There’s a good article in today’s Independent on the ‘Rock’n’roll’ sommeliers who are replacing ‘wine list dinosaurs’ in London’s restaurant scene. I’m not sure about the ‘rock’n’roll’ descriptor, but it’s great to see younger somms curating interesting wine lists and then selling these wines to punters. It’s just one symptom of the way that the London wine scene has changed for the better.
I was interviewed by Radio 4 earlier this week about the same topic, for a program that’s going to appear on the food show. Now I am not young – I’m definitely in old fart territory, but I try to get behind those who are pimping interesting wines, and I’m chums with some of the trendy young folk who are making all the waves, so I think that’s how I got included.
When I started writing about wine professionally, just over a decade ago, London wasn’t all that interesting for wine. There were some good wine shops, for sure, but there weren’t many interesting places that you could go and drink wine.
This has changed, and fast. And not only do many top restaurants have good wine lists now, but there are also some great wine bars. The list is growing. And two additions to the scene have been the enomatic dispenser and the Coravin (making it possible to sample smaller quantities of high end wines served in perfect condition).
Some of my favourite places? Sager & Wilde, Mission E2, Remedy, the wine bar at Wholefoods (Kensington), The Sampler, Brawn, Terroirs, Grain Store, Glasshouse, Chez Bruce, La Trompette… the list is a long one. Anyone else have favourites?
Julien Sunier is one of the rising stars of Beaujolais. He makes wines naturally from organically managed vineyards, and this is a brilliant expression of Gamay.
It’s from a single 2.4 hectare vineyards named ‘Niagara’. It’s a steep slope that can only be managed manually (he quips on his excellent website that those who work here are in top physical condition), and the soils are granite. It’s just such a fine, supple, detailed wine. This is why I love Gamay.
Julien Sunier Fleurie 2013 Beaujolais, France
12% alcohol. Aromatic and fine with floral, peppery raspberry fruit with some red cherries, and just a hint of earth. The palate is perfectly poisde: it’s not heavy, but it doesn’t lack concentration, with fine red cherries, pot pourri notes and a fine peppery spiciness, as well as some stony mineral notes. It’s a wine that combines joyful drinkability with complexity and a bit of structure, and given careful storage, I reckon this could develop. 94/100 (UK availability Berry Bros & Rudd and Roberson, £22)
Some Portuguese whites, tasted with lunch on the Lisbon coast. All impressive, and not too expensive.
Soalheiro Vinho Verde 2014 Portugal
This is benchmark Alvarinho from one of the top producers in the region. Lively precise pear and grapefruit flavours, showing nice focus with some spiciness. Precise with a lemony finish. 91/100
Redoma Branco 2013 Douro, Portugal
This is so good. Nuts, fennel, spice and pear with subtle wax and toast. Generous and a bit spicy with lovely texture. 92/00
Três Bagos Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Douro, Portugal
This Douro Sauvignon is turning into a bit of a classic, although it is not a typical wine from the region. Very fresh, sweet grassy blackcurrant and citrus fruit dominates. Very attractive and bright, with pear and peach richness. 90/100
Quinta do Passadouro Branco 2014 Douro, Portugal
A really pure, focused Douro white with citrus and pear, fruit, as well as a bit of mineral character. Lovely. 91/100
So, Sam Harrop’s new wine has just been released. It’s a Chardonnay from Waiheke Island, near Auckland, and it’s superb.
As many of you know, Sam is a buddy of mine (although, as you can imagine with most of my relationships, I probably like him more than he likes me). We have written a book together and there’s another currently underway on wine faults. It’s terribly difficult to review the wine from someone you know quite well, because there’s always the human tendency to help a mate out (not that Sam needs any assistance), and the attendant danger that critical faculties aren’t as sharp as they might be with a stranger’s wine.
So, with this conflict of interest fully declared, here is my honest review of the debut vintage of Harrop’s Waiheke plonk (he lives on the island full time now). I’m relieved to say that it’s a superb wine, all lean and detailed, and it will be sold in the UK through Berry Bros & Rudd.
Sam Harrop Cedalion Arae Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 Waiheke Island, New Zealand
20% new oak, 7.2 g/l acid, pH 3.1.Taut, fresh, complex and lemony. Very fine and spicy with a lovely mineral core. Some hints of peach and fennel with just a touch of matchstick. Incredible precision. 94/100
This is the text of a talk I am giving today in Lisbon. It’s titled: ‘natural wine: a fad or here to stay?’
