riesling

welcome to Konzlemann Estate Winery

welcome to Konzlemann Estate Winery

There are many exciting wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake and I just can’t remember any longer how we decided to go to Konzelmann, but I’m sure glad that we did.

This winery is situated right on Lake Ontario and there’re even views of Toronto from certain vineyards on the property. Their web site suggests that wine making has been a family passion for the Konzelmann clan for generations. Great grandpa, Friedrich Konzelmann, started a winery in Germany in the Nineteenth Century. The winery in Ontario is of more recent vintage, though still well established. Herbert Konzelmann selected the Canadian site in the Eighties as he thought the microclimate was similar to that of Alsace. I really don’t know enough about all that to comment, but whatever the reason, Konzelmann wine from Niagara-on-the-Lake is worth seeking out.

beautiful Konzelmann Estate Winery tasting room

beautiful Konzelmann Estate Winery tasting room


Konzelmann Estate Winery vineyard with a view of Lake Ontario and Toronto in the background

Konzelmann Estate Winery vineyard with a view of Lake Ontario and Toronto in the background

The tasting room is in a large and handsome building right on Lakeshore Road. They produce a whole range of German and Bordeaux style wines, Ice wine and an unusual red, Baco Noir that we’d never heard of before.

You’re charged per taste and there’s a limit to the total number that they’re supposed to offer you that’s set by the LCBO. Hegui and I shared tastings and tried about seven. “Laura” was our tasting room host. We let her suggest what to try, as we really weren’t sure. She was marvelously attentive to us, friendly and seemed genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about these wines.

sampling Konzelmann Riesling and Riesling Traminer

sampling Konzelmann Riesling and Riesling Traminer

2009 Riesling Reserve 4 Generations: This was a very pale almost colorless transparent yellow. These come from “older vines” that are on average 26 plus years old. We smelled green grape, floral and shoe polish, which we decided had to be the legendary “petrol” smell that you’re supposed to note in Riesling. The wine tasted dry with a lot of pineapple flavors. “It’s good,” exclaimed Hegui. I bought a bottle and lugged it all the way back to California.

Konzelmann Heritage red

Konzelmann Heritage red

2008 Riesling Traminer 4 Generations: This wine is produced from vines somehow grafted from Riesling and Gewürztraminer that the winery founder brought to Canada from Germany. It was a pale transparent yellow color that smelled like peach. This did not taste sweet. We noted peach and a zesty finish.

2008 Gewürztraminer Late Harvest: This wine was pale yellow and looked more syrupy than the first two. We noted lychee nut and rose water on the nose. It was mildly sweet with complex spices. It was really nice though not for every-day drinking.

2008 Baco Noir: Baco noir is a hybrid grape of folle blanche, a French grape variety, and an unknown native North American grape. This was a somewhat opaque red color. On the nose we detected earthy notes, dirty socks, urine and perhaps green banana. It had medium body and a long finish that ends with fig notes. We weren’t huge fans but it was unusual.

2007 Merlot Barrel Aged 4 Generations: This wine was a transparent red. It smelled toasty and of raspberry. It was very smooth, like cashmere, with medium body and camphor, chocolate and mild coffee notes.

2007 Heritage 4 Generations: This is a Bordeaux style blend. It was dark purple to black in color. We noted mild tobacco notes. It had medium body with some spice. It was good.

2008 Canada Red (Zweigelt): This was a transparent red with notes of black cherry and earth. It tasted of black cherry with a spicy finish. Refreshing.

White Moose and Canada Red

White Moose and Canada Red


Niagara Falls

Still thirsty?

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welcome to Inniskillin

welcome to Inniskillin

Hegui and I would never be satisfied with a vacation without finding an opportunity to go wine tasting. We had a real adventure last fall at Tarara Winery in Northern Virginia when we went to visit family in the D.C area. So why not in Ontario? My colleague and friend, Suma, grew up in Buffalo, so was all over the plan long before we departed.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is most famous for Ice wine, a rare and extremely unusual sweet ambrosia that originates in Germany. Owen Bird sings poetically of this drink in his German Riesling manifesto, Rheingold. Of course, we didn’t need a book to get us to Inniskillin: Suma was already in the know.

