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Some reflections on Niagara

by Paul Bulas

I  am a huge fan of Niagara. No, not just the Niagara Peninsula wine region -- though I do love it -- but the Niagara grape variety.

    Best known perhaps as a juice grape -- the white-skinned counterpart to Concord -- Niagara is in fact a multi-use grape, being used for juice, jelly, and wine. Winemaker Magazine notes that Niagara makes a "heady, heavily-scented wine" and Cornell University's page describes it as "a floral, strongly flavored white grape". I agree entirely, and it's that irreplicable aroma that I so enjoy about the grape. Having said that, I also find the vine itself esthetically pleasing with its attractive, sharp-edged, sturdy, lobed leaves that are dark green on top and whitish-gray with a rough texture on the underside.

    I got a bit of an education in the characteristics of the Niagara grape last year when, somewhat frustrated by the lack of quality varietal Niagara wine on the market here in Ontario, I decided to simply buy some grapes from a local grower and make wine from them at home. The exercise had a dual purpose: To introduce me to the very concept of varietal Niagara wine, and to see what that wine would be like when made in a completely dry style.

    What I discovered surprised even me initially. I found that behind the popular descriptor, "foxy", there lay a multiplicity of aromas. These included such hitherto unknown-to-me elements as candied lemon rind; a diesel aroma that was surprisingly Riesling-like; a flowery, jasmine-like note, and a high-toned, candied muskiness -- this last one likely embodying the true meaning of "foxy" as a descriptor. These were undoubtedly different aromas from any I had previously encountered, but they weren't offensive. If anything, they were utterly unique and, thus, most interesting.

    Thinking about the grape as representative of a genre, I am convinced that part of the problem in popularizing Niagara as material for quality wine lies not in its inherent aromas but rather in the often-cited belief that quality wine can't be made from the grape, which I believe is a mistaken notion. It's true that the wine has flavours that are not found in vinifera or hybrid wines -- but the varietal wine has features that are entirely homologous to those in vinifera and hybrid whites as regards mouthfeel, structure and finish. When made dry, it is delightfully crisp and flavourful in a forward way. It is refreshing and persistent on the palate. It has a pure, fruity, long finish.

    Making crowd-pleasing wines from the variety that are not viewed as serious is likely the easiest way to sell varietal Niagara wine in a market with such set preferences. But as with Zinfandel, a light, sweet, uncritical style only shows one, rather incomplete image of what the grape can do. I can't bear to think of Zin never having been made into the excellent, sturdy red examples that it is if the only image of the grape had been as material for sweet rosÚs (it's not a slight against the style, though I do concede that it's not a style that I personally enjoy).

    I think that Niagara should be seen as a viable white wine variety for backyard grape growers in Eastern North America and wherever else the grape is part of the local culture. The varietal flavours associated with Niagara should be at least partly representative of Eastern North American (or, I love the term, "Old Dominion") wine. And who knows -- this might very well be the grape's rightful niche in the world of wine.

    Now ... back to blowing my lonely trumpet. ;)

© Copyright Paul Bulas 2002.
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11 July 2002