2019 Cabernet Sauvignon

2019 Cabernet Sauvignon

It takes guts to grow a late-ripening varietal like Cabernet Sauvignon in a place like Canada.

At least that’s what I tell myself every year around the first week of September, in an internal pep talk of sorts, when there are still a few green berries in my Cabernet clusters and every other varietal is fully through veraison.

A real-world analogy to this situation would be being confident in your seemingly independent 4-year-old’s maturity level, until one day they come home from school with a craft-scissor hairstyle and you realize that they weren’t quite as mature as you gave yourself credit for.  There is a gut-wrenching moment of reckoning, followed by the realization that there is a lot more work to do than you initially thought.  The irony here, of course, is that both situations require a lot more cutting to remedy the problem.

When I look back at my notes for the 2019 vintage, the first thing I have written is “very wet year – 50% meant 100% PoP”.  There aren’t many other entries in those notes that are fit for print, so let’s focus on the positives!

Some of my favourite Cabernet Sauvignon wines, over the years, have come from “cooler” vintages.  Providing that the vines were properly thinned and allowed to hang to the bitter end of the season, they show remarkable ability to ripen fruit.  It is in those cooler vintages where the St. David’s Bench really demonstrates its versatility in regard to Terroir.  The SDB can give you the heavy hitter Cabs of 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2016; while managing to offer a somewhat more elegant version in years like 2019.

Call me a sucker for the underdog, but I tend to gravitate to some elements of the cooler vintage Cabs – especially when aged to perfection.  The combination of slightly higher acidity and brighter red fruit components is right up my alley.

The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon was hand-harvested on November 5th, with 48 picking boxes sourced from our Clone 169 Block and 110 boxes from our Old Block (mixed clones).  The fruit was allowed to cold-soak for five days before warming for fermentation.  The bins were dry within five days and achieved peak fermentation temperature of 32C.  Four French Oak barrels (one new) were filled after pressing and the wine was allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation in barrel.  After spending 24 months in oak and 6 months bulk aging in tank, 108 cases were bottled on April 25th, 2022.

Far from reaching its peak, this young wine is loaded with aromas of red licorice, wild blueberry and cassis.  There is a familiar, oak-related spice which I usually associate with Radoux medium toast barrels, that is carried harmoniously through the aromatics to the palate.  This wine has the potential to age well for 7-10 years (2029-2032).

$60/bottle

 

A Vintage For The Ages

Well, that was special.  It was almost like mother nature knew she owed us one.

I’ll preface by saying that all vintages are difficult undertakings that require a tremendous amount of patience and co-operation from all ends of the industry.  Some are beasts that we never wish to encounter again, while others are a little more forgiving and borderline enjoyable – but no vintage that I’ve ever experienced has gone as smoothly as 2020.

For months I’ve been afraid to verbalize my thoughts on our good fortunes, in fear that it would cause some catastrophic shift in the weather.  There were moments (hurricane tracking, sporadic hail) when it appeared that our luck may have run out, but somehow, each time the threat magically diminished.

In my experience, it is rare that a good stretch of summer weather for ripening grapes (warm, sunny, relatively dry, but not too dry!)  transitions smoothly and holds for an entire fall harvest.  In 2020, the smaller berry sizes and lower crop levels we saw were primarily the product of below average precipitation.  Unlike other dry years, however, we didn’t experience much in the way of drought stress or sustained stretches of mildew-inducing humidity.  All of these factors combined to give us some of the cleanest fruit we’ve ever harvested – across the board.

It was a year where everything seemed to ripen at once – making it much easier to line up our varietals for processing, given the seemingly endless days of perfect picking weather.  Admittedly, I come at things from a very small production winery perspective, so I’m sure there were logistical issues associated with having all varietals concurrently ripe that became difficult for larger wineries and growers.  Fortunately, few will ever complain about having to wait a bit longer to harvest their ripe, clean fruit – certainly not the birds!

At Five Rows, our vintage usually gets off to a fast start, with three early varietals that represent some of the first fruit harvested in the region: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  We then bide our time until the Riesling and Syrah are ready, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is hung until the very end of the season for maximum ripeness.  In 2020, the latter three varietals were all picked on dates much earlier than average – and all showed ripeness levels that we’ve rarely achieved.  I had to look twice at the refractometer when my first Syrah sample read 26 degrees Brix – was this St. David’s or the Barossa Valley!?

One would think that the ripest grapes always translate to the best wines, but personal experience tells me there is more to it than that.  Working with abnormally ripe fruit actually presents some new challenges when it comes to fermentation dynamics.  In a “cooler” climate like Niagara, we are used to harvesting grapes with ample acidity and relatively low pH, making it less favourable for undesirable microbes to flourish in the primary fermentation.  When the opposite proved true in 2020 (lower TA, higher pH), fruit cleanliness became the key to trusting our normal protocol of a spontaneous (“wild”) start to fermentation.  The higher initial sugar content in the grapes also leads to an increase in potential alcohol and longer fermentations, meaning particular attention had to be paid to yeast and malolactic bacteria viability.  There were a few stragglers, but eventually all of my fermentations arrived at a nice, dry endpoint.

