by Lynn Ogryzlo
Last November, the elite of Niagara's wine industry along with top politicians and leading industry members came together with more anticipation than any wine harvest could generate.
The visit of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales made international news but not so much for his interest in the wines of Canada, but for the place he visited.
“It's the only centre of its kind in North America,” explains Steve Gill, manager of Wine and Viticulture at the brand new Niagara College Wine Visitor and Education Centre, located on the edge of the 40-acre college campus vineyard on the outskirts of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In 2000, Niagara College introduced a Wine and Viticulture Program, training assistant winemakers and cellar hands that are now employed in wineries and wine related businesses around the globe. Impressive graduates from the program include Sarah DeMano, sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto and Paul Penner, winemaker at Tawse Winery in Vineland.
The 8,500 square foot, $3.6 million Wine Visitor and Education Centre is a showcase to the wine industry with 180 degrees of windows overlooking the vineyards and Niagara escarpment. Inside, the circular tasting bar follows the lines of the windows, a collection of more than 60 VQA wines from wineries across Ontario line the west wall, a Wine Country Information room for visitors to plan their wine country experience and interestingly enough, three wine glasses vaulted into the foyer wall. These are the memories of the Prince of Wales visit as he sipped and praised Niagara College wine.
The lower level includes state-of-the-art teaching winery facilities including a covered and lit crush pad, a tank cellar, barrel cellar, wine analysis laboratory and classrooms for winemaking, wine sensory evaluation and culinary tourism. The facility is the pride of Winemaker Professor Terrance Van Rooyen, who spent the past years teaching in a makeshift barn hidden behind a maintenance shed.
The teaching winery produces approximately 5,000 cases of wine annually, including 16 different wines from the College Red and White and varietal table wines to the Dean's List line of wines. The Dean's List wines are those chosen each year by internationally acclaimed wine writer Tony Aspler, who tastes and selects very few to carry the prestigious title of Dean's List. Aspler assigns a grade to the reserve class of wines and it's placed on the report card-style wine label along with his tasting notes and signature.
The '07 Dean's List Meritage, (VQA $47.95, winery availability only) earned an honour roll grade of 90 from Aspler. It's made with all five Bordeaux grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and melbec in varying amounts. Shows a range of rich flavours from cedar, currant, smoke and espresso to fleshy blackberry and plum favours that pick up intensity as the juicy finish comes in.
The '07 Dean's List Chardonnay, (VQA $27.95, winery availability only) is so gorgeous, it's hard to imagine a silkier touch on the palate. Smooth, polished, thick textured and redolent of spicy apple and pear flavours with a core of smoke finishing with a nice lively spark of citrus.
Gill explains, “The Wine Visitor and Education Centre is part of the nationally recognized Canadian Wine and Culinary Institute (CWCI) at Niagara College.” Under this umbrella is wine's perfect partner, the Culinary Institute with its restaurant, outdoor kitchens and chef's garden and greenhouse food production.
The Wine and Viticulture Program is complemented with a Wine Business Management Graduate Program and a Tourism Diploma Program. It's a division specializing in Canadian regional cuisine and terroir with a focus on wine, food and research. It's all part of the growing Food and Wine Sciences Division at the college.
The CWCI engages in national projects such as their work with the University of British Columbia on various yeasts affects on wine and another, defining the characteristics of various oaks on wine with the Canadian Oak Company. The vineyard that surrounds the centre has sensory stations that track humidity levels and vineyard temperatures. This information goes into a GIS system to map the vineyard and provide specific information that helps them reduce their vineyard inputs and maximize their outputs, leading to a more sustainable vineyard operation. All of these activities enhance the students wine studies.
During his visit, the Prince tasted the Dean's List of wines including the '08 Cabernet Franc Icewine, (VQA $54.95 winery availability only). Not accustomed to icewine, the Prince was most taken with it. The pink, rich, aromatic and sweet wine with classic honey, spicy strawberry and cream flavours swirl beautifully through the crisp, passion fruit and elegant finish ““ he was noticeably impressed.
After meeting with some of the winemaking students, the Prince left the college with a few cases of wine tucked into his helicopter because as you know, the wines are only available in Ontario. “Pity,” he replied.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food and wine writer and author of Niagara Cooks, a farm to table, and international award-winning cookbook. You can reach Lynn for questions or comments at niagaracooks.ca.