I didn’t realize this but the Niagara peninsula has a long history of fine wine production. Inniskillin was started in the Seventies, which is right around the time things started really happening in Napa Valley. The wine region is situated quite close to Niagara Falls, so a trip to one could obviously become a visit to both. That’s what we did, at any rate: wine tasting last Tuesday followed by a visit to the Falls on Wednesday.

charming Inniskillin property with tasting room in the background

charming Inniskillin property with tasting room in the background

glorious vineyards at Inniskillin

glorious vineyards at Inniskillin


Inniskillin tasting room

Inniskillin tasting room

The winery itself is lovely. They’ve a collection of beautifully remodeled and new buildings all clustered near one another surrounded by fields of grapes. It seemed especially exciting seeing the red and white Canadian flag waving in the wind as we drove up. You really felt that you’d gone somewhere new!

We didn’t take the tour though that did look a lot of fun. They also have an elegant restaurant, which we skipped as well. Instead we tasted a selection of both the still wines and Ice wines. Inniskillin offers tastings of the still wines for one Canadian dollar each. The Ice wines must be purchased as a group tasting and was a bit more expensive. Since we figured we wouldn’t be back anytime soon as we’re based in San Francisco, we splurged on the library Ice wine tasting flight for $35 Canadian.

2009 Winemakers Series Two Vineyards Riesling: This wine was a very pale transparent yellow with a nose of sweet peach and nectarine. It tasted of tart green apple, unripe peach with a minerally finish.

2008 Legacy Series Riesling: This was a transparent pale yellow that had tart yellow stone fruit, like peach and nectarine on the nose. It had a sweeter (though not really “sweet”) and more creamy texture than the first Riesling. This wine tasted almost “fizzy” with nectarine, sour apple, pepper and mineral notes.

Inniskillin 2007 Legacy Cabernet Franc

Inniskillin 2007 Legacy Cabernet Franc

2007 Winemakers Series Two Vineyards Merlot: This wine was a dense purple black. Hegui unflatteringly found the nose to be of “chicken pooh.” The thick tannins puckered our lips. The wine was smooth and very earthy full of dark red fruit. We liked this one and had it on several occasions while in Toronto.

2007 Reserve Series Cabernet Franc: This was a transparent brownish red with a mocha and tobacco nose. The wine had a pleasing supple mouth-feel with medium body. We noted lots of red berries. It had a creamy finish with supple tannins.

2008 Winemakers Series Two Vineyard Cabernet Franc: This was a transparent purple red. We noted cedar and dried herbs with medium body that was smooth. Was there a hint of sour cherry? The wine was pleasant.

2007 Legacy Series Cabernet Franc: This one was a dark brownish purple with a nose full of berry, ginger root, baking spice and dried herbs. The wine seemed a little rustic compared to the others. Hegui thought there was a distinctly “baking soda aftertaste.” This was our least favorite.

behold the Ice Wine grapes

behold the Ice Wine grapes

Now for the Ice wines! Not all of these were based on Riesling. One was a cabernet franc ice wine and two were based on vidal blanc, a hybrid of ugni blanc (AKA trebbiano) and seibel. “Matthew” served us these wines. He told us that they can sometimes successfully age up to thirty years!

1998 Riesling Ice Wine: This was transparent with a beautiful golden color. It had a dark brooding aroma of aging wood. The flavor was quite complex with ultra-ripe stewed apricot. It had beautiful structure. This is an exciting wine.

Inniskillin library ice wine tasting

Inniskillin library ice wine tasting

1986 Vidal Ice Wine: This was an opaque pale brown to caramel colored wine. We smelled ash, cooked prune, Italian plum, clove and nutmeg. The wine had notes of prune, sour cherry and spicebox.

1996 Oak Aged Vidal Ice Wine: This was a transparent caramel color. We noted apricot, very ripe guava and peach jam on the nose. This had a smooth long finish with caramel on the attack followed peach and apricots.

1995 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine: This was a cloudy brownish caramel color. It smelled of very ripe grape. The wine tasted sweeter than the other three. It had a creamy texture that was also thick and almost syrupy. We noted applesauce and some caramel.

Inniskillin was a great winery to visit, especially if you don’t have a lot of time and want to make the most of your experience. They offer a full range of wines, some of which are available for purchase in Toronto through LCBO. For the more rare ones, a visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake is a must!

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In Rheingold – The German Wine Renaissance, Owen Bird enthusiastically advocates for German Riesling while simultaneously criticizing the industry’s ability to successfully market it as the preeminent white on the international stage.

I want to appreciate Riesling but I'm not sure how...