It’s early days yet, but the 2020 reds seem like they could have a bright future ahead.  Their obvious ripeness is sure to be the initial attention grabber, but their overall balance and familiar Lowrey Vineyard aromatics will tell the story of a special vintage form a unique place.  A place where we can ripen a wide range of varietals and still make elegant, terroir-expressing wines.

I am far too grizzled a grape grower to think that the stretch of conditions we experienced in 2020 could happen again in my lifetime, but I do feel it bodes well for future vintages.  There will always be an underlying fear of extreme weather events, but to know that all six of our varietals hit peak ripeness levels in one singular vintage is a very exciting prospect.

Thankfully, not all things arriving in 2020 turned out so bad after all (just the vast majority).

 

 

 

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!

Back On The Horse

In a time of tremendous uncertainty and worry, I find myself taking solace in the simple things that I took for granted before…like being able to write a journal entry while sipping a fantastic glass of wine that I didn’t make.

Since I last wrote, there have been a few noteworthy events in our life:  another vintage in the books, a new niece, a move, a renovation, another move, and an Ada.  Oh, Ada….

We welcomed our second daughter (Ada Elizabeth) in the wee hours of January 2nd, 2020.  She arrived with an abundance of spunk and cuteness, but also a few unexpected challenges.  We were suddenly thrust into a situation that I was totally unprepared for emotionally.  Thankfully, she was born long enough before the arrival of COVID-19 to allow her to receive amazing care from the neonatal staff at McMaster Children’s Hospital.  She is not completely out of the woods yet, but her vulnerable little head has healed enough for us all to breathe a little easier.  Seeing her grow and thrive over the last four months has given me a shot of inspiration when I really needed it.

Luckily for Ada, she has a strong mother with great wound care skills, three doting grandparents, a cousin very close in age and one extremely excited sister.  Unluckily for said sister Frances, she’s had to endure much more time with a father ill-prepared for full time child care in a pandemic.  You may find this hard to believe, but she now insists that I pretend to be “Grumpy Bear” or “Grumpy Dwarf” when we play together, while she is always Sunshine Bear and Snow White, of course!

My treasured days in the vineyard have been few and far between of late, as two kids tend to require two parents (should have seen that one coming).  The days I do manage to get out there are, admittedly, a welcome change of pace.  It turns out that growing kids is way harder than growing grapes.

My hope is that Ada will read this one day and wonder what all the fuss was about, but I also worry that the current reality may linger into her world going forward.  We will do our best to adjust to the new normal both as parents and as wine growers, embracing the challenges and endeavoring to craft wines that help everyone else feel a little less Grumpy.

 

 

Memories

As my two year old daughter continues to grow up faster than I can fathom, I find myself fixated on how much of her current life she will actually retain as memory.  This leads to a wide array thoughts:  what are my own earliest memories?  does she have any idea why people like wine?  is it too early to teach her how to sucker grapes?  (come to think of it, not remembering that job would actually be advantageous)

One thing Frances and I certainly share is a special relationship with our grandparents – and this ties into my earliest memories at the age of three.  I have hazy notions of time spent at the farms of two sets of grandparents and accompanying them on vacations up north.  I’m sure my recollections of those times have been shaped by listening to family stories over the years, but I treasure them nonetheless.  Perhaps my first vivid, individual memory involves my parents bringing my baby sister home from the hospital when I was four, and soon Frances will get to experience that same life-changing moment.

Not surprisingly, most of my other early memories are either farm or tractor related.  I often recall being put to bed with the late summer sun still shining, while my dad was finishing his tractor work within earshot of my bedroom window.  I wished (and probably cried) that I could’ve been out there with him, and to this day I find the sound of a tractor very soothing, almost reassuring.  I guess Frances comes by her own fascination with Grandpa and his tractor very naturally!

To that end, it has become abundantly clear that in her world I am just a conduit to the “real farmers”: Grandma and Grandpa.  Frances doesn’t seem overly impressed that I play a minor role in the farm and winery operation, instead she fancies me as more of a farm chauffeur, ferrying her back and forth to her beloved St. David’s wonderland.  She has a certain way of keeping my ego in check that manages to be both cute and matter of fact, “No Dada, those are Grandpa’s grapes.”  I’ve been forced to learn the hard way that there is perhaps no more fruitless cause than trying to impress a two year old with your knowledge of terroir.

The times we spend together now may or may not form her first memories, but I will derive no greater joy than watching her continue to develop her own special bond with the “real farmers”.

