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Ontario's Greatest Vintage (August 28, 2008)

Wine marketers love to hail a year as "The Vintage of the Century." But if you're being honest you can only claim this triumph once the harvest of 2099 is safely in the bottle.

After all, what happens when the following year is even better quality? Does that make it "The Vintage of the Millennium?"

These thoughts crossed my mind at a recent tasting down at Jackson-Triggs winery where a bunch of my wine-stained colleagues (is there a better collective noun? A crush of wine writers? A press of wine writers?) were invited to taste barrel samples and recent bottlings of Jackson-Triggs's and Inniskillin's wines from the much-vaunted 2007 vintage.

I'm here to tell you that, collectively, this is the best vintage I have tasted since I began writing about Canadian wines in 1975. And since nothing was worth drinking before that time, this makes 2007 the best Ontario vintage ever.

Allan Jackson, the hyphenated member of Jackson-Triggs, sat next to me at the tasting and he rose to tell the group that in his 37 vintages in the industry, "I have never seen one better than this."

Frank Hellwig, Vincor's Director of Viticulture for Ontario, who has worked vineyards in Australia, explained why the vintage is so good. "We had less than half the normal rain during bud burst. We had 1600 growing days rather than the normal 1200 to 1400 (a growing day is one when the temperature is over 50° Fahrenheit between April 1 and October 31) – which meant you could pick very much when you wanted and didn't have to worry about Botrytis (rot) or rain."

August was the key month, apparently. Temperatures last year were a degree or so above average in August and there was less rain than usual. The warm days coupled with cool nights built up sugars in the grapes while maintaining acid levels. The tannins matured and the fruit ripened perfectly, coming in at 23.5° and 24° Brix, a sugar reading that is usually two degrees lower. "We didn't have to sort the bunches," said Hellwig. "In my fifteen years I haven't seen anything like it – here or in Australia."

While the overall grape tonnage is down about 15 per cent from the 2006 harvest, the vintners aren't complaining.

Norman Hardie, who owns the eponymous winery in Price Edward County, told me, "One of the biggest things that we benefit from in the County is that we have all that limestone in the soil so we tend not to see stress in the vines even in drought situations. There was a six-week stretch when we didn't have any rain. For the County it could not have come at a more ideal time. The fruit was just immaculate."

At the western end of the province, Tim Reilly, head winemaker at Colio in Lake Erie North Shore, was equally ecstatic about the vintage. "I think 2007 was a great vintage. I believe I have some of the best potential I've seen since 2002. Growers would say the best ever means quality and volume. Wineries would say quality. I see a great reserve red year and the whites are very good. Bordeaux reds, Pinot Noir and Syrah are looking very nice so far. Some bordering on outstanding. I would go out on a limb and say that there will be a good number of great wines from this vintage, and 2007 would be in the top three vintages over the last three decades."

I have tasted quite extensively the 2007 white wines that are beginning to hit the market. The Rieslings are delicious with rich, minerally lime and peach flavours; here are the ones to watch for: Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2007, Stratus Riesling 2007, Thirty Bench Riesling 2007, Vineland Estates Elevation Riesling 2007.

Sauvignon Blanc ripened so well that there are tropical New Zealand-style notes in the wines. Look for Mike Weir Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Peninsula Ridge McNally Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Peninsula Ridge Wismer Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Niagara College Dean's List Sauvignon Blanc 2007 and Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2007.

This will be a Pinot Noir Year. The wines, still in barrel, show great depth of colour and intensity of flavour. Coyote's Run Black Paw Pinot Noir and Inniskillin Montague Vineyard will be terrific when they're in the bottle. For once such climate-sensitive grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah ripened fully. So expect some great Meritage blends. I loved barrel samples of Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Merlot, Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Syrah and Niagara College Meritage 2007.

This year if Ontario winemakers couldn't make good wine they should fold up their tents and get a job selling insurance.




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