By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Escarpment Correspondent

When Lenn asked me to write about the five most exciting wines of 2008 from the Niagara region, I assumed that I could rattle them off in a heartbeat. But when I really sat down to put my list together, I realized something; it takes a lot these days to really get me going – at least when it comes to wine. In established wine regions, I usually reserve my excitement for estate-grown wines or hard-to-find varietals. In Niagara wine country, however, things are a bit different. For one, we’re still in the pioneer phase. Not only that, our vines are still young, with the demand for sweet wines still great.

In my opinion, the best local wines are either still in the barrel or waiting to be bottled. That said, there’s still a lot to be excited about in the Niagara region.

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards may be one of the youngest wineries to join the trail, but owner Duncan Ross is showing confidence these days as his handful of wines are already attracting some big-time attention. His 2005 Vidal Ice Wine is definitely the most complex ice wine I’ve ever tried. My experience with the wine was truly a transcendent one as I felt it was easy to lose track of time when it was on the palate. Add to that a 90-point WS score and $40 price tag and this wine is a must- have from the Niagara region.

Eveningside Vineyards has only one acre currently producing grapes, and the term “quality over quantity” comes to mind after only a few tastes of their estate selections. Their first estate red wine, a 2006 Cabernet Franc, shows blackberry, cherry and anise. It’s lively with a silky texture. What’s surprising is that the ripe fruit aromas are similar to what I get out of Long Island cabernet francs, but with a lighter body. What it doesn’t have in mouth filling tannins it makes up for in balance.

Schulze Vineyards & Winery may have some of the oldest vinifera vines in the Niagara region, but in any given year they will probably release the youngest red wines on the trail. If you have the patience to hold their reds after they release them, then wines like their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon should reward you with ripe fruit flavors, smooth tannins and an old world style balance. The 2007s are still available and getting better every day.

Freedom Run Winery has 10 acres of vinifera planted with its first estate harvest in 2007. The 2005 Dry Riesling is a holdover from their first vintage release consisting of mostly purchased fruit. The riesling grapes were sourced from Chautauqua County and my early experiences were frankly not all that memorable. But by the middle of 2008, this wine had grown up and started showing sophistication and style. While never showing any of the floral bouquet qualities I get from many F.L. versions, this one brought notes of petrol and steel with its brisk fruit flavors.

Since the 2007 pinot noirs are just bottled or still in the barrel, much of the public hasn’t had the chance to taste them. Those who did were either lucky enough to stumble into Freedom Run when they had filled a lab flask for the tasting room or those that paid to taste 10 barrel samples from Warm Lake Estate. I am now convinced that there is certain terroir ideal for pinot noir in the region, and while I may not have been amped about pinot in the past, I am beyond thrilled that we have the chance to make Burgundian style red wines that show the unique terroir that I now call home.

Here’s to a great 2009! Cheers.