A Walk With Thomas

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.

$60/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.

 

 

Tasting a Year of My Life

It occurred to me one evening, while trying to come up with an explanation for the complicated feelings I have about releasing new wines:  How many people get the opportunity to actually taste and share a year of their life?

Wine can be like a diary or growth rings on a tree – it tells the story (good and bad) of what happened in a defined window of time.  Perhaps that is why I find drinking my own wines to be such an intense, self-reflective experience, akin to critically looking at yourself in a mirror.

Would this wine be any different if I tried harder or, conversely, was more hands-off?  It’s obvious that vintage conditions and all things terroir are the ultimate variables in shaping a wine, but would any of my viticultural or winemaking decisions have been different if I was getting more sleep or eating better or invited more cooks into the kitchen?

Being intimately involved in all steps of the process, from the first pruning cuts to the final seal of wax atop the cork, the wine becomes a time capsule of that particular year of my life, something unique to our small winery.  Like it or not, you are getting a revealing view of yours truly every time you crack open a bottle of Five Rows wine.

I feel very lucky to have been able to share so many of my years.  Each evokes an immediate and distinct set of feelings – despite the obvious similarities in some wines from vintage to vintage.  It is why I often first associate a wine with the life events of that year, more so than the vintage conditions or how I feel the wine turned out.  A recent tasting of our 2007 Pinot Noir, the first ever Five Rows Pinot, showed unmistakable hints of “unbridled optimism” and “naiveté” that only a newly married, 30-year-old winemaker who just started his own winery could have created.

There is far more comfort in perceiving my new wines in this manner, as opposed to worrying about how they will be judged upon release.  As a winemaker, there is always a yearning for people to like what you make, but our job is to capture that snapshot in time, regardless of external circumstances.

The wine is the living story of that vintage and I am one of the characters central to it’s plot.  That story can evolve and change over time (as we all do), but the original setting and characters involved in its production remain the same.

In the end, I am both the biggest critic of my own wines and the one who gets the most nostalgia from drinking them.

The Wines

2017 Syrah

Hand-harvesting for the 2017 Syrah took place on October 27th, with about 900 kg sourced from each of our Clones: 7 and 100.  The fermentations were conducted in open top bins and manually punched down three times daily.  They were allowed to initiate spontaneously after a 4-day cold soak, then inoculated with RX60 (Clone 100) and XPure (Clone 7) on day 6.

Both bins were pressed on November 13th, and then racked into five French Oak barrels (20% new oak).  Malolactic fermentation took place in barrel and the wine was aged in oak for 24 months.

This wine showcases the familiar Lowrey Syrah aromas of black raspberry, cherry, smoked meat and peppercorn.  Surprisingly smooth and drinkable at this stage, it features the typical Syrah savouriness along with good balancing acid to compliment the ripe dark fruit flavours.  It should become even more expressive with a year or two in bottle.

Price:  $60

 

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon

On November 14th, 2017 we hand-harvested 1771 kg of beautiful Cab from a combination of rows 7-10 & 16 in our Clone 169 Block and rows 11 & 12 in our Old Block.  The fruit was very clean, but the stems were a little brittle on picking day due to a heavy frost sustained the night before.  Although not great for maintaining green foliage, a few nights of freezing temperatures in the fall can actually have a beneficial concentrating affect on the berries.

The fermentations were allowed to start spontaneously after a 4-day cold soak, then inoculated with FX10 (Clone 169) and F15 (Old Block) on day 6. Peak fermentation temperature reached 30C, and the bins were pressed after 16 total days on the skins.  Aging and malolactic fermentation were carried out in French oak (20% new) for 24 months.

Aromas include a dark fruit component of black raspberry, plum jam and cherry, as well as some floral undertones.  Well-balanced, bright fruit shines through on the palate, but the underlying tannic structure is the secret sauce of this ageworthy Cab.  Tannins will likely soften in 1-2 years and it should start to peak by 2025.

