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Ontario's Hidden Gems (July 27, 2007)

Ontario now boasts over 120 wineries in four appellations – Niagara Peninsula, Lake Erie North Shore, Pelee Island and, the newest, Prince Edward County, east of Toronto. New wineries are challenging the established names we are all familiar with. Here are some of the new kids on the block that are worth your attention and the drive.

Flat Rock Cellars (Niagara Peninsula)

Set high on the escarpment into the side of a hill, lawyer Ed Madronich's striking contemporary winery (two six-sided spaces linked by a bridge over a five-storey, gravity-flow facility in concrete, steel, wood, and glass) has a commanding view of the 75-acre vineyard. The wine shop, on two levels erected on enormous steel legs, has a 360° windowed panoramic view. The winery gets its name from the huge flat rocks that were excavated from the site to put drainage tiles under each row of vines. The geothermal heating and cooling system involving 15,000 feet of piping is just one of the innovative technologies in this space-age facility. South African winemaker Marlize Beyers is making world-class Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here. Flat Rock was the first winery in Ontario to commit its entire portfolio of wines to screwcap closures, including its Icewine (a world first). Whether you're a fan of contemporary architecture or you just love wine, don't miss Flat Rock. Best wines – Nadja's Vineyard Riesling, Rusty Shed Chardonnay and Gravity Pinot Noir.

2727–7th Avenue
Jordan, ON L0R 1S0

Frogpond Farm (Niagara Peninsula)

Jens Gemmrich learned his winemaking in Heilbronn, Württemberg, Germany, where his family owned a winery. He spent ten years as the winemaker at Stonechurch before he and Heike Koch bought a small family farm and decided to make it an all-organic operation. Frogpond was the first Ontario winery to be certified by the Organic Crop Producers & Processors as fully organic. The couple tore out 10 acres of apple trees to create their vineyard. Their organic philosophy for their grape growing extends to other natural features on the property. Rainwater caught in the pond they made provides a habitat for a large number of wildlife species, all of which add to the biodiversity of the farm.

Gemmrich's philosophy is to be as non-interventionist as possible. "To get the best out of grapes," he says, "let Nature do the work." To taste Frogpond wines you enter the family home; the tasting room is in the garage. Frogpond is unique among Canadian wineries in bottling its products in 500 mL bottles rather than the standard 750 mL. Try their Cabernet-Merlot and Riesling.

1385 Larkin Road, RR 6
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0

Hidden Bench (Niagara Peninsula)

Harald Thiel is a Montreal-born lawyer who sold his flourishing audio-visual services company to become a vintner. As a successful businessman, Thiel's passion for wine led him to found the Gourmet Food and Wine Show in Montreal, but he wanted to get even closer to the wine business by starting up his own winery. He spent eighteen months looking for suitable properties in Niagara before purchasing the 28.5-acre Locust Lane Vineyard (planted in 1998) and the mature 26-acre Rosomel Vineyard (planted in 1975). Both are located on the Beamsville Bench. For his winemaker, Thiel engaged a fellow Quebecer, Jean-Martin Bouchard. Bouchard studied oenology at Charles Sturt University in Australia and has garnered a wealth of experience internationally working the crush in Australia, Alsace, Rhône, Germany, and Sumac Ridge in British Columbia. This winery hit the ground running. Everything Bouchard makes is delicious. But if you only have time for three wines, make them the Roman's Block Riesling, Nuit Blanche White Meritage and La Brunate, a Bordeaux-style blend that transports you to St. Emilion.

4152 Locust Lane
Beamsville ON L0R 1B0

Tawse Winery (Niagara Peninsula)

Investment banker Moray Tawse is a serious Burgundy collector and, when he decided to get into the wine business, he spared no expense creating an elegant, small-capacity facility with the most modern equipment on the Bench. The dramatic sloped roof of this contemporary winery, reflected in an ornamental pond, suggests the height within that allows for a gravity-feed operation on six levels, together with three barrel-aging cellars. Tawse has named the 3.5-acre Chardonnay portion of this vineyard Robyn's Block, after one of his daughters. The 1.5-acre Riesling portion is named Carly's Block for his other daughter. While the primary focus here is Chardonnay, Tawse also produces small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Riesling. If you have only two wines to try, make them the Tawse Robyn's Block Chardonnay and the Cabernet Franc – otherwise go for everything that winemaker Brian Hamilton has lovingly crafted.

