“Ontario cannot make big reds…” those words rang hollow in my head as I finished up my tasting at Riverview Cellars. I was there as a guest for their Past, Present and Future Tasting event one mild December afternoon. I pulled into the parking lot expecting Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, but what I had instead was far more interesting.
Sam and Lina Pilitteri first purchased this small farm in 1975. It was only a small fruit farm then, with some twenty-five acres of fruit trees and a small stand that they sold their produce out of on the weekends. Here on the precipitous shores of the Niagara River they raised a family. In 1992, Sam chose to rip out some of the fruit trees and plant some Gewürztraminer vines, to help out his brother’s winery. They soon saw that this was the future of their land and slowly replaced all of their fruit trees with vines. Then in 2000, they opened Riverview Cellars.
I was started off with a tasting of three vintages of their Angelina’s Reserve Chardonnay. Having spent so much time trying California Chardonnays these past few weeks, I found these wines to be a refreshing change of pace. All were crisp and fresh, and oaked with a careful hand (something that I miss dreadfully down here in the US). The 2008 was the lightest, the 2010 the fruitiest and the 2009 played a nice middle.
Winemaker Angela Kasimos was on hand to pour the next wines. She’s young, but she’s been making wine for a very long time. She first came to Riverview at the age of twenty-three, to assist then consulting winemaker Jamie Evans (who now works full-time at Peninsula Ridge). She took over from him in 2008 and since then she has garnered more than twenty awards for her wine and rave reviews.
She started me off with the 2009 Cabernet Franc. It’s a grape that has been grown in Ontario before, but it often shows a vegetal character from not achieving full ripeness. This one was ripe, and delicious with a touch of spice showing in the background. I was impressed. Angela poured the next wine for me, the 2007 Salvatore’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This is another grape often grown in Ontario, but it has a really hard time getting ripe in the cooler climate. Often Ontario Cabernets can be harsh and overly astringent. So, I was a bit nervous as I raised the glass, but it was all for naught. This one was ripe, smooth and immensely concentrated. “Almost like a California Cabernet or Zinfandel,” remarked the couple standing next to me. Next Angela poured the 2010 Syrah, this is Riverview’s first vintage of this grape and I was expecting it to be equally under-ripe. Instead it was rich and lush with a touch of black pepper. Was I really trying Ontario reds?
I asked Angela how had she done it, how had she succeeded where so many others had failed? She smiled as though it was a question she had heard many times before. She told me that it was a combination of two things, firstly the climate. Riverview is located in the Niagara River appellation of the Niagara Peninsula, this area extends about one kilometer in from the Niagara River. The gorge that the river has carved between New York and Ontario helps to hold the cold a bit longer, keeping early and late frosts at bay and extending the growing season to be one of the longest in Ontario. The second factor was the bordering-on-obsessive level of attention the team at Riverview pays to their vines. Every day they are out tending the vines, pruning as needed and checking for signs of disease and rot.
I was still trying to process what the wines I had just tried as Angela moved me on to the icewines. She started me with a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon icewine, which was delicate and reserved in its sweetness. Next we had the 2010 Cabernet Franc, which was just a fruit bomb, with many, many layers of flavours and a lovely, unctuous texture. Finally, I had the 2010 Buona Notte, which is a blend of Vidal and botrytis-affected Riesling (botrytis is a fungus that concentrates the juices of grapes and gives them a distinct honeyed taste) which is then aged in French oak for eight months. This was also delicious, like vanilla coated pears and apricots with a touch of honey.
Standing some fifty metres above the escarpment, visible from the border crossing at Lewiston, and just up the road from Riverview is a statue of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. Though Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights in the War of 1812, his troops were still able to repel a much larger American invasion force. His last words are believed by some to have been, “Surgite!” Latin for, ‘push on’. So, as cut rate Cabs and Shirazes are coming in from all over the world, should Ontario winemakers just give up, because it is easier to grow those grapes elsewhere? I certainly thought so at one time. Then I came to Riverview Cellars and I realized how wrong I was. Just because it is harder in Ontario, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Quite the opposite, as the team at Riverview has shown, it should be done and done well. If these are the kinds of wines that we can make here in Ontario, then I say, push on!
A few of the wines mentioned here are available through WinerytoHome.com including the Angelina’s Reserve Chardonnay ’08 and ’09 as well as the ’09 Cabernet Franc.