2021 Sauvignon Blanc

2021 Sauvignon Blanc

Time flies when you’re having fun.

It’s difficult for me to fathom that I’ve been making wine from Sauvignon Blanc grapes for 15 years.  Never once in my formative years on the farm had I ever thought, “Sauvignon Blanc, that’s the ticket!”

I give all the credit to the brain trust at Creekside Estate Winery, circa 1998.  Whether it was Peter, Marcus, Rob or Craig (or likely a combo of the four) who convinced my parents to plant this notoriously winter sensitive and vigorously growing varietal, I am the ultimate beneficiary.

It has been a pleasure to see those vines flourish and mature over the years, despite the odd re-trunking winter disaster (2004, 2014).  Tending to two distinct blocks of Sauvignon Blanc (heavy clay vs. sand/loam/clay) has illustrated to me just how sensitive these vines can be to specific vineyard conditions.  As the vines have aged, I’ve noticed that they tend to handle extreme stress situations better than they used to.  The varied nutritional and canopy management needs of the two blocks took a while to ascertain, but I feel like we’ve gotten enough reps now to be confident in our practices.

Consequently, making the wine from this fruit is no longer as stressful as it used to be.  The consistency of the vineyard has a lot to do with that.  I have developed trust that my fermentations will produce those familiar aromatics that fill the barn with tropical delights, and that time spent in my treasured French oak barrels will enhance the structure and flavour profile.

The real decision is when to integrate new barrels into the portfolio.  I’ve always opted to ferment and age about 80% of our Sauv Blanc in very neutral, 10-12-year-old barrels.  Eventually those barrels need to be replaced, so I try to do so with something gentle that will complement the overall blend.  In 2021, that newbie was a DAMY barrel with a special “Light-Long ++ Toast” that aims to “soften the initial presence of the oak and elevate the integration and harmony between the fruit, oak and toast.”  Coopers have a way of making these things sound romantic that I will always be a sucker for.

The 2021 Sauvignon Blanc was harvested on September 13th.  The fruit was pressed and racked to nine barrels and one tank.  Fermentations were carried out with X5 yeast at about 8-9 degrees C.  After 30 days, the vessels had reached my desired specific gravity level of 0.998.  The barrel potion went through partial malolactic fermentation prior to bentonite fining and filtration.  248 cases were bottled on April 25th, 2022.

Collectors of Five Rows SB will likely note that this vintage falls somewhere between 2019 and 2020, stylistically speaking.  In a way, you get the best of both worlds – the tropical ripeness of 2020 and the lively vein of natural acidity found in the 2019.  Aromas and flavours include lemon, lime, gooseberry, melon and vanilla.

$45/bottle

 

 

 

2018 Reds

2018 Pinot Noir

Picture a vineyard, older in its years, with crooked posts, differing row widths and bordered closely by dense headlands.  The non-uniformly spaced vines appear to be of varying age, most sporting big, old gnarly trunks, while others have a skinny, fledgling look – somewhat mismatched.  If you came in the fall, you might even notice the odd golden grape cluster amidst the sea of small, blue clusters.  It certainly does not exude precision or polish, but there is a beauty here that is homespun and palpable.

“Is this heaven?” you ask…no, this is St. Davids.

By now, you know the history of our original Five Rows of Pinot Noir (and the 15 rows planted a few years later) that inhabit this plot of land.  It has become my own personal “Field of Dreams”, a place that allows me to escape to a simpler time and iteration of our farm.  A time when you grew Vinifera vines like they were Labruscas, cluster thinning was considered a waste of valuable fruit and Leaf removal was when John Brophy pulled his goalie – a common occurrence in the 1980’s.

When I think of all the things we’ve done untraditionally or “wrong” over the years, it’s remarkable that our Pinot Noir Vineyard still churns out wines that are so alluringly similar to those from the Old World.  In fact, the 115 Clone might be the only thing about the vineyard that would be considered traditionally Burgundian.  The rest is pure Howie and Wilma Lowrey.

