In the 1990s, few wine writers were focusing on Canadian wine. Rick VanSickle, then the executive Sunday editor for the Calgary Sun, was a frequent visitor to Okanagan Valley wine region from his then home in Calgary and when the wine writer position at his paper became available in 1999, he snatched it up himself (it helps to be the boss!) and started peppering his wine coverage with stories about homegrown wine varieties. He later branched out, writing wine columns in Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg, and eventually moved to his current home in St. Catharines, Ontario (he’s a Toronto native), to focus on the Niagara wine region.
Rick freelances for various publications and shares Niagara wine information at his Web site Wines in Niagara. He’s on two national tasting panels and write Canadian and international wine reviews for Wine Access magazine and Canadian food and wine magazine Tidings.
You started writing about wine in Calgary, so what led you to focus on Niagara wines, in particular?
It was definitely a circuitous route. After a 20-year career with Sun Media an opportunity came up for a newspaper job in St. Catharines. We (my family and I) had always wanted to live in wine country so we took advantage of the career change and moved to Port Dalhousie in St. Catharines, the heart of Niagara wine country.
What do you feel are some of the most exciting things happening in Niagara wines now?
It’s an exciting time right now for VQA wines in Niagara. We no longer talk about the quality of wines, because Niagara has firmly established itself as a quality producer, it’s more about how good can the wines get. The most exciting aspect is the growing influence and interest from young wine enthusiasts, the future of the industry, who have embraced local wines and are have the knowledge and passion to enjoy what Niagara has to offer in terms of wine, local food and the whole wine country experience.
Which wine varieties does Niagara do particularly well? Which are the must-try varieties in the Niagara region?
The big four, for my palate, are Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. But it’s not limited to those four varieties. In hot years (2010, 2007, etc.) Niagara can produce big Bordeaux-style reds, Syrah and even Merlot. Sparkling wines are also excellent, as is Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer on the white side. Another trend that has emerged is the appassimento-style (air-dried grapes that offer more concentration and complexity) of wines being produced. Try Foreign Affair, Colaneri or Cave Springs‘ La Penna, for example.
What are some of your best tips to share with those planning a wine tour in Niagara region? Things not to miss, or things that most people overlook?
So many wineries are now offering a total experience in Niagara. Food has become intertwined with the tasting experience, especially in the summer months with top chefs finding residence at many of the wineries. You can get a country feel at Ravine Vineyard, the Good Earth or Creekside or you can opt for a full-blown culinary experience at Peller Estate, Strewn, Trius at Hillebrand, Cave Spring, Vineland Estate or any of the many restaurants that cater to a local wine crowd. There is also a movement toward food trucks at wineries, which is a perfect fit for local wine.
What are a few of your favourite wineries for in-person tours or tastings, and why?
Oddly, I have taken so few wine tours personally, as I’ve been a wine writer so long, that it’s hard for me to comment on some favourites. But I find myself drawn to a few wineries on a regular basis. Vineland Estates is like a second home to me: such a great wine shop, restaurant and vineyard site. I also enjoy Fielding Estate, Rosewood (the honey-mead operation is fascinating), Tawse, Angels Gate and Calamus on the bench side of the peninsula and Inniskillin, Ravine, Stratus, Coyote’s Run and the very funky, small and family-run Five Rows Craft Wine (it’s in a small barn and the family is so friendly) on the Niagara-on-the-Lake side.
Niagara reds don’t get much love—are there reds that deserve more attention?
Niagara reds don’t get much love because consumers just haven’t tried them lately. Our Pinot Noirs are world class and compare favourably to the reds of Burgundy. Niagara also makes outstanding Cabernet Franc, Gamay and, in the right vintage, magnificent red blends made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. My own cellar is full of Cab-Merlot style blends from 2010, 2007, 2002 and (hopefully) 2012 once they get bottled.
Any common misconceptions about Niagara wines that you’d like to do away with forever?
I always tell people that come to visit: Don’t drink Niagara wines because it’s the right thing to do. Drink them because they are good. Come to Niagara, enjoy the beauty of the region, taste the wines and find what you like. It’s all a matter of tasting. Many of Niagara’s wines can compare to the world’s greatest wine regions: Chardonnay, Pinot, Riesling, for sure, are standouts and comparable with wines from around the world. If there is a misconception, it would be this: “I can’t find any wine that I like in Niagara.” I would challenge anyone who believes that.
Any great bottles you can recommend for under $20?
If you visit Vineland Estate and meet winemaker Brian Schmidt and ask him for his best wine, he will immediately pull out his Semi-Dry Riesling ($14) and his Cabernet Franc ($13), not his most expensive wines. These are his entry-level wines and he puts as much energy and craftsmanship into these wines as he does all the way to the top wines. They will change your mind about Niagara wines being too expensive.
A few others would be: Trius Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($14), Calamus Riesling Vinemount Ridge 2011 ($16), Creekside Laura’s White 2010 ($19), Stoney Ridge Warren Classic Chardonnay 2010 ($19), The Good Earth Cabernet Franc 2010 ($22), Di Profio Gamay Noir 2011 ($17), Malivoire Guilty Men Cabernet Merlot 2010 ($20) and Fielding Estate Gamay 2011 ($18).
How about a pricey bottle that’s worth the splurge?
The sky seems to be the limit in Niagara these days. I opened a bottle of appassimento-style Cabernet Franc from Foreign Affair the other day that blew me away. The grapes were dried for 163 days and the result was this mind-blowing, thick and concentrated red wine called Unreasonable 2008. It costs $163 and a little out of everyone’s price range, but, wow, what an experience. Other top wines can be found at Le Clos Jordanne (Pinots and Chardonnays); Tawse (single-vineyard Chards, Pinots and Rieslings); Stratus, which makes a very interesting red blend simply called Stratus Red; Lailey (Brickyard Pinot Noir); the Hidden Bench collection—top-notch through the entire portfolio; and, of course, Château des Charmes and Henry of Pelham are two established wineries that excel at the top end of their portfolios.
What changes would you like to see in the Niagara wine industry?
The biggest impediment to growth for Niagara wines—in fact, all Ontario wines—is access to consumers. So many wines made in Niagara can only be purchased at the winery by getting in your car and driving to the winery. It’s easy for Toronto residents, but very difficult for most consumers in Ontario. The Ontario government has to realize that the government monopoly on liquor and wine sales has to end at some point and allow either VQA stores in Ontario or partial privatization to get more of Ontario’s wines into the hands of those who want it. The LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) has only so much shelf space for local wines and cannot do the job that’s needed to support our local farmers, winemakers and the industry that lives, works and supports Ontario.