Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gold in Palatine Hills

Generally speaking, here in the Northeast I've found that the older wineries make a better product than those newer to the game. But I don't mind being wrong now and then, since it usually means a nice tasting surprise. Such was the case when we visited Palatine Hills Estate Winery during our winetasting tour through the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of Ontario.

Open to the public only since 2003, Palatine Hills is a fairly new winery on the Niagara scene. But they know their grapes. For 30 years, Palatine Hill has been a very successful vineyard that sold its crop to area wineries.

In the late 1990s, they decided to try their hand at producing an ice wine, a specialty of the region. Next thing you know, they've got a prize winner on their hands in the 1998 Vidal Ice Wine. A few years later they hired a full-time winemaker and began producing a full line-up of table wines and ice wines.

I had little to go on when we arrived at the winery on a busy Saturday morning. No one had recommended Palatine to me. During the previous day, I tasted both great wines and poor wines. So I had no expectations to speak of.

But it didn't take many glasses for me to decide that we had stumbled onto some very good wines. The wines at the lower end were all good, if not quite remarkable, including a chardonnay, a fume blanc, a riesling and a gewurztraminer. The gewurz was best.

The Proprietor's Reserve wines were another matter. The Proprietor's Reserve Chardonnay, Meritage and Cabernet were all very good -- at reasonable prices, unlike some other area wineries that sell their reserve wines in the $50 range. The Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet 2002 at $21 was especially interesting, with its cedary, smoky black fruit. It's still tight and perhaps a bit aggressively oaked, but I expect it has fruit enough to show well when the tannins settle down in a couple of years.

I couldn't get over this wine's body and style, so I pressed for more information about it. Next thing I knew I was in quite a conversation with co-owner John Neufeld and was on a personal tour of the winery with John Jr. This 120-acre site features vinifera plantings that go back to the early 1970s, one of the advantages of being a farm property for so long. Consequently, the winery gets plenty of mature, complex fruit with which to make its reserve wines.

This also was our first extended conversation with anyone local about the Niagara Escarpment (see last post), which affords the Niagara peninsula an extra few weeks of growing season each fall -- enough time to give Niagara reds more heft than other nearby wine-producing areas. We also learned that wines get a fair amount of aging time in Hungarian oak as well as French oak -- many wineries these days are turning to Hungarian oak to get similar characteristics as from the French oak but at a fraction of the cost.

All of this, mind you, was unscheduled and on a festival weekend. But that's one of the joys of discovering a quality winemaker before they have gotten too well known and inaccessible. We had a fabulous time with lots of interaction with the people behind the wines -- how could you not develop a very healthy respect for Palatine Hills wines?

By the way, I have not yet mentioned the Palatine Hills ice wines, for which they first made a name for themselves. We got a little distracted by their fine table wines. But trust me, the ice wines were absolutely fabulous for a little more than half the cost of what the big boys are churning out just down the road. They not only make a delicious vidal, they make a gewurztraminer and a cabernet ice wine. The cab was not available for tasting, but I can vouch for the wonderful honey and flower aromas of the gewurz ice wine. You don't have to spend a lot at the best-known wineries to truly strike gold in the Niagara peninsula.


Anonymous James McNally said...

I haven't visited Palatine Hills yet, but have enjoyed their ice wine. 2002 was a particularly good year for reds in Ontario. Alas, the following years haven't been quite so good.

3:24 PM  
Blogger JD said...

James, thanks for the comment. Alas, reds throughout the Northeast are more often lacking than not because perfect conditions, unlike CA, occur too infrequently. I'm glad I got to see what Ontario can do in a good year.

The folks at Palatine were more friendly than most, and the setting refreshingly simple. You should try it.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Luke said...


We are soon to be in the process of re-designing the Palatine Hills website. John Neufeld saw your blog - loved it - and asked that I ask you for permission to: (a) link to your site, and (b) quote from your entry, "Gold in Palatine Hills."

I can be reached at findluke@gmail.com. Thanks!

11:36 PM  
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