Some historical context. Consider wine in antiquity. What would it have tasted like? Most of it would have been bad: in the absence of effective preservatives and frequently exposed to oxygen, it would have gone off quickly. The most sought-after wines would be young ones, just after vintage. Any fruitiness would quickly be lost to be replaced by the dullness of oxidation and sharp aromas of acetic acid from bacterial activity. In ancient times various substances were frequently added to wine in an attempt to preserve it, or – failing this – to mask the aromas of decay.
Even until fairly recently, wine would be shipped in barrel, and then dispensed from the same barrel in the destination market. The shorter the distance travelled, the better would be the wine, hence the emergence of some wine regions close to ports, or near large metropolitan areas. When bottles came along, these would have been filled in the destination market and re-used. The popularity of the great fortified wines Sherry, Port and Madeira was in large part due to their resilience. They reached destination markets in good shape and then retained much of their character for lengthy periods.
Look at Australia. Even until the 1960s, the wine industry was dominated by fortifieds. This partly reflected consumer taste preferences of the time. But it’s also much easier to make fortified wine (bad microbes find it hard to thrive in 20% alcohol, and the wines tend to be tougher in the face of oxygen), and it survives varying and high ambient temperature storage better.
For much of history, people have had to make do with bad wine. Great wine, in part, was wine that didn’t taste bad. This is an important historical perspective. If we were to take a time machine back 2000 years, I doubt we’d have a lot of great wine experiences. [We'd certainly have some 'interesting' ones, though.]
Modern wine: creating an opportunity for natural wine
Shift forwards to the modern day wine industry. A number of advances have given us a baseline of largely fault-free, fruity commercial wines. We take these for granted, but take one of these bottles to ancient Greece or Rome, and it would be highly prized.
First, the use of sulfur dioxide as an antimicrobial agent, and to protect wine from the ill effects of limited oxygen exposure. This widespread use of this preservative made a huge difference to wine quality. Second, the management of fermentation, both through understanding the role of yeasts and bacteria, and also through the advent of temperature control. Third, greater understanding of the role of oxygen in the fermentation and ageing process, which has allowed winemakers to preserve fruit flavours in wines. Together, these interventions have given us the ability to make fruity, appealing commercial wines. Further additions to the winemaking toolkit – advances in enzymes, filtration, fining and stabilization – have added another layer of control. More recently, the development of alternative bottle closures has allowed winemakers to progress further: these new closures are fault free and allow control of post-bottling oxygen exposure, and they have put pressure on the cork industry to clean up its act.
So, to my first point. It is only because of the advances in modern winemaking, pretty much all of which have been positive for consumers, that space was created for the natural wine movement to emerge.
How did ‘natural wine’ begin? We’ll discuss definitions in a moment, but while we are thinking historically, let’s glance backwards to the roots of this trend. They lie in the Beaujolais wine region, and the work of reknowned wine scientist Jules Chauvet. Chauvet, a fourth generation winemaker from La Chapelle-de-Guinchay, was a thinker, and one of the things he thought deeply about was eliminating sulfur dioxide use in winemaking. This is an important perspective, because it is in the winery setting that natural wine was born, and to this day the emphasis in the movement is what takes place in the cellar, not the vineyard.
Chauvet was most active between the 1940s and 1960s, but the natural wine movement, gestated then, took a long time to catch on. In many respects it is a retrograde movement, responding to the all but unstoppable tide of modern winemaking technology with its arsenal of additions and gleaming stainless steel. It’s a reaction against control. There’s the issue of agency: who makes the wine? Is it something that is under human control – an idea that is reflected in the term ‘winemaker’? Or is it a natural process, merely guided or stewarded by the ‘winegrower’?
I’m not a social commentator, but I suspect part of the momentum towards natural wine is the nostalgia for a vanished, golden age that never was. But there is more to it than this. The reason that natural wine has caught on so strongly is because of flavour. There’s something distinctive and elegant about many natural wines, and this is what drew me to them in the first place. The best have an elegance that conventional wines only tend to acquire with age.
