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Henry of Pelham, Niagara, Canada
The first Ontario wine I tasted was a Baco Noir from Henry of Pelham winery. I cannot remember the occasion or how this particular wine got across the Atlantic, but I do remember how it stained our tongues purple and that I enjoyed it enough to remember the name of both the winery and grape variety.
The town of Pelham is high on a slope above Lake Ontario, but the wine estate is roughly midway between Pelham and the city of St Catharines. It was here in 1842 that Henry Smith built a tavern and toll gate on the Pelham Road and planted vineyards. He signed his liquor license application 'Henry of Pelham' in joking reference to Henry Pelham, the British Prime Minister at the time and this became his official name.
Those original buildings house the winery tasting room and the property is now owned by brothers Paul, Matthew and Daniel Speck, Smith family descendants. The Speck family bought the property in 1982 and started re-planting vineyards.
I arrived in time for a tour, which was led by a delightfully knowledgeable technician from winery's laboratory. After an introductory talk he led us to 80 rows of Baco Noir behind the winery that was the first vineyard planted by the Specks in 1984. "They have nice loose bunches for air to circulate so they don't suffer rot", we heard. These vines looked healthily bushy, but a row of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the modern wooden winery building had some dead vines. "It's vine collapse," we learned. "We had temperatures of minus 37C at the beginning of the year and some vines were exhausted after fruiting and died."
By the vineyard are gravestones from the Smith family cemetery, dating from 1794. Henry of Pelham's father, Nicholas, was a loyalist who had lost his lands in Pennsylvania after the American revolution and been granted this property in recognition of his service to the Crown.
Inside the winery we descended granite stairs to the cool barrel cellar where we admired hundreds of French and American oak barrels before returning to the heat outside.
The tour included a tasting of four estate wines:
Riesling 2011 (11%abv)
Good balance of acidity and sweetness (15gL residual sugar) on the attractive crowd pleaser. There's a reassuring touch of Riesling petrol.
Rose 2013 (11.5%abv)
Deep pink colour, simple enjoyment and refreshing on a hot day. Made from a blend of Zweigelt and Gamay.
Cabernet-Merlot 2010 (13%abv)
Beautiful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from a long and hot year. I loved this wine with its tangy spicy fruit flavours, and balanced tannins.
2013 Baco Noir (13%abv)
This was a vintage I knew, having enjoyed it twice with dinner during my stay. It is really drinkable now, with a soft ripe nose and deep berry flavours. Henry of Pelham are arguably the world's leading producer of this variety. Look out also for their reserve bottling.
There's a restaurant, picnic grounds, vineyards to walk, history and great wines at this family owned and operated winery. It's well worth a visit.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.
Peter F May paid for his travel, tour and tasting.
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