pinot Noir. Our source of limestone, the Niagara Escarpment, faces north, which is usually not ideal for viticulture. However, in this case, it is helpful as it works to moderate the amount of burning hot summer sun that reaches the delicate flesh of persnickety Pinot Noir. Excellent airflow aids in preventing mold and rot issues from arising out of any excessive dampness.
Cooling evening breezes coming over the escarpment allow the grapes to maintain their acidity and thus get longer "hang time" on the vines. With the acid staying in the grapes longer and not being broken down by excess sustained heat, we can allow this most prized of all grapes all the time it needs to ripen not only to the correct sugar level, but also to the perfect phenolic (flavor) ripeness as well. It's under these very conditions that some of the world's most coveted and expensive wines are made from the enthralling Pinot Noir grape. And when I say expensive, I am talking thousands of dollars per bottle in some cases. Serious, serious wine.
Speaking of serious wine, I now find myself swirling, sniffing, and sipping something I have only encountered a small handful of times in my career: perfect Pinot Noir. For me, these are the kind of landmark moments that stay with one forever, kind of like the moon landing, 9/11, and the Kennedy assassination. Standing in front of the plastic folding table as producer Adam Lowy beams in pride as I swoon, the moment gets permanently etched into memory as only a very rare and very special occurrence can. At a mere $50/bottle, I snap up two (one was the very last of their 2015 single-vineyard Pinot, sorry everyone!). To some, this may be outrageous, but for Pinot perfection, this is really a pittance that I am happy to pay. I wish desperately that I could afford to buy more.
With Niagara just starting to explode onto the world wine scene, the time has never been better to get your hands on some of its top-tier offerings. Most are an absolute steal for the quality, but this will very obviously soon change. Prices are already creeping upwards as producers struggle to keep their low volume, small-batch wines in stock. Compared to other wine regions, our production is tiny and one must remember that wine is very finite. It is only a matter of time before you can no longer find a $5-10 tasting flight or the absolute plethora of exceptional wines under $20 that are the norm in Niagara right now. As we prepare for our grand entrance to the world, I suggest enjoying the fruits of our homegrown success before the word continues to spread and while it is still within reach. We have a lot to be proud of!
Cheers, and on to the next adventure!
Cloudsley Cellars is located at 3795 Victoria Ave, Vineland, Ontario.
© 2019 Alina Trefry