So the roots of the modern natural wine movement are in Beaujolais. Inspired by Chauvet’s teaching and experimentation, a group of Beaujolais growers decided to try eliminating sulfur dioxide during elevage. Beaujolais winemaking makes this a less risky process than it might be in other wine regions. The style of fermentation – carbonic maceration of intact whole bunches – allows alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation to occur alongside each other, so there is no dangerous gap between the two in which bad microbes can flourish. The wine is also, to some extent, protected from oxidation by the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. Add in the safety of relatively low pH, and we have conditions where some of the risks of working sans soufre are mitigated.
So how do we define natural wine? Is it all about sulfur dioxide? Not entirely, but this is the one additive that is hard to kick. There is no precise definition of ‘natural’, but if we were to try our best to come up with one, it would look something like this:
No (or minimal) sulfur dioxide added during the fermentation process
Minimal (or no) sulfur dioxide added at bottling
No added yeasts or bacterial
No acid adjustment
Or to put it in a more positive way, natural winegrowers allow fermentation to proceed without any additions, and then bottle the wines after natural clarification and settling with only minimal sulfur dioxide additions.
Here we encounter our first problem. According to this definition, a good number of the world’s great wines are natural (or very close to it), yet aren’t included in the natural wine movement. Wine is a pretty natural product, and yet to label a subset of wines as ‘natural’ implies that the rest of the wine world is in some way unnatural.
Alongside this definition of natural wine, it’s common to find shared characteristics among a subset of natural wines. Practitioners tend to avoid new oak, and many avoid small oak barrels altogether, opting instead for larger barrels and also clay and concrete containers. Many are experimenting with amphorae, tinajas and qvevri, finding a harmony between their wines and clay vessels of fermentation and elevage.
Rather than imposing a definition, it’s probably best to think of the natural wine movement as an unofficial alliance of producers who are trying to make wines as naturally as possible. The qualities that they value as a group are several, although natural wine is not a homogeneous movement and there are many different ways that naturalness is expressed, both in process and also in results. The first quality is that of elegance. The antithesis of natural wine is the international-style red wine so beloved of US critics: wines with concentrated, powerful, sweet fruit, supported by plenty of oak, usually with high alcohol and often with soft, plush tannins. Many natural red wines are lighter in colour with much more subtle flavours, and often some leafy, sappy greenness (although it depends which region the wine comes from). Good natural acidity is prized. For white wines, interestingly many are deeper in colour than their conventional counterparts, with acidity once again considered a virtue. Then there’s the subset of skin-fermented white wines which are known as orange wines. This is a relatively new and expanding category of wines, offering very interesting aromas and textures that are quite unlike those found in ‘normal’ whites. Another quality that is celebrated is that of somewhereness: the natural wine folk strive to make wines that have a sense of place, expressing their terroirs as best they can.
Over the last decade, the natural wine movement has grown considerably, and is now global. Most wine-producing countries have a set of producers who would badge themselves ‘natural’, and who would take part in natural wine fairs. Most of these producers operate on a small scale, and they frequently work in wine regions outside the established classic fine wine areas, often because vineyards are cheaper in these regions.
There are some natural wine hotspots. The Loire Valley would be one, along with Alsace, the Languedoc and Beaujolais. Natural wine isn’t just French: it’s also quite big in Italy (especially outside the famous areas), and is beginning to take off in Spain and Australia. As well as taking part in the same wine fairs, these natural producers will often share importers: most countries have one or two specialist natural wine agency businesses. Often, the movement has been driven by the wine bar scene. In particular, Paris is now chock full of wine bars specializing in these wines, and London isn’t all that far behind.
An influential niche
In the grand scheme of things, natural wine is still a niche movement. But it has grown significantly, and has had an impact on the wine world bigger than its size would suggest. It has encouraged mainstream winemakers to reconsider some of their practices, and to attempt to work with less reliance on additions. A significant shift is that many are now thinking about picking earlier. They’ve grown a bit tired of the sweet jammy fruit that long hang time achieves, along with the need to add back the acidity that has been lost in this wait for sur maturite. There’s definitely a move away from dark, jammy, alcoholic reds in the wine world, and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?
