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Vines have been cultivated on the Niagara Peninsula in Canada since the 19th century, and wine has been produced here ever since. However, the current success of viticulture in Canada had its beginning in the 1970's, when a few forward-thinking winemakers decided to dedicate themselves to Vitis vinifera, and no longer limit themselves to hybrid varieties and native vines. These pioneers took the risk to solve the problems of producing wines of consistent quality with European grape varieties and to face the challenge of the harsh Canadian winter.

Salesroom of the Inniskillin Winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake

Canadian viticulture owes a debt of gratitude to Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser, who planted Chardonnay vines in what was then called the Seeger Vineyard in 1974 and founded Inniskillin Winery in 1975. They are among the pioneers who drew the attention of the world's public to the development of Canadian viticulture with their new high-quality wines. Today, the Inniskillin wine estate focuses on ice wine (Icewine), which is produced out of the grape varieties Vidal, Cabernet Franc and Riesling.

Outdoor basket presses for ice wine at Inniskillin

The German connection

A clear sign of success on the Niagara Peninsula can be seen in the production of high-quality Riesling wines, both table wines and ice wines. A resourceful wine journalist, much cleverer than I am, came up with the name "Niagara Pfalz" for it (translator's note: in English, "Pfalz" and "Falls", meaning Niagara Falls, sound very similar).

The success of Riesling in Canada has its roots in the Old World. First, there were quite a few Germans who emigrated to Canada in the late seventies and early eighties of the last century and started making wine there. The one who left the biggest impression in the region was certainly Hermann Weis from the St. Urbanshof winery on the Mosel. However, he later returned to Germany. In addition to his vineyards and winery in Germany, Weis was also a grape grower who specialized in Riesling vines. In the seventies, Weis recognized the potential for Riesling in Canada, and began exporting vines to winemakers in the Okanagan Valley and Niagara Peninsula. At the time, many who bought vines from Weis sold their grapes to larger wineries, which often simply blended the new Riesling with the native and hybrid grape varieties, which were much larger in volume, and dominated in the blends. The result, of course, was the production of even more bad wine; the added Riesling added no value. As a result, there was no incentive to plant the new grape variety, and it didn't help Mr. Weis's vine breeding business. By 1980, the time had come when Weis decided to plant Riesling himself in Canada to demonstrate how the grape variety could be cultivated in a commercially viable way to produce high quality varietal wines. He purchased the Moyer estate in Vineland, Ontario, (in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula, in a sub-area now known as Twenty Mile Bench) in 1979, there he planted 40 acres of Riesling in three separate parcels. At the time, this was the largest single planting of Riesling in all of North America, and the first time anyone in Canada had backed Riesling so decisively. He sold the grapes to several wineries in the area, but the resulting wines were more like Liebfraumilch (then the leading influence in North America in terms of simple, mass-produced German wines) than a high-quality German Riesling. Weis was disappointed with the results, and in 1984 began making wine himself from his own grapes at the Moyergut estate, henceforth calling the operation Vineland Estates

The impact of Weis' venture was twofold: it proved that Riesling could be produced on a commercial scale on the Niagara Peninsula, that Riesling was suitable for this purpose, and it also served as a model for other commercial winemakers and cellarmakers who soon followed its lead. By 1988, the Niagara Peninsula was already known for its fine Riesling.

While Riesling by no means dominates production at all wineries, it seems to be the grape variety that, along with Chardonnay, is found at almost all Niagara Peninsula wineries.

Herman Weis sold Vineland Estates in 1992, but the vineyards and winery continue to produce fine wines, many of which still come from the original Riesling vines planted by Weis himself. Today, Vineland Estates looks somewhat different than it did in its humble early years; it has grown considerably. Today there is a very good restaurant here, and a wide range of very good wines are produced, including Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Gamay. I tasted a 1989 Vineland Estate Riesling on my visit to the winery, which was still from the Weis era. The wine had an elegant age note, with complex flavors, very present acidity, and a petrol tone.

Allan Schmidt% managing director of Vineland Estates% next to a commemorative plaque in honor of Hermann Weis

It almost seems as if the charming small town of Jordan, Ontario, located on Twenty Mile Creek, is built around Cave Spring Cellars. The winery is housed in the converted buildings of an older winery that existed here two generations ago. (The buildings were formerly owned by Jordan and Ste. Michelle Winery, and date back to 1871) It is now home to Cave Spring Cellars. It includes a tasting room, wine shop, restaurant, Inn on the Twenty, and gallery. The vineyards are located a few miles away on some of the best parcels on the Beamsville Bench, a sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula. The idea for the Cave Spring Cellars concept came from John T. Pennachetti, but he passed away before the first vintage was harvested. His sons, Len and Tom, have enthusiastically pursued the project, and together with cellar master Angelo Pavan, they are running the business today. At Cave Spring Cellars, the focus is particularly on high-quality Riesling, which is offered in two qualities, VQA Niagara Peninsula, and VQA Estate Bottled. The influence of Hermann Weis is also unmistakable at Cave Spring Cellars. Anne Weis, Hermann Weis' daughter, came to Canada from Germany in the late eighties to work at her father's winery. In 1996, she married Tom Pennachetti, vice president and co-owner of Cave Springs Cellars.