Price:  $60

 

2017 Pinot Noir

The favourable vineyard conditions in 2017 allowed for a later than average harvest date for Pinot Noir.  It’s rare that we can hang Pinot into October, but most times we do have resulted in memorable wines (think 2009).

We chose to hand-harvest 2484 kg of fruit from rows 2, 3, 4, 5 & 12 of our Old Block on October 3rd, 2017.  The large, tight clusters were sorted three times on their way to three separate one-tonne bins, and fermentations were allowed to start spontaneously after a 4-day cold soak at 15C.  One bin was allowed to ferment wild, one was inoculated at 1/3 sugar depletion with RC212 and the other with W15.  All bins were pressed after a total time of 15 days on the skins, then racked to barrel and inoculated with malolactic strain MBR31.  The wine was housed in French oak (28% new) for 24 months.

The 2017 Pinot Noir features terroir-driven notes of wild strawberry, cherry, truffle and violets.  Tannins are smooth initially, allowing you to take in the flavours and texture, then pick-up in intensity near the finish to extend the length and invite another exploratory sip.

I’m excited to see if this Pinot evolves as interestingly as those from other cooler vintages. Could be a candidate for long term cellaring (2025-2027).

Price: $60

 

2019 Riesling

The 2019 vintage will be remembered for its abundances.  Primarily the abundant rainfall, which led to dense canopies, tight clusters and heavy disease pressure in all varietals.  Botrytis removal was a full time job in the days leading up to harvest, just to assure the grapes would be acceptable to ferment!  Luckily, Riesling is one varietal where a little bit of botrytis is the norm, and something we take into account when crafting our particular style.

Pressed juice was 100% fermented in stainless steel with two separate yeast strains: W15 (55%) and X5 (45%). Tanks were fermented cool (10C) for 37 days and stopped slightly off-dry (specific gravity 1.005) to balance the ample natural acidity – another abundance in 2019!

The 2019 “Jean’s Block” Riesling exhibits intense aromas of white peach, apple, pear and honeysuckle. It is refreshing yet balanced, and relatively full-bodied for a Riesling. The interesting texture might be the result of extended lees aging and the minor botrytis influence.

It is best enjoyed slightly chilled at 50-60F. I took the liberty of trying many bottles at many different temperatures to make this determination. This is as close to a Five Rows “Winemaker’s favourite” as I’ve ever been willing to admit.

Price:  $40

 

2019 Sauvignon Blanc

What is it that makes our Sauvignon Blanc unique?

This is a question I’ve been asked with great regularity over the years, but always chalked it up to the fact that many people hadn’t tried Niagara Sauvignon Blanc before.  As the years roll by, and more people continue to inquire about this wine they can’t believe is from a vineyard in St. David’s, I am starting to realize there might be more to the story – so lets dig in.

It always starts with terroir.  There is a uniqueness to where these grapes are grown that is evident in the differences between our “Young” and “Old” blocks, planted a mere lane width away from each other.  One resides in heavy clay and the other clay-loam.  Remarkably, the fruit is vastly different in both flavour and ripening profile.  Blended together they always make for a more complex wine.

In the vineyard, I tend to train and thin Sauvignon Blanc (and Pinot Gris for that matter) more like red varietals – with lower crop levels, good exposure, and “social distancing” of clusters to minimize disease.

Then there are the magic old barrels.  I used to be embarrassed to admit I’ve been using the same barrels for ten years without properly sterilizing them (we don’t have a barrel washer), but I’m starting to think that these tartrate-laden vessels might be part of the reason our Sauv Blanc smells and tastes so distinctive.

In 2019, equal amounts of fruit were harvested from our Young and Old blocks on September 21st, with ideal parameters for crafting aromatic and lively Sauv Blanc (19.2 degrees Brix, 7.88 g/L TA).  I chose to ferment 80% of the juice in mostly older French oak (12% new) and the remaining 20% in stainless steel.

Everything was inoculated with yeast strain X5 and the barrel-fermented portion went through partial spontaneous malolactic fermentation. All vessels were fermented cool (10 C) for 27 days and stopped at a specific gravity of 0.998.