Each vintage, I set out to select the best representation of vines from that block to exemplify the terroir.  To that end, I feel like I’ve been chasing ghosts of Inniskillin Alliance since I started making my own Pinot back in 2007.  The 2018 Five Rows Pinot Noir might be the closest to that ultimately unreachable ideal that I’ve ever gotten – at least in its current state of drinking.  It took twelve years for it to happen, and I’m hesitant to even disclose my feelings on the matter, but I take inspiration from all the other winemakers that vinify our Pinot, who always seem to be way more excited about the fruit than I am.

The fall of 2018 was a tale of two vintages.  For the early ripening varietals like Pinot, it was pleasantly warm and dry at just the right time (See Syrah and Cab Sauv for the rest of the story).  I chose to harvest 1886kg of fruit from rows 1,2,3,4 and 8 based on previous success in similar vintages.  Fruit condition after sorting was exceptional for Pinot, so I opted for predominantly wild fermentation.  At dryness, the wine was transferred to one new barrel (Billon Select), two second-fill and two third-fill barrels for a span of 24 months.

Aromas:  cherry, strawberry, cinnamon hearts, cranberry, truffle

Palate:  dried cranberry, raspberry, vanilla; the lighter colour belies the depth of this wine; drink now or save for that special occasion in the next 5 to 10 years.

 

2018 Syrah

I’ve recently toyed with the notion of becoming a Cool-Climate Syrah Crusader based on the miracles I’ve witnessed.  At some point in every vintage I find myself doubtful that these vines will even produce a crop, never mind a decent wine, and they consistently prove me wrong.  2018 was the year that I witnessed Syrah turn (rain)water into great wine.

Just when you think everything couldn’t look better…

Is how I felt when mother nature pulled the rug out from under us in October of 2018.  The rains came fast and furious and so did the baffling disease pressure in the loose clusters of Syrah.  The berries started to shrivel and rapidly lose skin integrity right before our eyes.  Thankfully, the fruit was ripe enough (23 degrees brix) by October 10th for us to quickly get in and harvest the cleanest clusters we could find.

The initial prognosis was iffy at best, but as interesting flavours and aromas started to develop during fermentation, I couldn’t help but have my spirits lifted.  The resultant wine spent two years evolving in French Oak (20% new), and emerged as a striking “terroir beauty” to behold.

Aromas:  ripe dark fruit dominates, cherry, blackberry, spice, cured meat

Palate:  Bing cherry, sweet peppercorn, dark chocolate, coffee bean, savoury, smooth; drinking very well now, but could develop even more complexity over time.

 

2018 Cabernet Sauvignon

It’s now evident that the interesting mix of conditions we faced through the 2018 vintage (hot and dry early, wet late), ultimately did not have a negative effect on our Cabernet Sauvignon.  If anything, the wine that I was initially most worried about grew to become one of the more approachable and easy to drink Cabs we’ve ever released.

Easy to drink, maybe – but certainly not easy to make!

Foraging for ripe Cabernet Sauvignon berries and clusters is not something I recommend for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.  I set out to do just that in the late October days leading up to harvest, armed with flagging tape to mark the lucky vines and Tums to neutralize the acid in my stomach after consuming so many underripe berries.

We ended up with enough fruit from those flagged vines to fill one large fermenting bin (85%) and one small tank (15%).  The bin fermentation with FX10 yeast went off without a hitch, but the small, uninsulated tank just refused to start fermenting.  I re-inoculated with an experimental yeast for me (X-Pure), and the ferment eventually got rolling, but at a cooler temperature and slower pace than I’m usually comfortable with for reds.  The bin ferment was dry in five days, while the “little tank that could” took twice as long.

As you might have guessed, the wines produced in the two vessels were noticeably different.  The bin-fermented wine was much darker in colour and fuller-bodied, with tannic extraction typical of our previous Cabernet Sauvignons.  The slower, cooler tank fermentation was lighter in all aspects and showed a beautiful nose of red fruit.  It took a while for me to appreciate its contribution to the final blend, but the wine created in that little tank proved to be just the finishing touch needed to smooth the edges of this most interesting Cabernet Sauvignon.  86 cases were bottled on April 9th, 2021.

Aromas:  blueberry preserves, cassis, cherry, Kalamata olive

Palate:  cherry candy, raspberry; ripe and smooth for a young Cab Sauv, it should age gracefully for the next 5 years.

