Passing Judgment by Lubomyr Luciuk

Published in the October 28 2016 Wellington Times.

Pitting County wines against California’s finest
STORY: LUBOMYR LUCIUK

Like many Kingstonians, I used to go on family outings to Picton. Those were happy trips, playing on the beaches at Sandbanks or, in autumn, picking apples my mother transformed into a cake whose deliciousness I long for but haven’t the culinary skills to recreate.

Back then, I gave the County’s topography, climate and soils no thought, not even after enrolling in Queen’s University’s Department of Geography. Studying places farther afield seemed more relevant. I have since discovered that what’s right under my nose can sometimes be just as intriguing. As one of Canada’s leading wine writers and a friend, David Lawrason, once remarked: “We have taken Ontario’s special terroir for granted for too long.”

We don’t anymore.

At a latitude of 44°N, the County is Ontario’s most northerly, and one of the world’s youngest, winegrowing regions, only officially designated a VQA appellation in 2007. Its climate moderated by the waters of the surrounding Bay of Quinte and Lake Ontario, its topsoils ranging from a reddish-brown clay to a sandy loam, the peninsula’s earth is lanced with shale and limestone fragments, allowing for good drainage, heat retention, and substantial root penetration. Vines there grow deep, offering lower yields, but more concentrated flavours.

Two important grape varietals doing particularly well in this Burgundian-like environment are chardonnay and pinot noir. As early as 2010, the internationally-renowned wine writer, Jancis Robinson, pointed out Ontario was producing a “vivid array of styles of Chardonnay, some of which can hold their own with the world’s best.” That has proven true for the County. This year, Rosehall Run’s Dan Sullivan won a silver medal in France at the prestigious Chardonnay du Monde for his 2013 “LCR” Chardonnay. Others earned top marks at Canada’s National Wine Awards—Norman Hardie a platinum for his 2013 County Chardonnay, Huff Estates a gold for a 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve and gold medals for the 2014 chardonnays of Closson Chase and Stanners. Certainly, I wish I had more of Exultet vineyard’s “The Blessed” Chardonnay. Crafted by the Spinosa family, this luxurious stunner, pumping out aromas of hazelnut, pear and apple while offering excellent length and medium acidity, won four consecutive gold medals at the Ontario Wine Awards. I could (should) have cellared it for several years. Alas, being an Adam when it comes to temptation, I went for the apple.

Next year, as you may already have guessed, we’ll feature County pinot noirs competing against some of Burgundy’s best reds. Having recently done barrel samplings in the County’s south-eastern marches, I can hardly wait.

Dozens of wineries now exist across the peninsula. They don’t all offer wines I like—but appreciating wine is a matter of personal taste. What I savour you might not want to swallow. Regardless, years of dedicated effort by grape growers and winemakers have resulted in the County drawing in ever-increasing numbers of wine lovers, gourmands and other tourists.

And so the idea for The Judgement of Kingston was born. With the support of Tourism Kingston and The Royal Winers, a group of RMC and Queen’s University professors and friends who have together sampled vintage wines for a quarter century, this Judgement echoes the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Humorously portrayed in the 2008 film Bottle Shock, that blind tasting competition was revolutionary and became inspirational after Californian chardonnays and red wines unexpectedly bested their French counterparts, a result repeated in 2006. New World wines have since enjoyed a growing international prestige, deservedly so.

Four top quality wines from the County and three greats from California were selected for Kingston’s first annual Judgement. Four wellknown wine critics are our judges, Kingston’s own bon vivant, Clark Day, is emcee, and a local sommelier and surgeon, Dr Kimberly Meathrel, will explain what to look for while tasting and scoring these wines. Everyone can try all seven.

What are the judges anticipating? Elin McCoy, wine columnist for Bloomberg News and author of The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, wrote: “I expect to learn a lot. I haven’t tasted many wines from the County…and I expect them to surprise me. I’ll be looking for the usual things I look for in all really good wines—expansive aromas, a good balance of fruit and acidity, complex flavors that go behind just fruitiness, a very long finish, and above all, deliciousness. For chardonnay in particular, I like to see a blend of richness and depth without heaviness, precise fruit and mineral flavors, laser-like acidity, and a succulence that makes me want to take another sip, and another, and another. Actually, I expect at least a couple of County wines to do very, very well in the competition.” Konrad Ejbich, founding member of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada, noted: “The wines ought to exhibit regional characteristics of soil and climate, as interpreted by local winemakers… In California, that generally means…big, fullbodied wines with a sweet, lush, almost honeyed taste….with full-blown tropical notes, hints of caramelized fruit, and thick almost oily texture….County winemakers tend to bring more subtlety and grace to their wines. The local chardonnays are likely to display more crispness, delicacy, and fine aromatics along with firm grip and a sharp spine of mouth-watering acidity.”

What do I look forward to? Foremost, a little fun as we find out which wines the judges liked best and why, and whether they, you, and yours truly distinguished California wines from those of the County. Then learning which wine gets voted the public’s favourite. Knowing the Judgement was planned as a “break-even” event but will realize a small profit for the Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario is an added bonus. Mostly, I hope you come away having enjoyed these County wines as much as I do. That would be very good news for all the wine makers “next door” and for Kingston too.

Professor Lubomyr Luciuk is a founding member of The Royal Winers. For more information go to judgementofkingston.ca

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