By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Escarpment Editor

WoTY While there were many notable wines released this year in the Niagara region, I chose mainly vinifera selections as the regional finalists based on the fact that all these wines are major accomplishments for such young vineyards and wineries.

You can’t help but notice that my picks for the best whites of the year are chardonnay heavy. It’s not a coincidence; we are in a cool climate and chardonnay seems to ripen consistently on the Escarpment bench land as well as on the lake shore.

The editors have been asked to write a bit about each of their selections, so here are a few words on each of my finalists:

Arrowhead Spring’s 2007 Chardonnay ($18) shows that owner-winemaker Duncan Ross has a knack for the grape. Even though this particular vintage is made from Finger Lakes fruit, it still has his signature citrus and spice notes that I associate with a well-balanced oaked chardonnay.

Eveningside Winery’s 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($18) is another oaked chardonnay that I can get behind. Randy Biehl gets a bit more body from his grapes and, like Arrowhead, he gives it just enough oak to add complexity.

Freedom Run Winery's 2008 Chardonnay ($19) (their first estate) is a naked version that makes me think that chardonnay grown on the upper bench of the Escarpment can bring complex notes of flint and chalk — reminiscent of Chablis – but with more body and depth.

Freedom Run gets another nod for its estate-grown Freedom Run Winery 2008 Riesling ($16). Given an arrested fermentation, this well-balanced Riesling bridges the gap between the dry and off-dry style. While not as perfumed as the average Finger Lakes Riesling, it boasts a concentration that I don’t find in many other New York versions.

Leonard Oakes Winery is the newcomer in this group and winemaker Jonathan Oakes has gotten some serious fruit flavor in this unoaked Leonard Oakes 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($17). Clean citrus and tropical aromas and a balanced mouth feel made this one stand out.

Arrowhead Spring just released this 2007 Reserve Meritage ($20) made from Finger Lakes fruit. Duncan’s reds always have a classy level of well-integrated oak. Because of its youth, this wine needed a few days to really open up for me, but when it did I was amazed at how it much complexity it showed.

Eveningside Winery’s 2007 Cabernet Franc ($22) is a testament to winemaker Randy Biehl’s patience and farming ability. He took gorgeously ripened grapes and gave them a gentle fermentation followed by an epic 28 months in used oak to produce a fruit-driven complex red with a first-class mouthfeel.

Freedom Run Winery’s 2007 Estate Cabernet ($25) is a blend of 65% cabernet franc and 35% sauvignon that is just still too young to assess its true potential. Regardless, black fruit aromas with sage and bell pepper invite you to taste its full body and graceful tannins.

Freedom Run’s 2008 Pinot Noir ($25) is a wine that will shatter any doubt that pinot noir belongs on the bench land of the Niagara Escarpment. Rich cranberry and raspberry aromas are complimented by serious pinot funk reminiscent of autumn leaves and moss. Its silky tannins and easy-drinking demeanor makes for a popular pinot noir.

Leonard Oakes Winery’s 2007 Meritage ($25) is a fine example of the fruit-driven, well-balanced style they are becoming known for. Soft tannins and red fruit flavors combine with a hint of vanilla to make for a pleasing red.

When you think of Niagara dessert wine you can’t help but talk about icewine. I chose two of the most interesting estate-grown versions in the region. First, Leonard Oakes Winery’s 2008 Vidal Ice Wine ($50) is everything you look for in ice wine. It goes beyond the focused apricot and honey flavor and includes some tangerine, mango and citrus. Sumptuous but not cloying, it keeps its sweetness in check with balanced acidity.

Schulze Vineyards & Winery’s 2008 Block Three Ice Wine ($50) is the most unique dessert wine I’ve ever had. Made from Catawba grapes frozen on the vine, this wine brings sweet-tart-like acidity to ice wine. Aromas of peach, apricot and citrus make this one vibrant and fresh.