 

All three 2018 reds retail for $60/bottle and can be ordered at fiverows.com starting May 14th at 9am.

 

 

A Tough Call

For eleven years now, my entire month of March has been spent preparing our new wines for bottling and summertime release.  I always look forward to this task, as it represents the culmination of many years of work and the chance to finally share those wines.

Our annual bottling date with the mobile line has always fallen in the last week of March or first week of April, giving us plenty of time to get the wines VQA approved and labelled before release.  This year, our scheduled date was April 1st (no joke).  A stickler for routine, I dutifully prepared my wines with blinders on until, thankfully, someone wiser than I provided some welcome perspective – I needed to stop and smell the Sauv Blanc.  Although we were technically still allowed to assemble a large enough crew to bottle, it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do, given the uncertainty surrounding viral spread.  Despite my initial hesitation to postpone bottling, doing our small part to keep the virus at bay became a no-brainer.

So, unfortunately, those eager wines did not make it to bottle on the early hours of April Fool’s day, and I am left with the queasy feeling of holding onto inventory longer than anticipated.  There are intertwined concerns of letting people down, wine stability, temperature control, tank space and a looming summer without visitors.

On the flip side, I can’t discount that for some of the wines, this slight delay might actually be a good thing.  Although my ego tells me that I had the wines exactly where I wanted them, perhaps some extended bulk aging could prove beneficial – tannins are still being refined, flavours developing, aromatics building.

I always figured that bottling all of our varietals in one day was risky, but never anticipated a situation like this.  Thankfully, the folks at Hunter Bottling have been more than accommodating, offering us a make-up date in July when things have hopefully settled down.

A wine bottling delay really isn’t anything to complain about in the grand scheme of things, so I’ve trained myself to think of all the great wines I’ve heard tale of through the years that were the result of unplanned “innovation”.  Sometimes it takes extenuating circumstances to get people to think outside the box and try new things.  That said, I’ll probably rack my Sauv Blanc out of barrel sometime soon…just to be safe!

The Next Vintage: 2015 Whites

I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.  The story of our 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is filled with both.  The bad news starts with the amount of damage sustained by the vines after a second consecutive harsh winter.  Very few of the suckers that were brought up to become new trunks in 2014 actually made it into the 2015 growing season.  There were those that looked like they were going to bud out, only to agonizingly collapse a couple of weeks later.  The sheer number of dead buds made for disproportionate growth and vine vigour issues – meaning lots of extra work.  The far north end of the block looked more like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse than a vineyard, replete with half-dead, split trunks oozing crown gall tumours…

The good news is that we had any Sauvignon Blanc fruit at all!  In fact, 2015 was an amazing growing season for whites, with moderate heat and cool nights during peak ripening time.  The lighter crop ripened very quickly, ultimately leading to intense concentration of flavours and aromatics.  I stuck with my tried and true formula in the winery, with 75% of the juice fermented and aged in my trusty old French oak barrels and 25% done in tank.  The finished wine was blended, filtered and then bottled on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  “a nose for days”; candied pear, lemon/lime, melon, grilled pineapple

Palate:  rounder, riper, more weighty mouthfeel; pineapple, hint of lime; enjoyed best at cellar temperature (60-65°F)

Production:  210 cases

 

2015 Pinot Gris

Our Pinot Gris sustained similar winter damage to it’s neighbouring Sauvignon Blanc, which was surprising because it is considered a much more winter-hardy varietal.  Another sobering reminder of just how much sustained extreme cold the vines experienced in the winter of 2014.

The very light crop (about 40% of a normal year) made the vineyard work easier to stay on top of, ultimately producing some of the cleanest fruit we’ve ever seen in that block.  Pinot Gris is my favourite varietal to walk through in the fall because of the cool look of the tight, metallic-pink coloured clusters and the intense aromas in the air.  Tasting each berry is a treat, as flavours explode in your mouth.  You can almost anticipate the texture of the wine they will soon create.

