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Jun 24, 2008 08:27 PM

Ontario Wine: Beamsville vs. Niagara

I've been writing/drinking/thinking a lot about Beamsville, Ontario lately:

A friend of mine responded to one of my columns with the question of whether Beamsville is edging out Niagara in terms of quality. While I am hesitant about generalities, I believe the answer must be "yes".

NIagara is cursed with fertile soil and big plots of land - the perfect ingredients for large wineries that spend most of their time and energy producing cheap, unremarkable wines for a voracious but undemanding market in southern Ontario (especially Toronto). Not that all Niagara wineries are huge (or that all of the huge wineries make bad wine - Henry of Pelham's Barrel Fermented Chardonnay is splendid, for example) - but this commercial focus on mass producing wine is the trend in Niagara.

Beamsville, on the other hand, does not have particularly rich soil. This is wonderful. It keeps the vineyard yields low. Fewer grapes on the vine. Every winemaker I have ever met in Beamsville repeats "low yields" like a mantra. Most take great pains to ensure that their vines produce less rather than more fruit. This concentrates the flavours in fewer grapes, and gives the wines complexity and depth.

This has the side effect of preventing any of the wineries from getting too big, forcing them to rely on quality instead of quantity. The result: Le Clos Jordanne, Hidden Bench, Daniel Lenko, Thirty Bench. All are raising Ontario wines to a new level.

That's my two cents. I wonder how others see it. Have I been drinking too much?

Matthew Sullivan
The Short Cellar

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  1. Matthew,

    I'm slightly confused? When you say Niagara, do you mean Niagara-on-the-Lake or everywhere but Beamsville? If you meant to say the Niagara-on-the-Lake area, I would agree that there are more small artisan wineries in Beamsville, but wineries like Lailey, Coyotes Run, Cattail Creek, and Stratus are certainly producing top quality wines from several different varietals. Sure, Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the most recognized "volume" producers in the region (Peller, JT, Hillebrand, Inniskillin, 20 Bees), but it would be wrong to say that there are no "low yield", quality producers in that area.

    You should also note that there are terrific wineries located in Vineland and Jordan (along with Henry of Pelham in the Short Hills - which you had mentioned in your post) which are certainly producing excellent wines - Tawse, Featherstone, Cave Spring, Flat Rock, 13th Street, Creekside, Crispino), Foreign Affairs (formerly Megalomaniac, etc. While located beside the QEW on the South Service Road, Le Clos Jordanne's vineyards (5 in total if you include the West Block - Grand Clos - of the Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard) are located in and around 17th and King Street in Jordan. Sorry...

    Don't get me wrong, I think that Beamsville has some of the best, and most unique (see Lenko) wineries in Niagara (one winery you didn't mention - Peninsula Ridge - makes in my opinion the most consistant and interesting Sauvignon Blanc in the region). Its just that the other areas of Niagara have their fair share of great wineries too.

    2 Replies
    1. re: niagara_wine_guy

      Do any of the smaller wineries offer tours? I'm just north of Detroit and have passed through many times. Last week on the way back from Maine we discussed coming to explore this area.
      Good chow in the vicinity?

      1. re: Docsknotinn

        I've found that almost all of the wineries will offer tours if you ask. It's important to call ahead, though. Places will often have set hours for public tours, but will lead interested people around if they give fair warning.

        I don't often eat at restaurants when I'm down there, but do check out Treadwell and the Stone Road Grille. The restaurant at Vineland Estates is fantastic, too.

    2. I suport Niagara Wine Guy's comments. One cannot generalize so simplistically. There is a mix of both large scale and boutique wineries in the NOTL area.

      In the past few years, my opioion of wines on or near the Bench has changed. I have discovered great wineries with excellent whites, particularly Chardonnay at Daniel Lenko and Tawse. Given recent experience I will be trying more of these. On the other hand, Peller's 2005 Chard Reserve is one of my favourites. It really depends on the philosophy of the winery and winemaker rather than the size of the operation.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cynalan

        Strangely enough there are some varietals that actually produce better wines on fertile soil... Gewurz and Gruner Veltliner for example... although there is no Gruner planted in Niagara Peninsula as far as I know!

        But for the most part in order to make quality wines one needs poor soils.

        Saying that, Reif are located in the Niagara River sub-appelation... one of the warmest in the Niagara Peninsula... there are able to ripen even the late-ripening Cab Sauv for their "First Growth" series there.

      2. I heard a wonderful comment recently from a friend who works in the industry, on the subject of terroir: "We now know that the [Beamsville] Bench is the tenderloin of the Peninsula." A perfectly Chow-ish analogy, I think, and I would tend to agree that on the whole, the best premium wines in the Niagara Peninsula seem to be coming from the Bench. That said, the NOTL and St. David's areas are also producing some superb wines too.