There are valid criticisms of natural wine, though. We’ve already mentioned the lack of a definition, and the way that the term ‘natural’ implies that other wines are unnatural. It’s a process focused concept, which is another weakness. Rather than judging the results, it assumes that if a process is followed, then good quality will be the outcome. In this sense, it resembles its enemy: industrial wine, which is also production focused.
With this emphasis on the production process and the interventions and additions that aren’t added, it is possible for natural wines can lose their sense of place and taste more of the production process than the place they came from.
Problems with natural wine
This brings us onto the issue of faults. Working without the control and safety nets available to conventional winemakers requires great skill and often a little luck. It is more difficult and requires greater attention on the part of the winegrower to do nothing (or very little) if the results are to be good. There are, clearly, good natural wines and bad ones, and a spectrum of wines in between these poles. The main faults found in natural wines are oxidation and Brettanomyces, but reduction (volatile sulfur compounds) are also a common issue, often in conjunction with reduction and/or Brettanomyces. The interesting thing, though, about these three faults is that they are complex, and can be good at certain levels and in some contexts. Working more naturally can often be a route to greater terroir expression because the hand of the winemaker is lighter. But taken too far, or if insufficient attention is paid to the wine, and faults can obscure the vineyard origins – sadly, some natural wines taste more of natural wine than they do their vineyard or the variety/varieties they are made from.
It can also be an ideological movement with a dogmatic approach and an inability to enter into dialogue with those who think differently. Naturalness is important, but, not for its own sake, and this is sometimes overlooked by practitioners. If we like the natural approach, it is because of the good results that it brings when it is applied well.
But the biggest problem is that natural wine can often be a niche movement, failing to separate out interesting non-natural wines from boring industrial wines. We are fortunate: we are living in a very interesting age, where there are lots of really interesting wines available. Yes, commercial/commodity wine can seem a bit boring, but viewed in the context of history, we are lucky that there is much less bad wine available – the overall standard of winemaking has risen considerably. Alongside this development, more places than ever are now making interesting wines of personality. What we see now is the emergence of a generation of well-travelled, skilled winemakers who are prepared to question their approach. As I travel the wine world I find plenty of curious, open minded and innovative winegrowers, many of whom really strive to express the vineyard origins of their wine in an interesting way. A good number of them have been influenced by the natural wine movement, and want to add less and intervene less than the previous generation did, if this will help them achieve their goals.
There is, however, a prevailing sense of pragmatism. Many will still intervene, and add things, if this is the only route to expressing their vineyard site in an intelligent manner. When faults obscure site, then it’s time to step in.
A fad, or here to stay?
So, to address the question: is natural wine a fad, or is it here to stay?
I have argued that this niche movement was in large part a child of its times. It began, and has thrived, because of the context of the larger global wine industry: one in which improved understanding of wine technology and a sophisticated winemaking toolkit put clean, consistent wines into the hands of ordinary people. At the same time, it allowed winemakers a level of control at the high end that resulting in the hand of the winemaker being dominant, to the point where site expression was frequently lost.
Natural wine was a response to this, and acted as a signpost that alerted the new generation of winemakers of the folly of this modern approach. In this sense it has been important, and has had an effect beyond its niche. But I feel we are now entering the post-natural wine era. Interesting, authentic wines are being made by conventional winegrowers. Curious, intelligent consumers see beyond the limitations of the process-oriented natural wine approach. Smart winemakers realise that taking a considered, more natural approach is a route that may result in more interesting wine, but only to a point, and the judicious use of additions and interventions can sometimes result in a wine that better expresses site or winemaker intention (be that good or evil).
No doubt natural wine fairs will continue, but the movement will soon have lost its important role. It’s job is done, for now. We should be grateful for the questions it has caused the wine world to ask itself, whether or not we agree with its stance. We should forgive it its dogma and intolerance: better to have people who care, even if they sometimes go too far, than people who are indifferent. And we should celebrate the diversity and richness it has brought to the wider wine community. It would be unfair to describe natural wine as a fad. Many of its practitioners are brave, skilled and visionary, and we should respect them for these qualities. But as a stand alone movement? We are about to enter the post-natural wine movement, and I predict that this somewhat divisive, ill defined term will gradually be replaced by others, such as ‘real’, ‘raw’ and ‘authentic’.
I was staying overnight in Toronto before flying home early morning. So I hooked up with Nicholas Pearce (above), a wine agent and negociant, for an evening.