We harvested our ripe Pinot Gris on September 18, 2015.  Believe it or not, one of the challenges I face crafting my whites is finding good, used white wine barrels.  It seems that more and more winemakers are holding onto their prized neutral wood – and I can’t blame them!  I was fortunate this past vintage to pick up some great older white barrels from J.L. Groux at Stratus, and about 66% of my 2015 Pinot Gris juice was the direct beneficiary.  All juice was fermented with R2 yeast and likely went through a partial, wild malolactic fermentation.

Appearance:  golden pink colour

Aromas:  honey, peach, vanilla, Honeycrisp apple, cream soda

Palate:  velvety texture, good balance with ample acidity; important not to drink too cold – 60°F is good

Production:  110 cases

 

2015 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

Many experts feel that it takes about ten years for a planting of grapes to really come into its own.  I feel like the wine from “Jean’s Block” is getting more complex with each vintage and it bodes well for this relatively young, 9-year old Riesling block.

What I like most about Riesling is their reliability from a growing perspective.  They crop well, ripen without issue and always seem to have enough acidity to make a nice wine, whether your preferred style is dry or off-dry.

We harvested the 2015 crop on October 8th and the fruit came in at 18.3 degrees Brix.  Previous vintages have taught me that “two yeasts are better than one” in terms of wine complexity, so I split the juice into two tanks: 900L fermented with W15 and 375L with R2.  What resulted was one of the longest fermentations I’ve ever experienced – the ferments started on October 16th and didn’t reach a “balance” point (Specific Gravity 1.003)  until December 1st!  This was not done by choice, but the results were a pleasant surprise.  Sometimes yeast just become a little sluggish in high-acid/low pH must.  There were times when I thought the fermentation was stuck, but I chose not to re-inoculate and patience paid off in the end.

I love the nose produced by Clone 49 Riesling – it’s just so fresh and intense!  We bottled this wine on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  apricot, peach, lemon, green apple

Palate:  both sweet and sour notes perceptible; resolves into crisp, dry balance

Production:  130 cases

The Next Vintage: 2013 Reds

2013 Pinot Noir

In looking back at my harvest notes for the 2013 Pinot Noir, I’m immediately drawn to the “Fruit Condition” section where I have written:  excellent; “Some of the nicest we’ve ever picked.” – Wilma.  I remember it well, and it makes me smile as much now as it did when she said it on September 18, 2013.

We hand-picked 90 boxes from rows 3, 4 & 5 and 64 boxes from rows 8 & 9.  These are the rows that I traditionally use, and they represent a good cross section of terroir from our oldest vines.  The Pinot was sorted four times:  first I do a quick pass on my own before we harvest to remove any obvious rot; then each picker must inspect clusters as they cut them; a third inspection takes place as boxes are loaded onto the wagon and finally again as they are dumped into the crusher.  Those select few Pinot berries that made the final cut ended up filling two fermenting bins.

After a four day cold soak at 18°C, the first bin containing rows 3, 4 & 5 was inoculated with RC212 yeast and the second bin (rows 8 & 9) was inoculated with W15.  Fermentation lasted about a week, with peak temperature around 34°C.  Wines were then inoculated with malolactic bacteria strain MBR31 and racked to barrel.  After 24 months in oak (100% French, 20% new), the wine was blended and eventually bottled on April 6, 2016.

Aromas:  “Like walking into a pantry”; ripe cherry, dried spices, truffle

Palate:  light velvety texture; good balance; enjoyable now, but just enough tannin to make you want to lay it down for a while

Production: 145 cases

 

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

A later Spring than 2012 (few are earlier) led to an interesting vintage that felt like a constant uphill battle.  The growing degree days were just not adding up, so an effort was made to dramatically reduce crop level at veraison.  Then we waited…and waited some more…until all the leaves had fallen and finally picked our Cab on November 15, 2013.

The fruit was quite desiccated on the vine at this stage, almost a late harvest look, and we actually ended up with close to 23 degrees Brix and reasonable acidity.  The drastic thinning gamble had worked, but at the expense of tonnage.  We ended up with only 117 picking boxes of Cab Sauv from five rows that would have normally yielded 150 boxes.