Cave Spring Cellars' Estate Riesling is one of the finest Riesling wines in all of North America. The winery also produces very good wines from Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot Noir.

At Cave Spring Cellars in Jordan% Ontario% (from left to right)Tom Pennachetti% Cellarmaster Angelo Pavan% Len Pennachetti

Martin Malivoire originally worked in the cinema industry on special effects, he started buying vineyards on the Niagara Peninsula in 1995. Today, Malivoire Wine Company is housed in a new, handsomely designed winery complex in Beamsville. Everything is left to gravity in the cellar, and current production is around 10,000 cases annually, with potential capacity of around 20,000 cases. Here the main influence seems to be from Alsace, the vines are planted on the Beamsville Bench, organic viticulture is practiced, the main focus is on Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. There is also some Riesling cultivated, but when I asked about it, I was told "There's enough Riesling here already." Gewürztraminer is clearly Mr. Malivoire's forte, I highly recommend the wine. The 2004 Malivoire Wine Company Gewürztraminer has an elegant varietal character with opulent lychee flavors, good depth and a complex structure.

Malivoire Wine Company% Beamsville% Ontario

The French Connection

Le Clos Jordanne is a winery that stands in a category by itself. The operation is so decidedly French that when I visited, the staff had difficulty finding any written information in English. I was told that some English-speaking locals jokingly refer to the winery as "Close to Jordan" - Jordan being the charming town near which the winery is located

Thomas Bachelder% Cellar Master at Les Clos Jordanne% Jordan% Ontario
Le Clos Jordanne is a noob experiment, with the goal in mind of producing the best Burgundian-style wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the Niagara Peninsula in Canada, at a quality equivalent to the Grand Crus in Burgundy. The strategy, it seems, is to produce wines of such high quality that the world simply has to take notice, and cannot ignore the wines. I haven't seen a company like this very often. It is, of course, a large company that also requires significant resources, which are probably at the disposal of the owners. The owners are an amalgamation of Boisset, La Famille des Grands Vins et Spiritueux faus Burgundy, and Vincor Corporation, a subsidiary of Constellation Brands (the largest wine company in the world, owner of Inniskillin and Robert Mondavi Winery, to name a few of the companies). In 2000, the partnership purchased and planted 52 acres in four parcels on Jordan Bench. The vines are all regular Burgundian clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyards are densely planted, they are cultivated organically, with very low yields of about 4 tons per hectare

Cellar master Thomas Bachelder is from Quebec, and has hands-on experience in Burgundy

I tasted barrel samples of the 2004 vintage with him at the winery. The Chardonnays were very good. The Pinot Noirs, vinified separately by site, were on par with very good Premier Crus, and to some extent Grand Crus from Burgundy. They were without a doubt the best Pinot Noirs I have tasted in North America.

The picky Canadians

Paul Bosc is certainly less well known outside Canada than the founders of Inniskillin and Herman Weis, but he too had an early and significant influence on the emergence of today's modern viticulture on the Niagara Peninsula.

Grapes waiting for the ice wine harvest at Château des Charmes

Paul Bosc came to Canada in 1963, and got a job with the Quebec Liquor Board, decanting faulty wines for $1.25 an hour. Bosc is French, having apprenticed as a cellar master in Burgundy, and had run a cooperative in Algeria before the country gained its independence from France. In 1964, he received an offer from the Canadian wine company Chateau Gai, which made wines primarily from French hybrid varieties. He eventually became senior cellar master and director of research and development there. However, Bosc could not be dissuaded from the opinion that the best wines are made from classic European grape varieties. Then, in 1978, he left Château Gai and planted 24 acres of Vitis vinifera vines near St. David's, just a few miles from Niagara Falls. Bosc took the risk, despite the widespread belief that European grape varieties would not survive the harsh Canadian winter. He named his new winery Château des Charmes and began a testing program as well as merciless experimentation in viticulture, which eventually led him to success with both old and new grape varieties. He developed his own Gamay clone (which he calls Gamay Droit) and also achieved success with a cuvée rarely seen in such a cool climate, a classic cuvée called Equuleus made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. He has experimented with training systems as well as pruning variations to find the best solutions for the region, and has also recently installed fifteen-metre-high gas-powered wind turbines that blow warm air down onto the vines to protect them from the cold of winter. Bosc is now 72, and seems to have a foot in both worlds. I spent a day with him, tasting wines, talking about wine, and driving through his vineyards.

Paul-André Bosc (left) and Paul Bosc Sen.% Founder of Château des Charmes% St. David's% Ontario

Paul Bosc is one of a kind; despite his long career in the wine business, he still has a very focused vision when it comes to viticulture and winemaking, combined with his passion and imagination for how good wines should be made. His son Paul Bosc, Jun. sums up his father's insight, which is probably true of many who cultivate vines and produce wines on the Niagara Peninsula, this way: "Canada is a country that punishes those who are not very careful. It rewards those who pay attention to every detail and are willing to work hard."

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