In this age of red wine consumption, has German Riesling become a fashion casualty? Bird, at one of his funniest moments, writes, “Fashion is fickle but, as anyone who has ever bought a Hawaiian shirt knows, some boomerangs just don’t come back.” That’s not to say that he thinks that German Riesling is like a Hawaiian shirt: quite the opposite. Paradoxically, our contemporary red obsession might actually be in Riesling’s favor, as that’s the most complex of whites. Rather he points to ineffective marketing, a confused and confusing classification system, failure of producers to export fine examples of Riesling abroad, unappealing and often incomprehensible bottle labeling, not capitalizing on terroir, and the German desire for egalitarianism as many of the culprits in the under appreciation of this finest of whites.

The classification system still puzzles me, though I’ve read this book with rapt attention. Bird offers a basic course of “German for beginners” which already has helped me decipher some baffling Riesling labels at my local wine shop. Kabinett is like a cabinet or a special place to store fine wine if you don’t have a cellar. Lese means “harvest;” spat– is “late;” aus– is “out;” –beeren, “berry;” trocken, “dry;” and Eiswein, which is fairly obvious if you just pronounce the German while thinking English, comes from grapes literally frozen on the vine. So putting it all together, the tongue-twister, Trockenbeerenasulese means “dry berry out of harvest.” Wow, I’m reading German, Mom! Though what that incredible word has to do with the drink in my glass remains a mystery.

And really, that’s Bird’s point. The classification system was set up based on levels of ripeness of fruit and amounts of residual sugar. There’s no recognition that acid and sugar interact to determine the subjective experience of sweetness. Nor does this system take regional distinctions into account. So long as the wine comes from fruit that are ripe to the correct degree and has enough sugar, it’s an auslese, for example. But not all ausleses are created equal: some taste dry, others sweet; some are significantly better than others (I have to believe Bird here as I’ve hardly had any thus far, though I aim to change that after reading this book.) Hence more confusion!

As a remedy, Bird makes a number of suggestions. First, consumers need to be educated about German Riesling. By this he doesn’t mean the details of the very complex classification system. Instead, we must learn and truly grasp that Riesling is the king of whites. Of course, the classification system should be revised to be both simpler to follow and make the greatest of the great wines stand out. The elites will then define local styles, and therefore, regional distinctions, will become more clear to Riesling drinkers. That makes sense, I guess.

He’s all for simplifying labels, focusing on pairing Riesling with Indian and other Asian foods rather than German ones, and rejecting the notion that customers must think a lot about the wine in order to purchase and successfully enjoy it. Finally, he advocates marketing elite, terroir-driven Rieslings differently from more affordable, fruit-forward, internationally styled ones. That’s not to say that these “affordable” wines are the same as Bird’s “sweet and cheap” plonk. In fact, he’s all over the huge German wine manufacturers who, he claims, “strangled if not kidnapped the game for their own motives to the expense of the industry as a whole.”

There’s a lot of attention focused on new classifications of Rieslings. He’s a real believer in the system developed by the Verband Deutscher Pradikatsweinguter (VDP) that re-organizes German wine areas into regions then subdivides them based on quality. The last section of the book offers a somewhat detailed description of these. Living in Northern California, I struggle with Bird’s preoccupation with these total systems. He writes, “the aim of the classification system is to bring to the attention of the wider wine public a method of quality declaration.” So it’s a kind of shorthand for what’s good. We don’t really have that here. Sure, there are regional distinctions: California Counties like Sonoma, Napa and Monterey, for example. We’ve even got some of these larger areas subdivided. Just think Dry Creek Valley, Stag’s Leap, or Santa Lucia Highlands. But that’s it. We’re on our own after that, so good luck finding a wine that’s right for you!

I still think that taste is subjective and truly wonder if there really is such a thing as a grand cru in an absolute sense. On the other hand, there are certainly some winemakers that produce better stuff than others. Bird characterizes California wines as “Old New World” due to our increasing focus on terroir (as compared to Australia, Chile, etc.) Maybe there’s something to that?

Rheingold is packed with ideas and the author clearly adores his subject. The book itself could have stood a more thorough editing. It tends to be repetitive; the style frequently veers off in wild directions, making it seem rough and unfinished; and there are numerous distracting typos and grammatical errors. That said, it’s impossible to come away from this short book without absorbing some of Bird’s excitement for German Riesling. It makes me thirsty…

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