The fruit was processed into two bins and after a four day cold soak, Bin 1 was inoculated with FX10 and Bin 2 with F15.  Finished wine was blended, inoculated with MBR31 bacteria and racked to barrel where it would spend the next two years.  Two new French barrels were used (Taransaud and Billon) along with a couple of wily veterans.  The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled on April 6th, 2016.  This wine will surprise many people.

Aromas:  cherry, blackberry, anise, loose-leaf tea

Palate:  flavours as intense as the nose; nice texture; savoury; integrated tannins make it both drinkable and cellar-worthy

Production:  100 cases

 

2013 Syrah

*See 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon for the challenges associated with this growing season.

As we nervously hung our Syrah into November for the first time, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be writing a description for a Five Rows 2013 Syrah – the grapes just didn’t look right.  They tasted fine, the lab numbers were good, but the berries looked wrinkled and raisin-like.

A harvest date was finally settled upon, but to our astonishment we awoke that day to….frozen Syrah-sicles!  An overnight frost had thrown a wrench into the plans, making for a unique harvesting and de-stemming experience.  The stems were so brittle that I was concerned the berries wouldn’t properly separate from the rachis going through the de-stemmer, adding unwanted bits of stem to the must.  In the end – I needn’t have fretted, as the semi-frozen berries rattled off the rachis with ease.

82 boxes were harvested from Clone 7 rows 2 & 3, along with 57 boxes from Clone 100 (“Old Block”) rows 1 & 2.  The Clone 7 was inoculated with RX60 and the Old Block with F15.  Both bins were pressed after a week-long fermentation.  The whole batch was aged in French oak; three older barrels and one new (DAMY Rouge).

This wine was incredibly smooth from the get-go, and frankly I have no idea why.  Perhaps it was the extended hang time and wilted berries, perhaps it was the frost – yet more proof that the most unique wines often result from unforeseen circumstances.  It was bottled on April 6th, 2016.

Aromas:  lavender, cassis, vanilla, cooked meat, thyme (“Smells like a lamb dinner” – Wilma)

Palate:  smooth as silk, very savoury, hint of pepper, finish dominated by dark fruit

Production:  100 cases

 

2010 Pinot Noir

Consider this my therapy.  The ability to write and reminisce about a finished wine whilst going through the rigours of harvesting and vinifying that same grape varietal is a welcome shift of thought.  It doesn’t get much rosier than the memories I have associated with our 2010 Pinot Noir.

Simply put, 2010 was an ideal vintage to grow grapes.  Heat when you needed it and just wet enough for excellent vine growth, but not excessive vigour.  The risk with Pinot Noir in these warm, dry conditions is overripening.  Pushing the grapes to a point where they almost become “un-Pinot like”.  For that reason we harvested our crop on September 4th – a full week earlier than we ever had before.  All ripening parameters were dialed in.  Sugars high, but not so high as to make the wine overly alcoholic (22 degrees brix)  and decent enough acid (TA 7.5) to keep the pH low and aid in ageability.  This would be a bold Pinot for sure, but not so bold that our Terroir couldn’t shine through.

We harvested 8 rows from our Old Block and 3 rows from our new Clone 777 block.  The fruit was sorted, chilled and processed into bins for traditional punch-downs during fermentation.  I chose to let the three bins cold soak for a few days and let the fermentations start via indigenous yeast.  Each bin was then inoculated with a different cultured yeast to add complexity to the overall blend.  The 777 bin was treated with a strain called BRL97, while the the old block was fermented with RC212 and W15.  The fermentations lasted about 10 days whereupon each bin was pressed to barrel (25% new oak, all French).  The wine was allowed to mature for 24 months in oak before bottling 143 cases on March 26th, 2013.

In the end this is a Pinot Noir that should age gracefully for at least another five years.  It’s the kind of wine that sneaks up on you and demands another sip, another glass…

Aromas:  cherry, leather, mushroom, wet stone, vanilla, red currant, meat jus, violets

Flavours: cherry, pomegranate

2010 Five Rows Cabernet Sauvignon

One decision a winemaker is faced with as a wine evolves is whether they are making that wine for now or for the future.  Variables such as the amount of time spent in barrel, new or previously used oak, French or American oak, health tannin level, acidity and pH all must be addressed.  It is where experience really comes into play, as the decisions you make now may lead to the wine being tougher to enjoy in the short term, but hopefully pay dividends later on.