We started off in Archive, a seriously nice wine bar with an epic, well-priced wine list that takes Ontario seriously. It’s a lovely space, and we sat for quite a while trying lots of different wines.
Lailey Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Niagara, Canada
I don’ think Sauvignon has much future in Ontario but this is good. Fruity pure and lively with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Quite mineral with nice precision. 90/100
Charles Baker Ivan Riesling 2014 Niagara, Canada
Riesling: Niagara’s best white grape? Discuss. Lively and intense with nice lemony fruit – so pure and linear. Very high acid. Lovely lemony core. 92/100
Nicolas Pearce Chardonnay Cherry Valley 2013 Prince Edward County, Canada
This is Nicholas Pearce’s own wine from the County, and it’s one new barrel plus three used, with a bit of stainless steel in there too. Mealy, toasty, slightly nutty pear and white peach fruit. Very linear with a mineral core. Has richness but also precision. 92/100
Lailey Zweigelt 2013 Niagara River, Niagara, Canada
A lovely digestible red that’s fresh and juicy with cherry and raspberry fruit. Bright and detailed with nice sappiness. 91/100
Pearl Morissette Chardonnay 2011 Niagara, California
Richly textured with notes of pear, spice, nut and fennel. Quite broad in the mouth and has a warm intensity. Smooth yet fresh and mineral. 92/100
Pearl Morissette Spectateur Cabernet Franc 2012 Niagara, California
This is, apparently, a cuvee that Francois thinks the Wine Spectator might like, with new oak barrels. It’s actually really nice, with a lovely sweet ribena/cassis nose and some spice and ginger notes. Very lively, silky, and supple, with nice fresh fruit 92/100
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc 2011 Niagara, Canada
The regular Cab Franc cuvee which is meaty, vivid, and spice grip raspberry cherry complex and intriguing. 92/100
Hinterland Ancestrale, Prince Edward County, Canada
Full pink in colour, with sweet cherries and plums and nice juiciness. Just 8% alcohol. Juicy and fruity with good acidity. Just delicious. 89/100
Leaning Post Merlot 2010 Niagara, Canada
This is fabulous. Spicy, meaty, juicy with nice plums and blackberries lovely depth and spiciness – juicy and spicy and with lovely richness. 93/100
Yes: a Gamay list at Archive!
Skin and Bones, with its Verrmouth list
The second part of the evening was spent at Skin and Bones, which is run by Daniel Clarke. A lovely place, with great food, a really good wine list, and a Vermouth list, too. I loved the space, as well.
Nicholas and Daniel
Some of the wines we tried included the following:
Pinot Bianco Sirmian Nals Magreid 2013 Alto Adige, Italy
Lemony, pure, pear spice a bit of pith great acidity. Quite focused. 92/100
Marques de Murrieta Capellania Rioja Blanco 2009 Spain
A full flavoured, complex, nutty white Rioja with spicy vanilla, herbs and sweet pear fruit. Lovely weight and depth. 92/100
Pearce Predhomme Pinot Gris Premiere Cuvée 2014 Willamette Valley, Oregon
Sweetly textured, spicy nice grapiness. Fresh and expressive with lovely pear fruit. 90
Balgera Valgella Riserva 2001 Valtellina Superiore DOCG, Italy
Sweet lifted black fruits here, with spice, black cherry, plums and nice grip – silky with lovely finesse. And a meaty edge. Superb. 93/100
Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2012 Northern Rhone, France
This is my happy place with wine. Peppery, fine and expressive with vivid cherries, plums and olives. So pure and fine. Juicy with notes of iodine, meat and pepper. 94/100
This went very well with a couple of dishes, including this grilled beef tongue. And we also tried the local Dillon’s gin, which is very impressive. A great way to end the Canada trip.
If I were to set wine exams, I think I’d ask some rather different questions. Let’s think of a few.
1. Tell me about a wine that you once fell in love with?
Now this is a vague question that isn’t particularly well defined. But we’re good with that, because we want people to give an answer that is personal. What does it mean to ‘fall in love’, and how can this concept be applied to wine? Is it an intellectual state? (Not really.) Is it something that can be planned? (Not really.) Is it something that happens to us unexpectedly? (For many people, I suspect yes.) Is it something instantaneous, or something that grows on us? (I would guess the latter.) Is it something transformative? (Yes, for sure.) Can wine grow on us, and over what timescale? (One sip, one glass, half a bottle?) Do we need repeated experiences with the same wine in order to fall for it? And what role does the context in which the wine drink alter the likelihood of falling in love with it? We like this question because if you have never fallen in love with a wine you shall not pass this exam.
