The end of a growing season is always a natural time for reflection, and this year I find myself contemplating larger themes and looking for meaning amidst the rows and barrels. Inevitably, I come to the conclusion that I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend my days working on a family farm.
Life on a farm is all I’ve ever known. It has been the constant that has shaped my personal relationships, my career and my thoughts. Sure, there were brief times when I seriously considered other callings, but a sense of duty and the love of a challenge eventually superseded any alternative ambitions.
My thoughts on farm life, stewardship and succession have evolved through the years as I’ve grown and matured. A young child can’t help but be ignorant to the challenges of succession, and is likely to perceive the passing down of land as a given part of the family story, the way things have always worked. But with each passing year and vintage, one becomes increasingly aware of how tenuous and vulnerable a farm can be, and how relatively small a window of time each steward occupies in the grand scheme of things.
I draw inspiration from the previous generations and land inhabitants whom I envision living a more mindful, “in the moment” lifestyle, one that I strive to emulate. Enjoying the here and now can add fulfillment to our lives, while devoting enough time to future planning is our moral obligation. The balance between these two is the burden that can weigh heaviest on farmers. One of my biggest faults is worrying too much in the moment, which is not beneficial to either of these pursuits!
Fretting about the failure of a crop can sometimes blind me from the mind-nourishing aspect of vineyard work. Just being outside, genuinely endeavouring to help things grow should be considered a triumph, not whether your Pinot Noir is squeaky clean (although that would be a nice consolation). Working in a vineyard can be equal parts exercise, meditation and stimulation – a payoff, of sorts, for the sacrifices that accompany a year-round farm operation.
In short, 2023 marked a wonderful year of rejuvenation for our vineyard. Young blocks that had struggled to get established, finally flourished, while the older blocks that were decimated by cold-induced trunk damage returned to full production. The crops were bountiful and we experienced a dream September for ripening grapes that made up for a less than ideal summer. The wines show great promise!
So my resolution, as I set out to make the first pruning cuts of 2024, is to view time in the vineyard as the unrelenting yearly cycle that is made up of individual vintages whose varied characteristics are formed through memorable daily experiences, both positive and negative. In other words, life.
It is filled with tremendous volatility, but there is also comfort in it’s reliable churn.
It is perhaps unfair to compare and contrast the work that goes into growing Pinot Noir with that applied to other varietals, but that is exactly what I intend to do here.
The only time I don’t wake up thinking about Pinot Noir is the short window of time between bottling day (early April) and budbreak (late April) – a most joyous stretch that I cherish akin to The Masters each Spring. The other 11 months and change can only be described as an all out battle of wills that would provide a fitting test for even the “Tiger Woods” of grape growers. For the record, I’ve had my share of Greg Norman-esque collapses through the years.
In the Lowrey Vineyard, the cycle begins in December with the first pruning cuts of the season. Traditionally, we opt to prune our old Pinot block first each winter, as the vines usually winterize and harden off earlier than our other varietals. Excess wood is trimmed away from the vine until we are left with four canes to choose from, each housing 8-10 buds. Two of those four canes will be tied down and two left as insurance, to be removed after a successful budbreak in Spring.
Budbreak is always a nervous time, especially in early awakening varietals like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Minor frost damage is usually inevitable, so it becomes more about avoiding the killer frost. Windmills can be handy in this pursuit, but they are not the magic shield that they are sometimes made out to be.
Once the frost worries subside, the real fun begins. I would estimate that I average at least a couple of hours each day through the growing season tending to Pinot Noir. It is at this point where every vine becomes a puzzle that needs to be solved, but with a solution that is constantly evolving based on the conditions. Pinot Noir vines grow very vigorously, and it is easy to get behind in taming the growth should you get complacent. Recent research has shed light on the benefits of early season basal leaf removal in berry set of Pinot Noir, so that is now a focal point along with regular thinning practices. The ultimate goal is establishing proper shoot spacing, cluster load and berry set prior to bloom phase.