Then there are rare wines like the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon that are enjoyable now while also exhibiting good aging potential.  These wines can make winemakers look very clever, but are probably the easiest to craft.  The fruit comes in ripe and clean with ideal parameters and the fermentations go exactly according to plan.  After many years of dealing with devilish Pinot Noir, this is a welcome luxury!

The 2010 Cab Sauv was harvested on October 28th and 29th.  If we push it, Howie, Wilma and I can hand-harvest and process about 1.5 to 2 tonnes in a day.  We normally tackle the Clone 169 block first, then bring in the Old Block Cab on day two.  It’s always a relief to get through these two days as the Cab Sauv is the last variety we harvest each year.  Needless to say, we slept in on October 30th.

70 picking boxes were harvested from rows 4 and 13 in the Clone 169 Block and 78 boxes from rows 5 and 8 in the Old Block.  Following a four-day cold soak, the two bins of fruit were inoculated and warmed to start fermentation.  Two yeasts were chosen to work with the specific strengths of each vineyard.  The slightly riper Clone 169 fruit was fermented with FX10, known to retain polyphenolic potential (structure and colour), release and bind polysaccharides, and aid in the expression of terroir through minimal “fermentation odour” production.  The Old Block was inoculated with CSM, a yeast that specializes in producing intense aro­matic profiles of berries, spice and licorice, while concurrently reducing vegetal aromas.  A winemaker can only hope that these yeasts live up to such bold claims!

Finished wines were racked to four barrels:  Clone 169 to a new Taransaud and two-year-old Billon; Old Block to a two-year-old Taransaud and five-year-old DAMY.  Through the years I’ve found that Taransaud barrels do magic for my Cab Sauv.  They have a way of “framing” the fruit components of the wine, while contributing just the right amount of oak spice and wood tannin.  I usually opt for a tight grain oak, medium toast level with three years of air drying to balance the longer time our red wines spend in barrel.  After 24 months in oak, the 2010 Five Rows Cabernet Sauvignon was blended and allowed to bulk age in a tank for five more months.  103 cases were bottled on March 26, 2013.  This wine is now available for purchase.

Aromas:  blueberry, cherry, Stanley prune, mint

Palate:  soft tannin, ripe cherry, savoury mouthfeel/flavour

Cellaring:  I personally enjoy drinking this wine now (call it winemaker bias), but it should really be cellared for at least another six months.  It has the tannin and structure to age and improve for many years to come, I prefer not to put a limit on it.

Price:  $50/bottle

Alcohol:  13.3%

2010 Five Rows Shiraz

Is it a Shiraz or is it a Syrah?  The debate over the name of this wine has played out numerous times around our tasting table since we released our first one back in 2008.  That 2008 “Shiraz” was a hit with our friends, but most agreed it was more reminiscent of a “Syrah” in style.

I get a kick out of this debate because it brings me nostalgically back to the origins of this grape in our vineyard.  We planted Shiraz Clone 100 back in the late 90’s at the request of Creekside Estate Winery, who were bravely setting out to turn Shiraz into a key part of their varietal portfolio and winery identity.  Fueled by the knowledge and vision of an enterprising Australian winemaker, Marcus Ansems, my parents agreed to plant the 11 rows of Shiraz that now stand tall along our driveway, across from Wilma’s lavender.

Upon planting, we quickly found out that these vines loved to grow!  They shot up like the most vigorous of weeds, making us wonder why few farmers had attempted to grow this grape variety in Niagara before.  The first cold winter would provide us the harsh answer to that question.

Just as the vines were starting to mature and bear their first fruit, we were hit with some cold winter conditions that killed nearly half the vines in our new Shiraz vineyard.  The Achilles heel of this fast-growing, high-cropping varietal was now all too clear.  Should we replant the vineyard or wash our hands with Shiraz altogether?  This was a tough call, but in the end we decided to give it one more shot.  Thankfully, the winters have been more co-operative since then and we’ve also learned a few tricks in the vineyard to help the vines overwinter better.  We switched from a Scott-Henry training system to a more simple, two-arm pendelbogen trellis.  More attention was paid to controlling vine vigour through soil nutrition and cropping levels.  The vines performed well enough to merit planting 8 more rows of a second Australian Shiraz Clone (#7) in soil with higher clay content to aid in vine development.  Both blocks are doing well to this day.

