Once upon a time there was a winery in Niagara named Le Clos Jordanne. It was named thus as the vineyards were surrounded by walls – the French definition of a clos – and was located near the Niagara town of Jordan. Destined for greatness, it was first created as the brainchild of Inniskillin (famed for its ice wine and a subsidiary of Vincor, a Canadian wine company) and Boisset France (a large wine producer, dominant in Burgundy) in order to make world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Ontario. With the earliest vineyards only planted in 2000, the winery was already winning awards by 2005 – the totally famous Judgement of Montreal (maybe only to a select few Canadians though…) awarded Le Clos Jordanne the top award for white wines, among a group of predominantly French and Californian wines. (Don’t worry Bordeaux friends and oak lovers, the 2004 Mouton Rothschild won for the reds…)

What could have been: a scale model of Frank Gehry’s design for the winery, which never came to fruition. A stunning construction, even if my nieces prefer the classic (“It’s a princess castle!”) châteaux of Bordeaux (Château Pichon Baron pictured here). We can negotiate when design for Château Cat begins.

Then the tigers came at night: in 2006 Vincor was acquired by Constellation Brands, the biggest wine conglomerate in the world. The project moved forward, but in 2014 relocated to Niagara Falls Cellars – Canada’s largest winery ‘site’; essentially a wine factory. By early 2016, Constellation Brands announced that the brand was dead, ostensibly due to two years in a row of poor crop.

Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, I find myself hunting down the remnants of the great winery that could have been: one assistant winemaker and the original facility on Service Road made their way to Tawse, where I work. The original winemaker, Quebecer Thomas Bachelder,  and one assistant, Kelly Mason, made their way to Domaine Queylus, along with several Pinot Noir vineyards (key information!).

Where are we again? Right… across the lake from Toronto (Hello Skydome and CN Tower!). I live in St Catharines and spend my working hours in the Twenty Mile Bench, Beamsville Bench, and Lincoln Lakeshore appellations.

The original Le Clos Pinot Noir vines are in the Twenty Mile Bench appellation, and produce the elegant, fruity and feminine wines more reminiscent of the Burgundian style. By contrast, the red clay loam of the Lincoln Lakeshore (also where our Redstone Winery is located) imparts a powerful, earthy, almost syrah-like quality to the Pinot. This makes it unrecognizable to the Burgundian purists, but fascinating to those curious to see what happens when French grapes run up against Ontario soil. The Tradition blend tends to honour that elegant, feminine style, while the Reserve and Grand Reserve blends incorporate more and more of that powerful Lincoln content. They’re equally appealing, tasting both styles directly from the barrels – what I love the most is that the terroir impact is so obviously different between the two.

I like the Bench side of Niagara – the wineries are a little more low key, with lots of green space (Domaine Queylus tasting room pictured). We have a barrel tasting at Domaine Queylus – fortunately half of the barrels have already been pulled out of the cellar for other reasons, but it sure makes our sampling easier!

One visit done, let’s go back to our tale about the legacy of Le Clos.

Soon after Vincor announced the Le Clos Jordanne project, a Toronto real-estate developer named Mel Pearl snapped up 50 acres (20 ha) just down the road from the Le Clos vines. He had the land, all he needed was a winemaker, especially after the Vincor sale went through. Enter stage left, Québec winemaker François Morissette, who had been working in Burgundy and learning about low-intervention wines. And thus Pearl Morissette is born in 2007, with a philosophy very close to what I experienced in Alsace last year. They are not certified; neither organic nor biodynamic, but they practice biodynamy as much as they can, and switch to conventional (begrudgingly) only when Mother Nature proves to hold the upper hand.

This visit, though chronologically second in the retelling thanks to the Le Clos theme, is actually first on my list of must-taste wineries in the region. They’re a little more discrete than most of the others: there is no shop or public tasting room on the premises, which means a visit needs to be requested in advance, but it’s well worth it. Our visit is hosted by Svetlana Atcheva, the winery’s brand ambassador and trained sommelier. François Morissette sticks around after work, curious to see if I’m a Francophone or a Francophile, as the description of my Bordeaux studies pique his interest. Brent Rowland, the winemaker, also drops in, so the next three hours are incredibly engaging and even educational. (If only all wine classes could be like this!)

Sorry for the blurry images – I was too excited to take pictures properly! A cement egg takes centre stage in the cellar-slash-tasting room – and a brief sampler of our 3 hour tasting. This Alsatian foudre is the neatest discovery – they’ve been adding Chardonnay from (almost) every year into a barrel for their private Solera blend, just to see what it does.

We start with the Rieslings, and immediately I know I’m in for a treat. These are truly bone dry Rieslings – the first time I’ve come across any in Ontario this summer – and remind me of the Rieslings I enjoyed in Alsace last summer. We talk about the vintage effect, but what’s much more important is how alive these wines are. They are still very much in their youth, and are still evolving, but show great aging ability – another aspect I have not yet found much of in Ontario wines. We taste vines young and old, that are still aging in wood/cement/steel tank, as well as a few older vintages to get a sense of where these wines are going.

From the Rieslings we move onto the Chardonnays, then the Pinot Noirs, Gamays and Cabernet Francs. Quite consistently, I’m intrigued by the evolution of the wines as they get older: becoming more vivacious and complex. The one exception is that I’m completely blown away by the young 2016 Gamay vines still in tank – they’re drinking surprisingly well now so should be extraordinary with even more age. The final tasting is from the Solera barrel – a blend of samples of Chardonnay from (almost) every year the winery has been in existence. The main rule here is that wine never gets wasted, so more Chardonnay is added each harvest and is used as an ongoing science experiment to discover how alternate variables impact the taste of the wine inside. It smells and tastes a little like a vin jaune from the Jura (also barrel-aged over a long period of time with a lot of oxygen contact), but the oxidization impact is considerably less than one might expect with only faintly nutty and sherry-like notes…. which seems crazy!

All this to say that as soon as the tasting is finished, I hurry home and immediately start counting my pennies – the great thing about joining the wine industry is that I get to discover where and how to taste some really great stuff. The bad thing about (just) joining the wine industry, particularly in Canada, is that I can no longer afford my taste…  alas!

I have been remiss in taking photos this time around, so here are a few summer views to tide you over. Floraison, or flowering, takes place very quickly, around late June in Niagara. A little hail dropped in immediately after, never good for the delicate flowers – this may not be a big vintage for the volume-oriented wineries. Time for a break – up to cottage country for the Canada Day long weekend!

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