As the canopy takes shape, the bloom through veraison stage shifts focus to disease prevention and maintenance. Depending on the day, I might be tinkering with shoot positioning, removing leaves, cluster thinning or hedging. Although all varietals have need of these jobs in varying degrees, no varietal demands the attention to detail required in Pinot Noir. It is reflected in the make or break nature of Pinot, which is certainly not for the faint of heart. I may have alluded to this once or twice over the years.
The “easy” stage of Pinot growing ends abruptly, as the berries fully colour up and start to accumulate enough sugar to entice a shocking number of pests to have a taste. It is a time when the tightness of the cluster, and any trapped debris within, can pose a potential threat of Botrytis. It is important to be especially vigilant with both your eyes and nose when walking through the vineyard on the hunt for any signs of rot. If found, the offending clusters are removed promptly to prevent disease spread via fruit flies. This constant daily search for rot can take a mental toll, so I make sure to break up my days by working in easier varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.
The final gauntlet of Pinot Noir growing revolves around when to harvest the crop. I’ve written about this agonizing decision many times in the past, but there are so many variables at play it doesn’t hurt to review. Every vintage presents a new set of parameters that you must adapt to: cluster tightness, skin thickness, crop load, weather conditions, disease pressure, seed ripeness, flavour development, berry composition (sugars and acids) and stem ripeness (should you choose to include whole clusters in your fermentations).
Once a picking date is settled upon, or more likely forces itself upon you, we now enter the thorough Pinot Noir sorting process. Ours is three stage: a walkthrough visual inspection of every cluster in the rows we choose to harvest, a second closer inspection of each cluster by the hand-picking crew and, finally, a third rotten berry inspection en route to the destemmer. Only then can I feel confident that the fruit we’ve worked so hard to keep clean and ripen is fit to be vinified.
The 2020 vintage was characterized by an early budbreak and some long stretches of the hot and dry conditions that winemakers dream about. There were the usual challenges (detailed above), but ultimately the fruit came in ripe and beautiful on September 18th (21.6 degrees Brix, 7.0 g/L TA). Our fruit was harvested from rows 2-5 of our oldest vines and rows 8 and 15 from the slightly younger plantings. Whole clusters were added to two separate bins (10%) and then filled with destemmed berries (90%). The clean fruit was allowed to soak in the bins for seven days before natural fermentation began.
Fermentations were punched down by hand three times daily, reached a peak temperature of 30C, and were dry after seven days. The new wines were pressed after a five-day post ferment maceration. Five French oak barrels were filled (20% new oak) and allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation over the next couple of months. The wine spent 24 months in oak before bottling 122 cases on April 6th, 2023.
I am in love with this Pinot Noir right now, mainly due to its striking aromatics of ripe cherry, black currant jam and truffle/mushroom. It is very tempting to advise enjoying it now, but I’m sure it will evolve and improve over the next few years. If you like a Pinot that exhibits a bit of youthful tannin, then by all means give it a go!
2022 “Jean’s Block” Riesling
There is just something all around comfortable about Riesling. From its reliability in the vineyard to its versatility in the winery, I can’t help but get the warm and fuzzies when I think of this varietal.
Sure, there are the inevitable yearly Botrytis issues, but after facing those conditions so often it starts to become part of the routine and a subtle component of the wine.
The 2022 vintage marked the earliest harvest date we’ve ever had for this varietal – September 16th. This was mainly due to the light crop in Jean’s Block, approximately 25% of our normal yield. It is generally preferable for Riesling vines to carry a slightly higher crop load than our other aromatic white varietals, in an effort to maintain acidity through ripening. Therein lied the challenge in 2022, and we opted to harvest earlier than normal to preserve the delicate flavours and acidity (18.0 degrees Brix, 10.4 g/L TA).
I employed the usual regimen of two separate fermentation tanks, each inoculated with a different yeast strain (W15 and X5). I love the dynamic complexity that using these two yeasts provides. The X5 tank shows beautiful, intense tropical and floral aromas, while the W15 tends to have more of a traditional Riesling profile of green apple, pear and peach. Together they are fermenting bliss!