Due to the success of these Shiraz vineyards on our farm and the legitimacy brought to the varietal by Creekside (think luscious Broken Press Shiraz…mmmm!) it was a no-brainer that I would order a large run of labels adorned with “Shiraz” for my 2008 debut.  However, as it came time to blend my 2008 Shiraz – the jammy, hot (high-alcohol) and bold notes present in all of our favourite Aussie “critter” wines were nowhere to be found!  In fact, every time I sampled these barrels I felt as if I had just tacked up a horse and ridden through a fragrant lavender field, only to suddenly realize I was surrounded by blackberry bushes and Marijuana plants (for the record this has never happened…yet).  Alas, despite what thousands of freshly printed labels now proclaimed, my first Shiraz had just become a Syrah – and I didn’t mind one bit!

A second issue with growing Shir..I mean Syrah in a cool climate is that it tends to ripen very late in the season, making it a challenge to vinify in lackluster, “shorter” growing seasons like 2009.  For that reason we decided not to attempt a Syrah in 2009 as the acidity levels never seemed right for crafting a premium wine.

The opposite was true for 2010.  It will be remembered as one of the warmest vintages Niagara has ever seen.  The growing season started early and never slowed down.  Precipitation was spotty but adequate – just perfect for wine grapes.  We harvested the Syrah on October 11, much earlier than any other vintage.  Sugar levels hit an all-time high (24°Brix) and the skins and seeds showed excellent maturity.  Three rows were selected from the older Clone 100 block (#2,9,10) along with two rows from the younger Clone 7 block (#4,8).

The fruit was de-stemmed into bins, which were then sealed for a four-day cold soak on the skins.  Fermentations were allowed to start wild, then inoculated with a yeast known as “Enoferm Syrah” (an isolate from the Côtes du Rhône in France).  It was chosen for this ripe fruit because it’s known to be a good glycerol producer for smoother mouthfeel with typical aromas including violets, raspberries, cassis, strawberries and black pepper.  Fermentations lasted about 8 days with temperature peaks around 28°C.  I could tell early on that this wine would one day be something special!

Five barrels were filled following pressing.  The Clone 7 fruit was racked to a new Taransaud barrel and a two-year-old Billon, while the Clone 100 fruit was split between two older French and one American oak barrel.  The wine was allowed to mature in oak for 24 months.  We bottled 118 cases of this Syrah on March 26th, 2013.  This wine, along with all of our 2010 reds, is now available for purchase.

Price: $50/bottle

Alcohol:  13.4%

Cellaring:  3-5 years

The Wine That Almost Wasn’t

We are in the midst of a summer for the ages – and that’s all I’m willing to say at the moment.  I will spare the superlatives in an effort not to tempt fate.   So much can (and probably will) go wrong between now and the end of harvest.  Suffice it to say we are mere days away from taking in the first of our fruit.  That’s silly early!

While experiencing these ideal conditions I like to reminisce about years when we weren’t so fortunate.  I remember well the late, cool and wet summer of 2009.  Conditions were optimal for the early varieties, but proved a serious challenge for ripening Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  We thinned down to ridiculous levels (a few bunches per vine) but the acid levels in the grapes remained very high in both varieties.  I clearly remember making the sad decision not to harvest any of this fruit for our Five Rows wines.  It was decided to sell the Shiraz to another winery and hang the Cab Sauv for Icewine.  Before the Icewine nets went up, my ever optimistic Mother made the suggestion to go through our Cab Sauv blocks and select only the ripest of bunches in an effort to salvage a couple barrels worth of fruit.  Every ounce of winemaker in me screamed no, but how could I say no to Wilma?  The next day we set out to do our tedious selective picking.

So begins the tale of our 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon or as I like to call it “The wine that almost wasn’t”.  This elegant wine is now for sale in our barn, which is a minor miracle based on how many times it was written off.