Due to the COVID-related delay in bottling, this wine was nervously barrel aged for 2 months longer than initially planned.  Thankfully, the extra bulk aging time seemed to benefit the aromatic complexity and overall texture of this wine.

It features intense notes of ripe pineapple, starfruit and lime along with great natural acidity. Best served between 55-65F.

Price:  $40

 

2019 Pinot Gris

Roughly 1500 kg were harvested on September 21th, following a stretch of hot, humid conditions that had been absent for the majority of summer.

The rare luxury in 2017 was being able to harvest the Pinot Gris with good natural acidity (TA = 8.7 g/L) to balance the ripe flavour components in the juice. 80% of the juice was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and 20% in stainless steel.

Two different yeast strains (X5, R2) were used to ferment cool (9C) over 26 days, and stopped at a specific gravity of 0.998. Partial spontaneous malolactic fermentation took place in the barrel-fermented portion of wine.

The appearance of this Pinot Gris is unmistakable, with its golden straw colour and light pinkish hue. The aromas come in subtle layers: I get Honeycrisp apple, apricot, vanilla and fresh melon, but you’ll probably pick out a few more.

This wine is best served at 55-65F to highlight its balance and wonderful Pinot Gris texture.

Price: $40

 

2019 Release

2016 Syrah

The surprise reaction to our 2015 Syrah (you had to be in the barn to catch the unmistakable “Syrah double-take”) has many people curious about what is in store for 2016.  In fact, you can hear a thorough breakdown of our 2015 Syrah at the 33:20 mark on this episode of Two Guys Talking Wine – a fun podcast with André Proulx and Michael Pinkus.

Hand-harvesting for the 2016 Syrah took place on October 11th, with about 1000 kg sourced from each of our Clones (7 and 100).  The fermentations were conducted in open top bins and manually punched down three times daily.  They were allowed to initiate spontaneously after a four day cold soak, then inoculated with RX60 (Clone 100) and FX10 (Clone 7) on day 6.  Both bins were pressed after a total time of 14 days on the skins, then racked to barrel and inoculated with malolactic bacteria MBR31.  The wine was aged in French oak (20% new) for 24 months.

Early on, I worried the 2016 Syrah would come across so ripe that it would be considered more of a one-off vintage than a typical example of our cool-climate style.  But as the wine evolved in barrel, I became more excited about its prospects of becoming something unique, yet familiar at the same time.  This complex Syrah comes at you with aromas of dark fruit, sweet peppercorn, and floral notes.  It is both ripe and savoury on the palate, with surprisingly smooth tannins; should age well to 2024.

Production:  133 cases

Price:  $55

 

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon

Based on the sheer number of inquires we’ve fielded on it’s release date, the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most anticipated red wines we’ve bottled in recent memory.

On November 9th, 2016, we hand-harvested 1500 kg of beautiful Cab from a combination of rows 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13 in our Clone 169 Block and rows 8 & 13 in our “Old Block” –  and in retrospect, I wish we had kept a few more rows for ourselves!

The fermentations were allowed to start spontaneously after a four day cold soak, then inoculated with FX10 (Clone 169) and F15 (Old Block) on day 6.  Peak fermentation temperature reached 30 C, and the bins were pressed after 15 total days on the skins.  Aging was carried out in French oak (25% new) for 24 months.

I’m of two minds on the 2016 Cab Sauv, in that it is showing very well right now – much smoother than similar versions at release (2007, 2010, 2012) – but I do feel this wine will only improve and blossom with age.  I can say this with much more confidence than I used to, based on the feedback we’ve received from the many people aging our Cab’s going back to 2004.

Showcasing an abundance of the classic cherry and cassis notes associated with our terroir, this wine smells as intense as it tastes.  There is a richness to the palate, with good balancing acidity and evolved tannic structure.  It should age well to 2025 and, perhaps, beyond!