Fermentations were carried out cool (10C) for about a month until the wines tasted balanced at a specific gravity of 1.005. The tanks were then blended and allowed to bulk age until bottling on April 6th 2023. Total production was 126 cases and final alcohol was 10.5%.
The knockout aromatics of this Riesling are the real standout of this vintage. I tend to lose myself a bit while nosing this wine before the crisp natural acidity snaps me back to. This Riesling has become my go to wine for settling in to watch a Leafs playoff game after putting the kids to bed. I can’t think of anything more comfortable than that…
2020 Five Rows Syrah
“Could this be right?”
I was astonished when I looked into the eyepiece of my refractometer and saw a line between 25 and 26 degrees Brix. In an instant, I had officially vacated my Syrah comfort zone and entered some kind of wild outback of unknown possibilities.
Having just collected and prepared my first berry sample of 2020 Syrah, I had hopes of 22-23 degrees Brix based on the way the berries tasted. The staggering results of the test meant the grapes had accumulated much higher sugar than we had ever seen before and were likely ready to harvest anytime, pending TA and pH analysis.
In the lead up to harvest, the sugar content of berries, measured in degrees Brix, is just one of several variables we monitor to give us an idea of overall ripeness. Depending on the varietal, I generally use degrees Brix as a gauge of when to start paying attention to more important parameters like acidity, seed ripeness, skin consistency and flavour development. Syrah has an interesting way of showing intense pepper flavour early in development that resolves into a combination of dark fruit and less intense pepper at peak ripeness. In 2020, we were deep into the dark fruit zone by the time I started sampling.
One culprit for the high sugar result was the noticeable onset of berry shrivel. In vintages where the hot and dry conditions persist into the fall, berries can start to shed water and “raisin” a bit. This is particularly common in our Syrah vineyards and usually a good indicator of when they should be picked.
It was thus decided to hand harvest 850kg of fruit from our Clone 7 block and 850kg from our Clone 100 block on October 14th. The sample proved accurate as the Syrah came in testing 25.8 degree Brix. Only after consulting literature on fermenting must with high sugar content, did I feel confident that I could handle these conditions. The increase in alcohol produced by the excess sugar can cause havoc with yeast struggling to finish a fermentation, so selecting proper yeast strains and nutrients, and managing fermentation temperature became even more critical than usual.
Following a five day cold soak, the two bins were allowed to start fermenting naturally for the first third of sugar depletion. The Clone 100 bin was then inoculated with RX60 and the Clone 7 with FX10, to aid in achieving dryness. As expected, the fermentations were long (10 days) and ran pretty hot (34C), but did finish nicely. It was apparent in tasting at the press tray that this new wine was something different and potentially very special. Malolactic fermentation took place in four French oak barrels (25% new oak) where the wine was allowed to age for 24 months, before blending and bottling on April 6th, 2023.
One thing I love about making Syrah in a climate like Niagara is the vast array of wine styles possible based on vintage variation. The core terroir elements (pepper, floral notes, smoked meat, dark chocolate) are always present, but there appears to be an endless continuum of fruit components and savoury textural elements based on the vintage. As a youthful winemaker, I used to worry that this meant inconsistent wines, but now I fully embrace the differences. Enjoying a 2019 and 2020 Syrah side by side can illustrate this wonderful contrast in styles.
The 2020 Five Rows Syrah is a bold, ripe wine; exhibiting flavours, textures and colour that probably make it a bit of a one-off based on previous vintages. For those who prefer a more mellow Syrah, you may want to give it some time in bottle (3+ years).
The story of Cabernet Sauvignon on our farm dates back to the mid 1990s, when my parents were looking for potential vinifera varietals to plant that would best suit our vineyard site. They had had success with Pinot Noir, but were looking for something perhaps a little less mercurial that could optimize the warmer conditions they enjoyed on the St. David’s Bench.
I think it’s safe to say that the benchmark for Niagara Cab Sauv at the time was John Marynissen, who happened to be a good friend of my grandfather, Howard Sr. I’m sure my parents were influenced by the success of John’s wines in some way, if only to give them the confidence that this late ripening grape could make a great wine in the right hands.