2. How is it that (wine region X or vineyard Y) is expressed in a glass of wine?
A wine is of a place. This question is an attempt to see whether you can make a good case for how a particular place is expressed in a wine. We want you to explore this ill-defined and yet vitally important aspect of wine. Because a wine cannot be good or great in and of itself, divorced from this concept. You can’t state that an unidentified glass of wine in front of you is great unless you know where it comes from. It can be tasty; it can be mesmerizing; it can be complex. But a vital aspect of the wine – its place – is absent until it is known. Let me try to illusrate this confusing-sounding statement. Yesterday I drank a superb Cornas from Vincent Paris. I was served it blind and guessed it to be from the northern Rhone, because it captured what I thought to be northern Rhone-ness so well. So while I tasted it blind, it was a very tasty wine; once its origin was confirmed, it was a great wine. So in this question we want you to make suggestions as to how the somewhereness of the place in question is expressed in the glass. It is a profound question and, of course, quite impossible to answer exactly, but it’s the essence of the flawed answer you give (for every answer will surely be flawed) that tells us more about you and enables us to see whether you should pass this exam.
As an aside: we are all flawed. It comes with being human. So strive for perfection if you will, and make yourself (and, no doubt) the people around you unhappy. Of accept your flawed condition, be gracious with yourself and your flawed fellow journeyers (for, in this respect, we are all alike), and he happy to be the best ‘you’ that you can manage. You will likely find that quitting this doomed quest for perfection gives you the breathing space to make some real progress in being the better you. So, a general principal: in setting our exam we are not looking for the right answers, but really good flawed answers.
Back to the question. There is also the sense that the vine is connected to a place very intimately, through roots, which weave through the soil and rocks and soil microlife, and interrogate them. Wine scientists hate the term minerality, but it is such a lovely concept (even if it is picture language; please don’t steal our minerality from us, mean geologists) because it captures this idea that wine comes from grapes that come from the soil and the sky of a specific location, and as long as no one messes around too much in the winery, we have this spirit of a place in a glass.
3. Can you discuss time as it relates to wine?
Just as wine is of a place, it is of a time. There are many ways that time relates to wine. First of all, the obvious one: vintage. You drink a wine that was birthed in a growing season, often many years ago. And then there’s the way that a wine changes with time. The gestation period in the vineyard; the birth in the winery; the childhood in the cellar. Then, the turbulent adolescence of bottling, and the coming to maturity. Finally, the slow decline, followed by death. It teaches us something of what it is to be human. Our egos can’t easily handle the thought of the universe without us, but for a very long time we weren’t here, and soon we will be gone. While we are here, we join in with the circle of life, we pass on the baton to the next generation, then we bow out. That’s how it is, and there is beauty and profundity in this process. In western egoic societies we just can’t handle this. Instead, we fear growing old, we worship youth, and we marginalize the elderly. It’s quite wrong, but it seems so normal to us.
Wine also changes in the glass or decanter, we change with time as we approach the same wine, and wines taste different on different days (is that us, or the wine, or both?) So with this question, we want to see evidence that students have thought a little more deeply about wine and life for them to pass the exam.
For now, that’s all. I will try to think of some more questions. I think I would set the same questions every year. If they are good, why change them? After all, you can’t swot up to get the ‘right’ answers in advance. It is the nature of the answer you give that tells us about you, and there is an authentic answer for each person. You can’t learn to answer the sort of questions we will ask. And if you are the sort of person that will pass our exam, you will be thinking about these questions all the time anyway.
One of the side benefits of judging the National Wine Awards of Canada in Niagara Falls was the chance to spend some quality time with big water. Below is a short film of the Falls, four ways – up close, by boat, by helicopter, and at night. They really are remarkable, and you can get incredibly close to them. A great life experience for sure.
Just two visits today. But they were good ones. First, Thomas Bachelder, for the second time on this trip, and that’s no bad thing.