Production:  108 cases

Price:  $55

 

2016 Pinot Noir

It stands to reason that the most difficult years to craft good Pinot Noir are usually the best years for later varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Namely, it’s easy to overdo your Pinot when they are rapidly ripening in the hottest part of the summer (think 2007 vintage versus 2009).  Leaning on past experience, I took steps to delay the maturation process in 2016 – with a later thinning of green clusters (post-veraison) and less intense leaf removal.

All of these efforts did not go unnoticed, as in my harvest notes I have scribbled:  “By far the cleanest we’ve ever picked”  – Wilma

The advantage of older vines vs. younger vines was also apparent in 2016, as we saw the fruit in our younger block (Clone 777) ripen quicker and lose acidity much faster than our older block (Clone 115).  We chose to hand-harvest 2500 kg from rows 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 14 of our Old Block on September 13th, 2016.  The clusters were sorted three times on the way to three separate one-tonne bins, and fermentations were allowed to start spontaneously after a four day cold soak at 15 C.  Each bin was then inoculated with cultured yeast at 1/3 sugar depletion to aid in finishing fermentation (65% RC212, 35% W15).  All bins were pressed after a total time of 15 days on the skins, then racked to barrel and inoculated with malolactic strain MBR31.  The wine was housed in French oak (30% new) for 24 months.

The end result is an elegant Pinot from a hot vintage, with ample acidity and tannins that should help it develop in bottle.  Ripe with familiar, terroir-driven notes of wild strawberry, cranberry, cherry, truffle and spices, it should age well to 2024.

Production:  161 cases

Price:  $55

 

2018 Sauvignon Blanc

I embrace the opportunity to work with Sauvignon Blanc as a varietal, but over the years it has proven to be a wine of unforeseen challenges and pressure.

First there are the viticultural challenges.  Canopy management and vine balance proved to be those hurdles in 2018 –   creating adequate fruit exposure to combat the higher disease pressure, but not so much to bake the berries in the scorching heat.  Thankfully, no irrigation was needed in these deep-rooted old vines, which was advantageous in weathering the dry conditions we faced in May, June and July.

Each year the harvest timing decision in our Sauv Blanc is ultimately made on flavour development in the berries, which – like acidity levels – can vanish overnight if you are not careful.  Our rows were harvested on September 4th, with ideal parameters for crafting aromatic and lively Sauv Blanc (20.4 degrees Brix, 8.0 g/L TA).

Then there are the stylistic challenges (i.e. the pressure to get it right!).  Based on what has worked in previous ripe vintages, I chose to ferment 75% of the juice in neutral French oak and the remaining 25% in stainless steel.  Everything was inoculated with X5 yeast, and went through partial spontaneous malolactic fermentation.  All vessels were fermented cool (9 C) for 25 days and stopped at a specific gravity of 0.998.

Finally there are the logistical challenges.  We produced 220 cases of 2018 Sauv Blanc, by far our largest bottling, but I anticipate that will not be quite enough to meet the demand.  So why not just make more?  For starters, it is difficult to source clean, previously used white wine barrels.  The seven older barrels I currently use average ten years of age, and will need to be gradually replaced in the near future.  Incorporating a brand new barrel into the fray might be necessary, but at what cost to my preferred style?  I’m hoping the answer lies in a new barrel I’ve sourced (“Piano” – by Tonnellerie Rousseau) that comes highly recommended for it’s gentle treatment of aromatic whites.

These are the things I wrestle with up until I sample the recently bottled 2018 Sauv Blanc and realize that a wine of challenges and pressure has somehow become a wine of relief.

Production:  220 cases

Price:  $35

 

2018 Pinot Gris

Our Pinot Gris block is currently the smallest of our plantings.  Just an acre or so of vines, struggling away in the heaviest clay on our farm.  Although generally beneficial for wine quality, the clay soil has led to inconsistent vine vigour issues over the years.

I’ve never minded the small size of the block, as Pinot Gris is my nemesis when it comes to disease pressure, vine upkeep and training…so, of course, we’ve decided to plant more in 2019!  I will no doubt regret this decision on many occasions in the future, but for now I will bask in the joy of young vines and untapped potential.  Expect to taste this fruit sometime after 2021.