Treadwell Dinners 2019

It takes special people to inspire the kind of trust that I usually reserve for my own mother when pouring my wines.  James and the staff at Treadwell Cuisine are those kind of people.

Our relationship with the Treadwell family dates back to our initial foray into the wine business some ten years ago.  In fact, it was at a Treadwell supplier dinner in 2008 where we nervously introduced the first Five Rows wines to the public – 12 bottles of 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon in special makeshift labels.  They made us feel so comfortable that we never left, eagerly tagging along from Port Dalhousie to downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake.

They understand that we are grape farmers first and foremost who happen to make a bit of wine, and promote our brand accordingly.  It is the place that has introduced our wines to more people than any other, and I truly consider them to be an extension of the Five Rows tasting room.

With great pleasure we announce the dates of our annual Treadwell Winemaker Dinners.  Please join us on January 26 or March 2nd for some wonderful food pairings that will inevitably make our wines shine their brightest.

As always, I promise to bring Howie and Wilma!

 

 

Times and Diapers are a Changin’

As we get ready for another busy spring season of new wines and budding vines, I’m faced with an unforeseen conundrum.  It comes in the form of a nine pound baby girl named Frances, and the seeming lack of hours in a day to do what I used to do.

Those who have read this blog would know me as a hyper-focused creature of habit, eagerly devoting my time to barn and field.  In my defence, the task just draws you in completely – to the point where it consumes much of your thought and attention should you let it…and I do.  I’ve managed to convince myself that this is the only possible way to make good wine and damned be the person or thing (aside from my dogs) that gets in the way of this ultimate pursuit!

Enter the cuddly conundrum.  My wife, Tanya, and I recently decided to start a family and were blessed with a healthy baby girl on March 19th, 2017 – the ultimate reality check.  To say that my priorities have been altered would be an understatement, but not quite in the way that I expected.  At a time when I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed and stretched thin, I somehow feel more capable than ever to summon the effort required to produce the best possible fruit that our land will allow.  Little Frances has no idea that she’s already had a positive impact on the way I approach farming and life.

Perhaps it is a renewed sense of stewardship for future generations or perhaps it is just adrenaline.  Either way, I feel more inspired to work hard and less restrained by previous fears and uncertainties.  This is entirely due to the support of those around me:  Tanya, my parents, retail staff, vineyard crews and our beloved “Five Rows Faithful”.  I know I can count on them to keep the barn humming, even when I’m at home being a Dad.

So no need to worry, the wines will get the same attention they always do – you’ll just have to sit through a few baby pictures to get a taste!

FrancesBarn

 

 

Identity Crisis

Harvest 2016

Am I a writer or am I a winemaker?  Is my time better spent writing a blog post or thinning Syrah?  These are the types of burning, legacy-defining, useless questions that plague my thoughts over the grueling days of harvest.  I believe it to be an innate method of stress deflection to have internal debates about completely nonsensical topics.

The debate continues:

I will be forever grateful to my friends Barry and Leslie for encouraging me to start a blog chronicling some of my family farm stories.  However, none of this would have come to fruition had I not become a winemaker first.

From the earliest days of creative writing in grade four, I had an affinity to tell stories – but hated taking the time required to sit down and type them out.  I do not possess the patience to write a book.

I am definitely a better writer after consuming a few drinks.  Ironically, being a winemaker requires a laser-like, sober focus to achieve best results.

Easy growing seasons in the vineyard make for boring stories and difficult writing (if not boring wines!).  Thankfully, Niagara NEVER has easy growing seasons and 2016 has been a prime example.  If you weren’t lucky enough to have have old, deep-rooted vines or access to irrigation equipment, your winemaking skills were put to a serious challenge.  Everyone loves a wine with a good back story.

Some of my best wine-related writing will never get seen by the masses.  It is confined to my private cellar notes and yearly harvest log, which read like great tragedies.  I tend to be a “pessimistic optimist” whose emotions rise and fall with the daily fluctuations in weather.  Frustration and vulnerability ooze from the wine-stained pages.  Conversely, the winemaker in me strives to never let them see me sweat.

In the end, it becomes obvious that all aspects of my job are dependent on one another for me to achieve success.  I take comfort in this thought, feeling fortunate to have such a fluid job description.

Writer.  Winemaker.  Vineyard Philosopher.

Some of my recent thoughts on the 2016 harvest can be seen in video form here.

 

Vineyard of Excellence?

As a general rule, I don’t enjoy being judged.  I’d much rather blend into the background like a chameleon and go about my business unnoticed.  There are exceptions, however, and when we got the letter that our family vineyard had been nominated for the 2016 Cuvée Vineyard of Excellence award, I realized that the time had come to get over this phobia and submit myself to potential criticism.

