So I arrived in Canada yesterday afternoon and headed down to Pearl Morissette winery in Jordan, Niagara, where I am staying for a couple of nights. A few friends joined from Toronto, and we had a great in-depth tasting with Francois Morissette in the winery.
Francois is one of the most thoughtful and envisioned winegrowers I know. He’s convinced that in winegrowing, as in all walks of life, it takes a lot of time to learn. And he has a lot of wine wisdom. ‘Life has a way of organising itself, and balancing itself,’ says Francois, commenting on how wine doesn’t always behave the way you’d predict it to.
He’s convinced of the importance of lees, and so picks based on skin ripeness, because he wants the right lees to work with. This doesn’t mean that he always picks late, but sometimes he does. He’s not afraid of high pH. Sometimes Francois will use sulfur dioxide, sometimes not. He doesn’t use cultured yeasts, and he doesn’t like adding things to his wines, but he doesn’t call himself a natural winegrower, even though his wines are pretty natural.
Niagara experiences large vintage variation, which keeps any winegrower working here on their toes. The season starts late (the vines haven’t got going here yet, after a long winter), but I’d say it was a mistake to call Niagara a cool climate region, because once it gets going it’s actually pretty warm.
We tasted through the 2013s (which I haven’t taken many notes on, because these are still baby wines), and then back to 2010. Francois is pleased with the 2013 wines, which he describes as a ‘really classic’ vintage. They show purity and focus, and you get a sense that the wines here seem to be growing and developing with each new vintage.
Francois now has several options for bringing up his wines. As well as barrels of various sizes, he has some lovely old foudres from Alsace, some cement tanks and eggs from Sonoma Cast Stone, and – the latest addition – a couple of large clay qvevri from Georgia.
We began with Riesling. These are labelled ‘black ball’ because they have been refused VQA status a number of times, for ‘lacking typicity’. This is nuts: they are excellent dry Rieslings, but it seems that the VQA panel don’t consider dry Riesling to be typical in Niagara. It’s far too soon to be deciding what is typical in this wine region. Not getting VQA is a big deal here, because you lose a significant tax break, and so from now on for the domestic market Francois is going to remove ‘Riesling’ from the label, add a tiny drop of Chardonnay, and describe it as a white blend.
Pearl Morissette Riesling Black Ball 2012 Niagara, Canada
This is a powerful limey Riesling that’s intense, dry, mineral and citrus. It has lovely structure and weight, and really needs time to grow into itself. ‘It’s still a baby,’ says Francois Morissette. 93/100
Pearl Morissette Riesling Black Ball 2011 Niagara, Canada
Fermented in stainless steel (subsequent vintages are being made in foudres). This has intriguing notes of ripe apples, herbs, pear and spice, with a keen minerally, spicy edge and generous texture. 91/100
Chardonnay here is interesting. Francois has a legitimate complaint about the obsession with ever-leaner, early picked lemon juice Chardonnays, which are currently in vogue. In warmer years, his Chardonnays are quite rich, but he likens them to northern Rhone whites, where texture and richness is acceptable still.
Pearl Morissette Chardonnay 2012 Niagara, Canada
This is a rich, spicy Chardonnay with nice density. It’s rich, with a lovely broad texture, showing complex crystalline fruits. Francois acidified this with Riesling, because he won’t add tartaric acid to his wines. A lovely rich style from a warm year. 93/100
Pearl Morissette Chardonnay 2011 Niagara, Canada
A leaner vintage, but it has some ripe pear fruit, and nice apple, citrus, spice and nut characters. Lovely texture here with a fresh finish. 93/100
Pearl Morissette Chardonnay 2010 Niagara, Canada
This is creamy, ripe and textured with some hints of toffee. But there’s crystalline freshness on the palate: apparently this wine is tightening up with age. 91/100
Pinot Noir Rosé 2012 Niagara, Canada
This is made with no added sulfites. It is a deep pink/red/orange colour and has a warm mellow character, with notes of cherries and plums. There’s some richness here as well as a distinct spiciness. 90/100
Francois is honest about the challenges of making world class Pinot Noir in Niagara. ‘With Pinot I lose more and more,’ he says. ‘It is such a battle. With Cabernet Franc I am winning more and more.’
Pearl Morissette Pinot Noir 2012 Niagara, Canada
This is a cask sample.Fresh and focused with lovely ripe cherry and plum fruit, some spice and an attractive sappiness. Very bright with real potential. 91-93/100
Pearl Morissette Pinot Noir 2011 Niagara, Canada
Supple and fresh with lovely cherries and herbs, as well as some spicy, savoury notes. There’s a hint of bitter plum, too. Nice precision. 92/100
We tried a sample of the 2013 Gamay, which is amazingly bright and vivid, made with stems and no added sulfur dioxide. Such an interesting wine.
Cabernet Franc here is a star. The 2013 is amazingly bright and pure with a hint of greenness. It’s quite Loire-like. Francois says that in the warmer vintages, such as 10 and 12, his Cab Franc is more Bordeaux in style, whereas in cooler vintages such as 2011 and 2013, it’s more Loire-like. The 2012 is so big, he thinks he will release 2013 before it.
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc 2012 Niagara, Canada
This is still on its primary lees and has never been racked. ‘It just wants to age,’ says Francois. Dense, vivid, ripe and structured, with firm tannins. Needs time. 93/100
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc 2011 Niagara, Canada
Francois says that he had brett problems with this wine. He said these were caused by brett on the rachis of the stems, and he used whole cluster. But the wine seems to have integrated any brett character really well. This shows meaty, ripe black fruits with nice spicy density and some savoury, Barolo-like characters on the finish. 92/100
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc 2010 Niagara, Canada
From a warm vintage, this spent 19 months on its primary lees. Lovely gravelly spicy core to the sweet black fruits. Shows lovely precision and density. 94/100