The warm, dry summer of 2018 helped produce some very ripe, thick-skinned Pinot Gris by early September. About 2000 kg were harvested on September 4th, after three days of painstaking Botrytis removal (not an easy task in PG!).  We chose to pick at an optimal TA level (7.7 g/L) to avoid having to supplement with tartaric acid.  60% of the juice was fermented in neutral French oak barrels and 40% in stainless steel.  The yeasts we chose to use were: R2 (for texture and flavour) and X5 (aromatic development).  It was fermented cool (9 C) for 21 days, and stopped at a specific gravity of 0.998.  Partial spontaneous malolactic fermentation took place in the barrel-fermented portion of wine.

The thicker skins are evident in the pinkish-gold colour and unmistakable texture of this wine, which also features aromas of apricot, baked peach, honey and vanilla.

Production:  135 cases

Price:  $35

 

2018 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

I was caught a little off guard by how fast the Riesling ripened in 2018.  I usually count on a few weeks between the end of the early whites and onset of Riesling, but the steadily rising sugar content, crashing acidity and mounting botrytis threat led to an abnormally early harvest date of September 17.

If you were ever going to craft a Riesling with a slight botrytis-affected component, this was the year.  Ask anyone in the industry just how quickly and intensely their Riesling and other mid-season whites were sucked into a black hole of rot, and they will shudder at the thought.  Our vineyards were stagnant with humid air for the whole second half of September.

This called for many pre-harvest days spent dropping affected clusters and berries before being comfortable with fruit condition.  The general rule of thumb is that 5% is an acceptable level of botrytized berries, but even 1% makes me nervous – mainly for filtration purposes.  Having said all of that, there can be good things about having a tiny bit of botrytis in your white wine, such as increased aromatic complexity, that might be apparent to some in the 2018 Riesling.

Pressed juice was 100% fermented in stainless steel with two separate yeast strains: W15 (55%) and X5 (45%).  Tanks were fermented cool (9 C) for 28 days and stopped slightly off-dry, at a specific gravity of 1.005, to balance the ample natural acidity.

The 2018 “Jean’s Block” Riesling exhibits a showy nose of floral, fruity and mineral elements; with hints of orange blossom, fuzzy peach candy and green apple.

Production:  135 cases

Price:  $35

The Five Rows Barn is set to re-open on weekends starting June 1st, 2019.  See you soon!

Five Rows Release 2018

2015 Pinot Noir

On particularly trying winemaking days, I can usually convince myself that I would be perfectly content just growing and selling grapes.  This assumption was emboldened by a recent accolade received by all the wines made from Lowrey Pinot Noir.

With the stressful filtering and bottling sessions behind us, I nervously pour myself the first glass of newly bottled 2015 Five Rows Pinot Noir…and all the reasons we started a winery in the first place come swirling back.  The familiar hallmarks of our terroir leap from the glass and reassure my skeptical nose.  I experience the wine first in aromas and flavours, then in memories (good and bad) of my days spent in that vineyard.  The balanced finish and pleasing tannins give me hope that the 2015 Pinot Noir will create future memories for all those who choose to cellar it.

Thanks to Rick Vansickle for his kind words, and to all the Winemakers who do such wonderful things with our fruit.  Most of all, I thank the late Karl Kaiser – my words will never be enough to adequately honour him for the legacy he helped inspire.

 

2015 Syrah

After a second consecutive extreme winter in 2014-15, most of our Syrah vines simply said “uncle”.  The majority of primary buds were dead, and many of those that did bud out eventually collapsed.  We were left with a shoot here and a cluster there, making it very difficult to look after the vineyard in a balanced manner.  It was a pleasant surprise when we were able to eke out enough fruit for 4 barrels.

I will always associate the 2015 Syrah with living in a trailer beside the barn during harvest (our home was undergoing major renovation).  Those memorable Airstream days featured a leaky roof, cool weather, sleeping in a small bed with three dogs, exciting playoff baseball (the Jays losing ALCS Game 6 to the Royals – ugh) and, eventually, nice ripe Syrah!