Our oldest Cab Sauv block was planted in 1998, and began to produce a decent crop by the turn of the millennium. The block has its share of eccentricities, including varying row widths and lengths, as well as a mixture of clones. It also represents the last block my grandfather helped us plant, a treasured memory that I will always carry with me. Shortly before we harvested the first crop, he expressed to my Dad in his uniquely humble, understated way, “Howie, you’ve really got something here.” It is a sentiment that still rings true to this day.
The 2020 Cab Sauv is a wine that validates the legacy of that fateful decision to take a chance on this varietal. The vintage conditions in 2020 were the perfect recipe to unlock the potential ripeness of Cab Sauv in Niagara. Having said that, there is still an underlying elegance to this wine that belies its bold exterior. The aromas are intense, invoking notes of black currant, cherry, violets and vanilla. Given the requisite time to fully mature, this could be a wine that we look back on as a benchmark among those made from our fruit.
2022 Five Rows Pinot Gris
When our newest block of Pinot Gris was planted back in 2019, the original plan was to allow it to establish over the next couple of vintages then flourish into a full crop in 2022. Mother Nature had other plans, and those vulnerable young vines were forced to bear the brunt of a brutal winter.
The idea in founding a second block of Pinot Gris (Clone 53, rootstock 3309) was to provide a complimentary 8-row parcel to our original planting, which was starting to show signs of decline in both yield and vine health. The two blocks would co-exist for some time until the older vines needed to be pulled out altogether, hopefully later than sooner.
As it turned out, the only fruit available from either block in 2022 was that provided by the sucker shoots sprouting up from the bottom of the vine. Any clusters provided by these future trunks are a bonus, but can be challenging to keep clean growing so close to the ground. The number one concern for the vines at this stage is re-establishing trunks for next season, so this bonus fruit inevitably becomes a bit of an afterthought through the growing season.
That low hanging fruit was hand harvested on September 14th, 2022. We ended up with about 45 picking boxes in total or 542kg to be exact. After whole cluster pressing, the juice yield was a whopping 370L. It was decided to ferment 220L in neutral French oak and 150L in tank, using X16 yeast. The fermentations were conducted at an average of 9C and stopped at a specific gravity of 0.997.
The small volume winemaking employed in crafting this wine brought me back to the early days of Five Rows. Something about having an entire year’s production housed in one barrel and a very small tank rekindled those initial feelings of anticipation I experienced when making my first Pinot Gris in our “new” barn some 15 years earlier.
In the end, I’m very happy that we undertook the effort to vinify that small amount of Pinot Gris, as it would have been very easy to let the birds or the wasps have their way with the tasty, sweet clusters. Sentimentally, this vintage will always mark the first time we blended the fruit from both of our Pinot Gris blocks into one wine. The result is a beautifully complex and compelling white wine, with typical Pinot Gris aromatics of pear, apple, peach and honey. The texture is delicate and the wine comes across slightly off-dry on the palate. Best enjoyed at 50-60F, or just above typical refrigerator temperature.
Please see my Five Rows Winemaker’s Journal for all future posts. Thanks for reading!
2022 Five Rows Sauvignon Blanc
If I learned one thing from the light crop year of 2022, it was to appreciate what you have and never take a full crop for granted.
In the Southern Ontario climate, it seems like just enough time passes between severe winterkill events to lull you into the false sense that a vineyard is invulnerable, and vines producing fruit is a given. Sometimes I even catch myself complaining about having to endure the laborious task of removing excess clusters – oh the humanity!
Suffice it to say, there was no such complaining in 2022. A myriad of events led to a depressing amount of trunk damage and vine death heading into the growing season. The main culprits, in my opinion, were the late season disease incidence in 2021 and the severely up and down nature of the subsequent winter.
What we were left with was 25% of a normal crop, much like the yields harvested in 2005 and 2015. The challenges of a light crop are many, with the most obvious being no room for error! Finding balance within a block, in terms of nutritional requirements, can prove very difficult when vines are bearing variable amounts of fruit or are dead altogether. A lighter crop will tend to ripen quicker as well, often times leading to issues with diminished acidity and overripe characters. Some vines even budded out promisingly, only to wither up later in the summer along with our false hopes.
