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Charles Baker's Riesling Project

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By Malcolm Jolley

It's a stunningly clear and warm October day and I am barrelling up the Niagara Escarpment, trying to remember my grade 8 geography report on the micro-climate here and listening to Charles Baker wax poetic on this bump in the land over which Lake Erie falls into Lake Ontario and under which grow vinis vitifera. I am embarrassed, I tell my guide, that I probably know more about the wine regions of France or Italy than I do about the ones that are less than 100 kms from my kitchen table. While passing well known wineries, Baker explains we are heading up to the Vinemount Ridge via the 20 Mile Bench, near where we started at his home in Jordan. We are on our way to Chef Mark Picone's house and vineyard (pictured above) to meet him and view the five rows of vines that constitute the sole provenance of the 2005 Charles Baker Riesling Project wine.

Baker, who is the Director of Marketing and Sales at the prestigious Stratus Vineyards, is well known to the Toronto food and wine set, having worked to promote premium Niagara wines for years. Now he has decided to organise his own label, under the auspices of Stratus. Baker is very clear that he, per se, is no the winemaker, and the final product holds the master's stamp of Jean-Laurent "J-L" Groux (whose bespectacled and bearded face holds an iconic quality in the Ontario wine world as he's often featured in ads) and his assistant Ritchie Roberts.

Baker's role in "the project", as he calls it, is simple enough: he thought of it and now he makes it happen. But what is it, exactly? Couldn't be simpler: to make wines from specific vineyards, or rather parts of them. That's pretty much it, but for a multitude of reasons, there are very few single vineyard wines that come out of this part of the world and Baker hopes to find small patches in the vineyards of the regions many independent growers. He explains: "Our industry needs to explore more closely the notion of terroir. To accomplish this, we have to move beyond the sub-appellations that were recently created, we have to move beyond the large farms that cover large areas and delve into the small unique vineyards that dot the landscape. For my own curiosity, I want to do as much of this exploring as possible, make some good Riesling, and at the same time, demonstrate that this type of pursuit is sustainable." In other words, he wants to make wine from a very specific place, or places.

So far, Picone is his first grower, and we head out to the chef's 10 acre vineyard to inspect the five rows of Riesling earmarked for Baker's 2006 vintage. Chef Picone splits his time between teaching at Niagara College, working on the acclaimed Chapeau! series of professional cookbooks and running a small atelier where he cooks of small groups in a specially appointed studio and dining room over looking his vines, the ridge. I am struck by the small scale of the whole operation, we walk the rows in about five minutes, and that's moistly because Baker is constantly stopping and inspecting clusters, that will be hand selected and picked (supervised by vineyard manager Glen Clarke), then sorted again to weed out any imperfections, stems and so on.

Why Riesling, I ask?

"For it's clarity and complexity. It is perhaps the single most unique wine expression of the Niagara Escarpment we know of." Baker then launches into a detailed history of grape growing in the region, explaining the German origins of the clone used throughout. All of this talk is making me thirsty, so after a quick tour of Chef's studio, we head out to taste the wine. Or so I thought!

First Baker takes me to the 20 Mile Creek gorge at Ball's Falls, not for the view (which is Ontario autumn at it's most breathtaking), but to examine the layers of strata exposed by the relentless erosion of water falling down the escarpment. OK! I get it! There is, indeed terroir and a wealth of interesting minerals for the long sinewy roots of older vines to find deep in the ground. On our way to lunch we stop at rival winery, Le Clos Jordanne, where they have just picked their Pinot Noir and chief winemaker Thomas Bachelder exceeds all generosity with his time and takes on a whirlwind tasting of different vats and then barrels. (It was fantastic and I will write about in more detail in an upcoming article on wine tastings.)

Finally, we reach the Stone Road Grille, favourite hangout of the winemaking set, in Niagara-On-The-Lake, but away from the twee main street. Chef Ryan Crawford presents the most balanced and savoury squash soup I have ever tasted (I am usually not a fan, but this was wonderful) and a perfectly presented confit of duck on a red cabbage choucroute. Some collaboration had clearly been afoot as the matched very well with the star of the lunch, the wine. There's something about seeing the actual place where the grapes were grown to make a wine, and I swear the first sip evoked the sunny autumn field. There was Ontario there: cider almost. I checked David Lawrason's review later, and he noted "very ripe apple-pear", so I think I was onto something. But the pleasure was not in picking out flavour notes, at the end of the day it's a very nice and refreshing Riesling. What imparts that great extra enjoyment to it is that is comes from somewhere. This simple idea evokes complicated pleasure and should be supported. Baker agrees, and his parting words to me are, "I hope more of these small projects take root."


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