2012 California Wine Fair Prelude: Niagara, ON Pinot Noir vs California Pinot Noir


Both as a followup to my own comment about Niagara, ON Pinot Noirs and as a prelude to my second sojourn to the annual California Wine Fair tonight, I had the good fortune of being able to taste a high-end Niagara, ON Pinot Noir besides a relatively equal California Pinot Noir. I shall mention the name of neither to avoid embarassing anyone. All I have to say is, wow, anything I had against Niagara Pinot Noir has been magnified a million times over.

See, I’ve always had the opportunity to try Niagara Pinots against each other and Cali Pinots against each other separately… but never one vs. the other at the same time. The closest I ever came to comparing Pinot Noirs from different regions was my first offline from last year that Mike Grammer invited me to where we compared Oregon, California and French Pinot Noirs to each other (I believe it was a Burgundy but could be mistaken) and the French was far and away the superior Pinot followed by the Cali and lastly the Oregon.

This was even less of a contest. Side by side, the Niagara Pinot had a muted nose, a thin and watery body that seemingly couldn’t contain the alcohol, and unripe dull flavors.

The Cali Pinot, on the other hand had a fruity nose, substantially more body and texture in the mouth, and ripe fruit flavors. Yes, it had a bit of that cherry cola aspect that drives many of you nuts. Yes, you could label it as a fruit and alcohol bomb. I’ll take that it over the complete lack of substance and flavor in the Niagara Pinot any time.

This is kind of like the time where I tried an Alsacian Pinot Gris for the first time followed by a Niagara Pinot Gris and I posted on how I finally “got” the whole Beserkers thing after that experience. I have of course posted before on my feelings about Ontario vs Cali Pinot Noir in a previous thread but even still it was just startling to experience the differences of the two right beside each other.

Well, that got me primed and ready for the California Wine Fair tonight. Last year as a newbie, I focused on Chardonnays and Cabernets and learned quite a bit which I posted about here. This year, I’ll be going for Zinfadels, Pinots (Gris and Noir), Merlots, Tempranillos and of course any and all sweet wines available.

I will be skipping the Cabs completely and may try a few Chardonnays just for fun, but I feel there’s no point in repeating last year’s routine. Nothing new in terms of learning for me and nothing new for Berserkers. I will of course report back on my findings later tonight.

Can you name names, I.e., which wines you compared?

Tran youre probably three hours from here. Lets get together thos summer. You round up a bunch if ON pinot I have a ton of Cali ones. Well do them blind. Ive never had an ON pinot.

Tran - Setting aside vintages, age of vines, viticulture practices, and winemaking methods are you saying that Ontario is currently not producing pinot noir that can compete on the world stage in terms of desirability eventhough one would expect aroma & taste differences? If so do you think the region is underperforming at the moment or that the climate/soil/etc. will not allow for desirable complex pinot noirs? The reason I ask is that there was a recent article about pinot noir growers in the Finger Lakes region starting to turn away from this grape and planting other varieties, that is except for Tom Higgins at Heart and Hands. I’m curious as I will be up in that region next week and hope to taste good examples of pinot noir…Cheers, Gary


Niagara isn’t an area of focus for me-but yes I have heard that they are decreasing, or rapidly decreasing Pinot plantings. I think there is a lot the region can do well, but given current consumer sentiment around Pinot-I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit for them right now.

Hey Gary,

I am certainly no expert so please take my words with a grain of salt. The bottom line is that you will have to judge for yourself with your presumably much more experienced palate.

I have great affection for Niagara wineries and will always be supportive of them. My receipts prove it. It isn’t their fault there’s only a few good Pinot Noirs here. I don’t believe it is a case of underperformance at this moment in time.

My personal feelings are that it is indeed simply the climate and the terroir which do have a limiting effect and I have noticed them in particular with all Niagara Pinots – Noir, Blanc and Gris. Remember, our winemaking region is only about 30 years old. It’s a New World baby! Of course this will have an effect and you will taste a difference.

While we seem ideally suited for certain grapes such as Riesling, Vidal and many underappreciated reds like Baco Noir, Gamay Noir and Chambourcin, I think we have the same issue as California – Pinot Envy with the French and likely Californians as well.

Instead of making one of these better suited red varietals “our own” the way Aussies have made Shiraz their own or California has made Zinfadel its own, we insist on thinking our Pinot Noirs are generally the equal of those in other regions. I personally feel that’s going to take another 50 - 100 years.

All of this is said at your request to set aside certain things like winemaking and viticultural practices. If I may add them back in, however, I strongly believe that amazing winemaking and viticultural practices from skilled Niagara vintners can make gold out of straw when it comes to wine (hopefully without spoofulating or doctoring).

I completely stand by the list I gave in your earlier thread about Pinots – I have noticed that the ones who are doing organic and/or biodynamic growing make very good Pinot Noirs and they should be sought out. There are some great ones out here but bear in mind they are the exception. Sorry, I know you asked to set this aside but I wanted to be fair.

Also on the fairness topic, keep in mind that at least some high-end Pinot Noirs here are great and I truly believe you will enjoy them. In contrast, I cannot say the same about Pinot Gris. Even from the wineries on the list I gave you in the other thread. If you can make a great Pinot Noir and a nearly undrinkable Pinot Gris, me thinks your terroir is not really suited for Pinot Gris. Please also try some of these and let us know if you agree. Icewine and Reciotos are an exception, however. You’ll like these.

Regarding Finger Lakes receding from growing Pinot Noir, please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe their winemaking is even younger than ours but the terroir is almost identical so I imagine they are going through the same things. I did taste quite a number of wines from Finger Lakes last November at the Food and Wine Expo and was not surprised that they tasted almost identical to Niagara wines.

I think perhaps they are finding what I have stated above to be somewhat true and are branching out for economic benefit reasons. I don’t think you can survive as a winery selling average to less than average Pinot wines.


maybe i misread the OP, are you basing this observation on a one taste comparison?

i was at that OLwith you last year. anyone that knows me knows i like red burgundy really at the exclusion of others. one of the keys in burgundy is to find the older vines, certainly 25+years, with some averaging 50+ or more. this age does not exist in ontario, and while i am no expert, i believe little if any pinot noir is even 15 years old, and much is significantly younger. my observation is that we need to wait before passing judgement, and given the price of red burgundy, we should encourage the local growers.


Hi John,

Yes, my original post was based on a one to one taste comparison but it did reinforce my general feelings. I also agree with you that we should encourage local growers and you make a good point about the youth of the Pinot here. Not sure if I was clear in my long post above yours, but I do agree with you and was trying to point out that the youth of the terroir and region are contributing factors. I stress again that it is no fault of the growers or winemakers themselves.

Hmmm. I smell a Toronto-based offline coming this summer to settle matters of different opinions pitting high-end wines of each region against each other. [cheers.gif] I have been holding on to a Graham’s 1980 Vintage Port to share specifically with Berserkers as an enticement. flirtysmile

see my post above :slight_smile:

Already started a thread for a Toronto based offline for April or May in the Planner thread. :slight_smile:

I do think the very best of the Ontario pinots would beat the typical Oregon pinot but I have always felt that Oregon pinots and pretty unremarkable.However, Pinot is not Ontario’s strong suit, and California would for the most part blow them away.