With all that in mind, and given the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc within our winery portfolio, you can probably infer my feelings on the precious bit of fruit I was tending to in the summer of 2022. Thankfully, the growing season was excellent overall and very conducive to our needs. We were spared the usual blast of heat and humidity in the days leading to harvest, allowing the few hanging clusters a chance to ripen gracefully.
One odd phenomenon that came about was the noticeable increase in bird damage in our Sauvignon Blanc vineyard. The birds normally ignore the Sauv Blanc in favour of the adjacent Pinot Noir block, but they sure seemed to take a liking to those tasty golden berries in 2022. It marked the first time we had to apply netting as a means of protection. Upon reflection, it is surely the scarcity of fruit throughout the region that altered their feeding habits.
Our entire crop, 2478 kg, was harvested on September 13th. What it lacked in quantity, it certainly made up for in quality, as the fruit came in at 19.0 degrees Brix and 8.25 g/L TA.
84% of the juice was fermented in French oak (mainly neutral) and 16% in tank using Zymaflore X5 yeast. All vessels were fermented cool (9C) and stopped at an average specific gravity of 0.998, just slightly off dry. The finished wines were aged for another six months before blending. 177 cases were bottled on April 6th, 2023.
A noticeably riper and rounder version than previous vintages, there is also a crisp core to this wine that I find irresistible. Aromas include peach, lychee and pineapple with flavours of peach candy most prominent at this stage of its evolution. To that end, I am far more bullish on the notion of aging Sauv Blanc these days. We recently cracked a 2013 SB that blew me away, shattering my notion that aromatic Sauv Blanc is best enjoyed within a year or two of release. The fact that this wine could transform in such an interesting way after ten years in bottle, whilst maintaining its hallmark tropical fruit aromatics, was truly eye-opening. Who knew?
The 2019 Five Rows Pinot Noir is still in its infancy, but it has the potential to become one of the most exciting expressions of our terroir that we’ve released to date. The journey to attaining this precocious potential was harrowing at times, but ultimately very rewarding.
Every year, there comes a time when I am at my wits’ end with Pinot Noir. To those around me it’s a predictable and annoying phase that I’m convinced they refer to as “his rotten Pinot days”, behind my back.
It usually falls somewhere near the end of veraison, at the first sign of a rotting cluster. Inevitably, I manage to convince myself that all the work leading up to that exact moment had been in vain, and continuing the efforts would surely be a waste of time. The daunting nature of the situation lies in the amount of time still required to properly ripen the fruit before harvest. Successfully navigating those remaining weeks is always challenging – even in the years when the weather does co-operate!
The reliable voice of reason is always my father. His steadying emotional keel is usually enough to steer me back to the grind of thinning out undesirable clusters from the vineyard. This time, however, when he innocently reminds me not to worry, that this happens every year – he is met with a snappy retort of, “exactly why, then, do we still do this?”
In 2019, I had reached that boiling point during the second week of September after four straight days of rain. The Pinot were starting to go downhill, but not quite ripe enough to consider harvesting. Little did I know that my rejuvenation would come in the form of a tall Pinot soothsayer who had stopped by for our annual tasting walk through the Old Block.
My relationship with Thomas Bachelder goes back to when he was starting out with Le Clos Jordanne and I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Viticulture at Brock University. From the first time we met, I was struck by his knowledge of all things Pinot and how much he already knew about my family vineyard. Our shared passion for Pinot has been a connection ever since, eventually leading to Thomas making his own wine from our vineyard starting in 2011.
There are many benefits to having Thomas make wine from your grapes, but I treasure our pre-harvest walk and chats the most. In September of 2019, it may have indeed saved the vintage – or at least restored my sanity. He arrives in a whirlwind of phone calls and consulting-related tasks (he somehow navigates vintages in multiple countries at once) and is usually out of the car and tasting berries before I am able to catch up with him.
