The Great One Gets Better

The Great One Gets Better

When Wayne Gretzky launched his Niagara wines last summer, I was not impressed. Priced under $15, the wines were not awful but average, and why buy average when there are good bottles for the same price? I had higher expectations given Number 99’s reputation for doing things well, and the whole exercise seemed steeped in marketing opportunism. I was not wrong on this, nor were those who created the brand: the Wayne Gretzky label has become the hottest seller among Ontario VQA wines on the LCBO general list.

Last week I had a chance to revisit the wines when Creekside Estate Winery held a portfolio tasting at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, and things are looking up with a new vintage now bottled. Creekside, which also successfully launched the Mike Weir wines, oversees the production, distribution and marketing of Wayne Gretzky Estates wines. Gretzky is personally involved in this project, with proceeds going to his foundation that funds youth hockey. The Gretzky winery is now within the premises of the former Willow Heights Winery near Vineland. That first (average) vintage had been made elsewhere, but now production is firmly in the hands of Creekside’s dynamic oenological duo: native son Rob Power and Aussie Craig McDonald.

The pair have done very well in recent wine competitions, with Creekside finishing sixth out of 100 in the Winery of the Year sweepstakes in the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards. Their finish was bolstered by their now almost sold-out Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Reserve ($34.95, available at the winery only) taking a rare gold medal for Ontario reds, then repeating the feat at last month’s Cuvée Wine Awards in Niagara. Creekside’s 2005 Broken Press Shiraz ($32.95, 88 points, winery only) is considered among the top examples of the growing syrah genre in Niagara. The barrel-aged 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve ($18.95, 89 points, winery only) is a personal favourite, and they have a batch of very showy 2007 whites coming soon. As well, the Mike Weir line shows steady improvement as that project, too, moves toward the opening of its own dedicated winery in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation.

The current Gretzky labels differ somewhat from the previous debut vintage. The 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.95, 85 points, LCBO 63826) joins the movement to non-wooded, stainless steel–aged chardonnays (there were 25 entered in the Ontario Wine Awards this year). I like the weight and well-proportioned acid-alcohol-fruit balance, which creates a smooth yet fresh texture and a crisp finish. In a recently purchased bottle, however, the subtle, well-integrated apple and lemon fruit aromas were compromised by a faint scent from the synthetic cork, an issue with many wines under this type of closure. Time for the screwcap on this wine, and many others like it.

The natural cork-finished red is Meritage 2006 ($15.95, 87 points, LCBO 75689), a blend of cabernet and merlot in the Bordeaux tradition. From a wet harvest, which caused some dilution and lightness in Ontario reds, this actually offers weight. Look for character very similar to basic Bordeaux, with quite complex and generous raspberry-redcurrant fruit, green herbs, tobacco and earthiness. It, too, is well proportioned and balanced, with very good length.