It was intensely aromatic from the get go, but took 30 months in some magical old barrels to achieve it’s current mouthfeel, structure and flavour profile.  During those 30 months in my beloved (but soon to be retired) 2002 Gillet barrels, this wine was always an afterthought.  In fact, I even looked into selling it as bulk a couple of times just to get it out of the barn.  Fortunately, there were no takers.  Sometime around the two year mark spent in barrel, things began to change and those two black sheep began to get my attention.  I found myself tasting them at least once a week, just to make sure I wasn’t going nuts.  I began to feel that this 2009 Cab could actually one day don a Five Rows label.  My first thought was to use it as a silent partner with our 2010 Cab, but the blending trials flopped.  I proceeded to try a Shiraz/Cab Sauv blend, but that idea was also eventually nixed.

The resilient 2009 Five Rows Cabernet Sauvignon had managed to dodge every bullet I could muster.  There was no other option than to let it rightfully stand on its own.  I now consider this wine to be a secret bonus for those open-minded oenophiles who don’t practice vintage discrimination.  There are people who will never try this wine simply because it was made in 2009.  That just leaves more for the rest of us.  This Cab is texturally gorgeous and delivers classic Lowrey Cab Sauv aromatics (blackberry, cherry, cassis) and wonderful balance that literally appeared out of nowhere.  50 cases were bottled on April 6th, 2012.  It will be fun to compare and contrast this wine with the big bombers on the horizon (2010 and 2012).

An Ode to Oak

I’m generally not an emotional guy.  Why then, am I having such a difficult time parting ways with the first two barrels that ever held my wine?

The time has come to cruelly determine which of our used oak barrels must be sent out to pasture, literally.  I’ve been through wars with these veteran barriques.  They’ve seen good wine, bad wine and everything in between.  Some have been a working fixture in our barn for eight years.  Now you must decide which old soldiers can no longer carry out their job, good luck with that!  This unceremonious send-off just doesn’t seem to befit such a valuable part of our winery.

Good oak is the winemaker’s not-so-secret weapon.  Sure they are expensive (our largest capital expense from year to year) but they are essential.  I’ve come to learn that new oak should never be taken for granted and never be used in overabundance.  Too much new oak can mask and possibly ruin the fine subtleties of an aging wine.  Restraint should always be exercised.

My attachment to each individual barrel is surely due to the small size of our operation.  Over time I become acutely aware of their “personalities” through weekly tasting and topping regimens.  Some are big softies, while others are boldly complex.  Some barrels make the retirement decision easy for me.  No amount of sterilization can rid them of the contaminants they’ve accumulated over the years, so out the door they go.  But what about the barrel who’s only knock is it’s old age and bland neutrality?  That is the dilemma staring me in the face right now.

Back in 2004, under the guidance of Creekside Estate Winery winemakers Rob and Craig, I assembled a two barrel blend of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from our vineyard.  With a pool of twelve barrels to choose from, we experimented with 50L from here and 25L from there until we all agreed upon a blend that I could confidently open a winery with.  It was decided that the wine should be housed in a couple of beautiful, two year old French oak barrels made by Burgundian cooper Claude Gillet.  The wine would stay cloaked in these barrels until 2006, when we bottled our first Five Rows release – the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon.

old soldier

Those same two Gillet barrels proved tremendously versatile with each successive vintage of Five Rows Cab Sauv.  What they lost in intensity each season, they gained in character and elegance.  This past week I racked some 2009 Cab Sauv from the Gillet twins and was pleasantly surprised at the finished product.  I didn’t hold out much hope for the 2009 Cab at this time last year, but an additional 12 months spent soothing in neutral oak really did the trick.  We’ll bottle the 2009 Cab Sauv this spring.

So there they sit after ten long years of service, empty and willing…but sadly there is no wine to fill them.  Now the decision is upon me.  No more stalling filibusters, it’s time to take these two out behind the barn and “pop the bung” for good.  I swear I’d have an easier time putting down Old Yeller.  At least he had rabies.

One day soon I’ll crack a bottle of 2004 Cab Sauv in their honour.  Few times will I enjoy a bottle more.

barrel graveyard