I eventually get swept into his gravitational pull and he manages to reinvigorate, educate and praise me all in one tasting swoop of a few rows. We compare notes on the current growing season, previous vintages, Pinot Noir clones, Karl Kaiser, harvest logistics, the effect of rain on Pinot, expressing terroir vs chasing overripe characters, the potential evils of chaptalization, berry skin thickness and, finally, how I should stop referring to our 2007 planting as the “Young Block”. This all takes place in about 15 minutes – the full Thomas experience.
Ultimately, it reminds me not to look at things under a pessimistic microscope, but rather to embrace the macro, bigger picture. He looks at the entire block in relation to its terroir expression, while I tend to focus on the effect of a few teetering, less than perfect clusters that will probably get sorted out anyways.
I’m not sure that Thomas has any “rotten Pinot days”, but he certainly helped me escape mine on that September day in 2019.
The fruit for this wine was harvested on October 1st, and sourced predominantly (90%) from our original five rows. It was a pleasure to watch this wine evolve over its long 24 months in barrel; from its fruity and tight origins through opening up to become an intriguing combination of red fruit (cherry, cranberry), floral nuances and noticeable, terroir-driven minerality.
In its current state, this Pinot starts smooth on the palate with late grip and a lingering finish. Flavours include strawberry, raspberry, mocha and vanilla. It is always difficult for me to advise not drinking a wine now, but I feel this one could be particularly ageworthy – perhaps to 2030 and beyond.
2019 Five Rows Syrah
One of the true joys of being both a farmer and a winemaker, is that one transitional day when the two jobs collide. Tasting the fruit and making the decision when to harvest can simultaneously prove to be both nerve-racking and a relief. The farmer mindset is nearly always “get them off ASAP”, while the winemaker is more obliged to “let them hang”.
I get to wear both hats at Five Rows, so vetoing the decision either way tends to be a little less contentious. It does not, however, preclude me from massive bouts of second guessing and remorse. To that end, there are a couple of coping methods I’ve employed in recent years to aid in arriving at harvest timing decisions a little more confidently.
The first is to seek the advice of as many of my farmer and winemaker colleagues as possible. How are things looking to them? Have they harvested any of that particular varietal yet? Do the crop level or conditions in this vintage remind them of any others? If so, how did the wines turn out? What are some techniques for dealing with fruit harvested a little early or hung a little too late?
The second method is splitting picking dates – i.e., harvesting a portion of the crop early and hanging the rest until after the troubling weather forecast. My tendency has been to err on the side of good fruit condition over the years, but I’ve become a little more willing to roll the dice with split picks in the last few vintages. This could involve flagging individual vines or entire rows depending on the varietal and block. Perhaps the most interesting case study in this respect was the 2019 Syrah.
We grow two different Syrah clones on our farm (7 and 100), each inhabiting a unique plot of soil. The Clone 7 is planted a little further north, in heavier clay, while the more vigorous Clone 100 vines can be seen lining the driveway in to our barn. The decision to split the picking dates in late October 2019 was based on the rapid onset of Botrytis and looming rain.
The fruit for the first bin was harvested from a combination of the cleanest rows in both blocks. After some rain and a week of drying out and bonus ripening time, the second “later harvest” bin was filled predominantly with fruit from Clone 7, which tends to stave off Botrytis a little longer than Clone 100 on our site, due to slightly less vigour and increased distance from the headlands.
The early bin (cleaner, higher TA) was given a little longer cold-soak and allowed to start fermenting wild, while the later picked bin (riper, softer skins) was inoculated with RX60 yeast after a four day soak. The bins were pressed to separate barrels (100% French, 20% new oak) after 15 total days on the skins.
There were some jitters about the split pick decision early on, as the higher acidity in the “early pick” barrels (pre-malolactic fermentation, mind you) was evident, but it was so clean and varietally pure (red fruit, spice, pepper) that I held out hope.
When it came time to blend, the two picks came together harmoniously, complementing one another and zigging where the other zagged. It proved to me that there is more than one way to make a complex wine.
Aromas include blackberry, cherry and pepper. This drinkable Syrah comes across smooth and ripe on the palate with flavours of dark chocolate and sweet peppercorn. It will continue to soften and open up in bottle – best enjoyed 2023 to 2028.