3955 Cherry Avenue, RR 1
Vineland, ON L0R 2C0

Thirteenth Street (Niagara Peninsula)

No mistaking the address of this small cooperative venture owned by four families who operate out of tiny premises on Gunther Funk's farm on the Jordan plain. Funk also sells winemaking equipment on site. Lawyer Ken Douglas and mechanical engineer Herb Jacobson share the winemaking duties with Funk and Erwin Willms. All four founders started off as highly accomplished home winemakers. They source their fruit from vineyards owned by Funk and Willms and other small growers who believe in low yields. Their common philosophy of low-yield, small-batch production has paid off handsomely in terms of medals won for their small but quality-driven portfolio of wines. They make the best Gamay in Canada (like a mouthful of black cherries), a concentrated Chardonnay with toasty pear and pineapple flavours, and a zesty sparkling Riesling. If you like wines that make a statement, don't miss Thirteenth Street.

Try their Gamay Reserve and sparkling Riesling, both gold medal winners at the Ontario Wine Awards 2007.

3983 13th Street
Jordan Station, ON L0R 1SO

Norman Hardie Winery (Prince Edward County)

The winery building is judiciously situated on a steep slope, allowing for a gravity-flow operation and a barrel chamber to be carved out of the hillside. Remnants of the exposed rock in the cellar show the metre-deep band of solid limestone that runs through the property – ideal base soil for Pinot Noir. Hardie ferments his wines in horizontal milk tanks to ensure that his whites get maximum lees contact for flavour (he stirs the lees of the juice two or three times a day for five days before fermentation to extract maximum flavour), and he gives his reds long skin contact for colour. A unique feature for visitors is the outdoor wood-burning BBQ and pizza oven for summertime Saturday luncheons, accompanied by a wine tasting with Hardie in the barrel chamber or overlooking the cellar in the loft. Hardie's winemaking experience in South Africa and Burgundy shows in the finely structured, richly flavoured wines he's making here. All Hardie wines are bottled under screwcap. Don't miss his Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Riesling.

1152 Greer Road
Wellington, ON K0K 3L0

Mastronardi Estate Winery (Lake Erie North Shore)

The Mastronardi brothers, Tony and Rino, bought the 100-acre vineyard as a going concern from Colio Estate in 2002. That year they had 100 per cent winter kill. The brothers decided to uproot the vines and build greenhouses to grow tomato and peppers (their core business), because the low-lying vineyard was subject to both frost damage and winter kill. Tony Mastronardi was heartened by the fact that Colio saved 35 per cent of its crop that same year by introducing wind machines into the company's Kingsville vineyard, so he decided to leave the old Harrow Estate vineyard in place and put in his own wind machines. He purchased six from a California company and, in 2003, Mastronardi Estate had a full crop. Mastronardi is now a distributor for the wind machine company. "I'm having more fun in growing the vineyards and making wine than in greenhouses," he says. The brothers hired a winemaker long familiar with Essex County fruit, Lyse Leblanc, who used to run her own 3,500-case winery in Harrow. Try Mastronardi Cabernet Franc and Vidal Icewine.

1193 Concession 3 East
Kingsville, ON N9Y 2E5
519-733-9463; 1-800-320-5040

Five Recommended Ontario Rosés

Ontario makes great dry Rosés, usually as a second-thought product. After fermentation they bleed off about 15% of the juice from their red wine production in order to concentrate the colour and flavour of the remaining must. What they drain off they blend and sell as rosé, usually in the $12–15 price range. My top selections are:

  • Fielding Estate Rosé 2006
  • Henry of Pelham Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2006
  • Malivoire Lady Bug Rosé 2006
  • Cave Spring Cabernet Rosé 2006
  • Peninsula Ridge Beal Vineyards Cabernet Rosé 2006




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