Thomas is a talented dude, and great to geek out with. We visited his cellar, right next to Fielding and Hidden Bench. It’s not a big or glamorous facility, but great things are made here. Thomas showed me some of his excellent Oregon and Burgundy wines, but the emphasis was on what he’s making from Niagara.
‘I’m the most proud of Niagara,’ he says of his wines. ‘It has limestone; I’m Canadian; but mostly because it could be a serious contender to Burgundy if we had more Pinot and Chardonnay planted.’ He acknowledges that when he’s drinking, he finds Burgundy best, but Niagara can come close.
We tasted widely. Highlights include the Lowrey Pinot Noir 2012, which is from a vineyard in St David’s Bench that was the first to be planted with Pinot Noir in the region, back in 1983. And here was the stunning vertical of Wismer Chardonnays from 2010, 2011 and 2012. All of these are from a portion of the vineyard called Wingfield. In 2013 he made two Wismers: 1 from the Wingfield Block and 2 from the Foxcroft Block, and we tried both Wismer 1 and 2 from this vintage. 1 has a slight edge.
Then we tried a lot of barrels. This was super-interesting: tasting barrels with Thomas is a great educational experience.
The second visit was to Riesling specialist, Cave Spring Cellars. They have been pioneers of this variety in Niagara. Established by the Pennachetti family in 1973, the Cave Spring Vineyard in the Beamsville Bench, nestled under the escarpment cliffs, had some of the region’s first Riesling, planted in 1978.
I met with winemaker and partner in the business Angelo Pavan to look around the vineyards. This is a site that gently slopes and allows the cold air to drain away like water, but despite the favoured location, there was still quite a bit of winter damage. Interestingly, some varieties were almost untouched – Gamay, Riesling and Cabernet Franc – while others were hammered – in particular, Sauvignon Blanc.
Then we joined with Len Pennachetti and assistant winemaker Gabe Demarco to taste the range. The Rieslings are all really good, ranging from the inexpensive but delicious Dry Riesling 2013 to the small production CSV, which is still affordable at $30, representing excellent value. I really liked the Adam Steps Riesling, which shows lovely balance and good complexity.
‘Riesling is definitely growing,’ says Angelo, talking of the progress of this variety in Niagara. ‘The area is so suited to Riesling. There are so few places on the planet you can do it. It works well in all vintages and comes through the winters.’
As well as Riesling, they also make attractive Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, but it’s the Riesling that is the star. It accounts for around 35 000 cases of the 60 000 case production at Cave Springs.
Another day of visits. And they were all good. First of all, I headed off to Flat Rock cellars, hosted by winemaker Jay Johnston. Flat Rock are Riesling specialists, but also make very good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And the wines are very reasonably priced.
After two brutal winters they’ve decided to replant 24 acres of their 69, because certain bits of the vineyard got hit very hard by the cold damage. Both the regular Riesling and also the Nadja’s Riesling are very pure, and we tried an older bottle of the Nadja’s, the 2004, which was lovely. The total bargain here is the regular 2013 Pinot Noir, which for just $20 seriously over-delivers.
Then it was off to Redstone. This is a relatively new project by Moray Tawse, and I had lunch at their brand new, beautiful restaurant with winemaker Paul Pender (pictured below; he’s the Tawse winemaker, but their team are also involved in Redstone).
They bought the vineyard and have been making wines here since the 2010 vintage, and the highlights here were the 2010 Merlot and the 2011 Syrah, which were just superb. It was a really enjoyable lunch.
Ilya Senchuk and Ryan Corrigan, Leaning Post
The final visit was a really good one. Leaning Post is a boutique winery owned by Ilya Senchuk, who works with small, interesting vineyards from some of the best terroirs in Niagara, out of a beautiful small winery in Winona, right at the eastern end of the wine region.
The wines here are great, with lots of personality. I really liked the Gamay, the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and the Riesling. But the real star was the Keczan Vineyard Syrah: 12 in bottle and 13 from barrel were quite profound.
These visits were eye-openers. I knew that Niagara was capable of making world class wine. It’s just there are so many people now doing this – not just a few. It’s a tough place to work from a climate point of view, but it seems that some of the leading terroirs are now beginning to emerge, and winegrowers are starting to recognize the particular talents of the top sites.