The specific block in the spotlight was our Clone 169 Cabernet Sauvignon, located just steps outside the barn door.  It was planted in the late 90’s, using “traditional” Lowrey methods:  Dad on the tractor and my Mom and I pulled behind on the planter.  The Lowrey method relied heavily on the ability of the tractor driver to maintain a straight line, and the jury is still out as to whether Howard Jr. inherited his father’s eagle eye and steady hand.  This was before the days of GPS and laser-guided planters – and one look at the hither and yon vine spacing is more than enough evidence of that.  It is also worth pointing out that proper and consistent end-post angles were not yet fashionable in the 90’s.  You have to remember this was the the decade of frosted tips and crooked posts.

So needless to say, I was greatly relieved to find out that the Award of Excellence was not based solely on aesthetics.  An esteemed panel of judges would scout the field at certain points during the season to evaluate vine balance, fruit maturity, disease pressure, crop level, and harvest ripeness parameters.  Being a Cab Sauv block, our biggest challenge in Niagara is getting enough heat to ripen the fruit, so I did my best to thin the block to a level that would give each vine a chance to ripen its crop load.  Thankfully, the late summer and fall of 2015 provided just the conditions we needed.

When it was announced at the Cuvée ceremony last night that we had, in fact, been named recipients of this award, I was struck with many emotions.  To be on the stage with my Dad, being recognized for something that we had done together will be something I never forget.  Looking out on the crowd of people, I realized many of them had been directly responsible for my choice of career and it reminded me how fortunate I’ve been to receive their guidance over the years.  Perhaps there was also some validation for doing things the old fashioned way – a small vineyard, a father and a son (Lowrey methods notwithstanding).

Green Thinning

 

Ripe Cab Sauv

 

 

 

Harvest Musings

battle scars

As yet another memorable harvest draws to a close, I delight in sharing some of the bizarre things that have crept into my exhausted mind over the last couple of months.  It can be a grind at times, so pulling back the curtain a bit to reveal some of the lighter moments keeps me from taking it too seriously.

While conducting a final cull of rotten berries in our original planting of Pinot Noir early in September, I found myself uttering a few choice words at these cursedly tight clusters.  It culminated in a rather aggressive flick attempt with my clippers to remove a rotten berry which, in turn, produced a wild spray of acidic juice directly into my face.  This moment surely sums up the give and take relationship I have with these old vines, a relationship that began to take human form.

In fact, as I wiped the burning juice from my eyes, I surmised that these five rows are like the brother I never had.  We are of similar age (although I am slightly older and wiser) and we have grown up on this farm together.  We compete for my parents’ attention and can get very jealous of one another, yet our individual success is completely reliant upon the other.  There are epic fights, but if anyone else is critical of my Pinot vines – I’ll kick their ass.  We always have each other’s back because our tangled roots run ever deep in this soil.

While pacing around the barn on a weekend that saw a forecasted 15-20mm of rain balloon to a record 86mm, I realized just how tied to the weather my mood becomes during harvest.  A rainy day may as well be the end of the world in my mind.  Everything is planned around them, you can’t do anything during them, and nothing good ever comes as a result of them!  I become consumed with regrets:  Should we have picked earlier? Did I just ruin everything good I’ve done all year by letting them hang through a hail storm?  How long will this field take to dry out?

Conversely, when the sun is shining – so am I.  Strutting around the farm with a wide smile and time enough for everyone, I ooze positivity.  It doesn’t get any better than walking through a block of ripe, clean grapes knowing you could pick them whenever you like.  I taste each berry thoroughly and make a mental note of which vines and rows will make the cut this year.  As you are probably aware, this happens with extreme rarity.

More often I’m faced with a scenario akin to the following:  We finish pressing Pinot Noir and I finally have a chance to get out and take a good look at the Riesling.  I walk over to the block and think to myself, “Ahh, the patience of Riesling…I can leave them to the end every year and they never let me down!”

It only takes few minutes to realize I’ve waited WAY to long to thin out these vines and now I’ve got a tinderbox of Botrytis on my hands.  I flash back to those times during the year when I’d walk by the Riesling and pay them but a fleeting glance before moving on to more pressing concerns.  Perhaps I knew deep down that the day of reckoning would come soon enough.

It is reminiscent of a scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee is faced with saving all the pets from a burning pet store.  Of course he saves the cute puppies and bunnies first, each time running past the terrarium of snakes with a look of terror that I know all too well.  The scene ends with a hysterical Pee-Wee running out of the store with fistfuls of snakes and collapsing to the ground.

Before I know it I’m covered in a sticky lather of sweat and juice, hurriedly extricating botrytized clusters of Riesling with my bare hands and high-stepping to the end of the row to hurl them into the headlands…

Crazy, you say?

I know you are, but what am I.    (P.W. Herman 1985)