ROD PHILLIPS, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN, NOVEMBER 25, 2009
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. - In the search for the next great grape, a swath of 270 acres in Niagara-on-the-Lake is carrying the torch, so to speak.
Left to right: Château des Charmes, Sparkling Wine; Château des Charmes, Chardonnay; Château des Charmes, Aligote; Château des Charmes, Cabernet Franc. Photograph by: Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — It’s always interesting to watch changes in the world of wine, whether it’s at the level of the international market, wine regions, or individual wineries.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Paul Bosc Jr., from Château des Charmes, one of Niagara’s older wineries (its first vines were planted in the 1970s). If you’ve visited Niagara, you might well have seen this winery. Amid the vines, the château stands back from the road and, although it’s one of the grand architectural pieces of the region, its classic style contrasts with the modern, sleek lines of many newer entrants. As Bosc poured a glass of Château des Charmes ‘St Davids Bench’ Merlot 2007 ($29.95 and available only from the winery, but which I hope will feature in a Vintages release), I noticed the bottle had a new label. This one is cleaner and easier to read than the old and, ironically, de-emphasizes the château that is such a landmark. What the new label does, though, is suggest the outlines of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, the geographical features that enable the region to grow grapes.
Bosc says the new label stresses “a sense of place,” a phrase you hear more and more these days as wineries seek to identify their wines with where the grapes grow. The new label is part of a broad shift that Château des Charmes has undertaken, much of it in the direction of sustainable production. The new labels are made from recycled material and the winery’s bottles are now lighter: from a kilogram, they’re down to 650 grams, which saves energy and costs in production and transport.
There’s a lot of activity back in the vineyard, too. The founder of Château des Charmes, Paul Bosc Sr., was one of the earliest proponents of planting vitis vinifera grape varieties in Niagara — the varieties you most commonly find now (chardonnay, merlot, etc.). Before they were planted, it was often thought that they wouldn’t survive in Niagara’s climate).
Then, in the 1990s, Bosc Sr. discovered a clone of the gamay variety, one whose shoots grew upright (‘droit,’ in French). He named it ‘gamay droit’ and you can buy very good wine made from this variety in the LCBO ($16.95, No. 582353). This is the only registered Canadian vinifera clone.
Now — and this is potentially very exciting — Château des Charmes is going further. They’ve been crossing vitis vinifera varieties (they have a thousand different combinations) to see if they can find one that both thrives in Niagara and makes excellent wine. That thousand will fall to a short-list of couple of dozen, then to two or three serious contenders. The winner could be an important contribution to the region’s wine industry.
Château des Charmes Sparkling Brut, Estate Bottled
This is a 50/50 blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, made in the “Traditional Method.” Look for well-defined flavours, excellent balance, a crisp and refreshing texture and fine mousse. Drink it before or during a meal. 12 per cent alcohol; $22.95 (145409).
Château des Charmes Aligoté, Estate Bottled 2008
This is a too-little known Burgundian grape variety that makes refreshing whites. This one is dry, nicely flavoured, has good structure and balance, and goes well with simple fish and poultry dishes. 12 per cent alcohol; $13.45 (284950).
Château des Charmes Chardonnay, Estate Bottled 2007
From an excellent vintage, this well-priced chardonnay shows well-extracted flavours and a clean, refreshing texture. Dry and medium bodied, with good structure, it’s a good partner for poultry and pork dishes. 13.5 per cent alcohol; $13.95 (81653).
Château des Charmes Cabernet Franc, Estate Bottled 2007
Cabernet Franc does well in Niagara, and 2007 was an excellent year for it. You’ll find quite plush fruit flavours, and good complexity and balance. This will swing to poultry and to red meats. 13 per cent alcohol; $13.45 (277236) (Château des Charmes stores now, LCBO next year).