The 2015 Syrah features a uniquely smoky nose, with hints of pepper and cassis.  The palate is more fruit-driven than the nose lets on, and exhibits the typical cool climate Syrah savouriness and texture that I love.

 

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been crafting Cab Sauv longer than any other varietal, and this – the 11th Five Rows Cab – is a striking amalgam of its forebears.  It has the noticeable concentration of 2005 (another short crop year), the unmistakeable ripeness of 2004, 2007 and 2010, the floral subtleties of 2008 and 2009, the wonderful aromatic strength of 2011 and 2012, and it shows the versatility of being drinkable now and potentially ageable like the 2013 and 2014.

Then again, aren’t we all a patchwork of those that came before?

 

2017 Sauvignon Blanc

The summer rains of 2017 made vine vigour and crop level control in Sauv Blanc absolutely paramount.  The vintage was rescued by the dry heat of September, which helped to ripen what were now massive berries and clusters.  For once, we had the luxury of harvesting the crop with as much acidity as was desired (we opted for 8.5 g/L).

I’ve always enjoyed my Sauv Blanc a little on the “crisper” side, both as a food pair and sipping wine.  The 2017 is an example of that style, more so because of the conditions we faced than anything done differently in the winery.  We stuck with the tried and true formula of a 75% older French oak / 25% stainless steel fermentation ratio – all with X5 yeast.  The amount of malolactic fermentation that took place is my only secret…mainly because I have no idea.

 

2017 Pinot Gris

I think it’s okay to reveal that I’m usually partial to the barrel-fermented portion of our Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.  Of all the wines we crafted in the 2017, however, my favourite was the tank-fermented Pinot Gris.

It was so tropical and lush that I toyed with the idea of keeping it separate and releasing it on its own.  The problem became one of logistics, as it was only 300L or so – making it an awkward volume to support a one-off bottling.  In the end, the final blend proved to be far more complex than the individual components, so I don’t regret the decision to give my precious tank over to the barrels.  We’ll always have that month of fermentation…

 

2017 Riesling

I consider Jean’s Block Riesling to be the most “personal” of our wines for many reasons, but mainly because I dial it in to my palate specifically.  I taste the fermentation constantly near the end of its time, and stop it at the precise point where I feel the residual sugar level balances the natural acidity.

It occurs to me now that the fatal flaw in “personal” winemaking is this:  you are the only one to blame if the wine is perceived to be out of balance by everyone else!  Thankfully for yours truly, the aromatics of this wine are the real star, and rival the Sauv Blanc in intensity – something I’d never have been willing to concede in year’s past.

 

The Five Rows Barn is set to re-open on weekends starting June 2nd, 2018.  See you soon!

2017 Release

2016 Sauv Blanc

2014 Pinot Noir

Production: 143 cases

Aromas –  cherry, floral (violet), red licorice (Nibs), truffle, earth, mushroom

Palate –  typical “Lowrey terroir” profile of ripe cherry, pleasing acidity and evolved tannic structure

 

2014 Syrah

Production: 122 cases

Aromas –  wild black raspberry, pepper, cooked meat, tobacco

Palate –  ripe red fruit (cherry, plum), savoury core, smooth tannins make it hard not to drink right now

 

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

Production: 123 cases

Aromas –  wild black raspberry, cherry, bell pepper, violet

Palate –  cherry flavoured candy, currant, dark chocolate, structural versatility to enjoy now with meats and cheeses or to lay down for another few years

 

2016 Sauvignon Blanc

Production: 220 cases

Aromas –  pineapple, starfruit, grapefruit, peach drink, vanilla bean

Palate –  ripe tropical flavours balanced by crisp citrus notes, lingering finish, best enjoyed just below room temperature

 

2016 Pinot Gris

Production: 110 cases

Aromas –  honeydew melon, apricot, whispers of single malt scotch

Palate –  full-bodied, balanced, signature Lowrey Pinot Gris texture, tastes like Wilma’s homemade butter tarts

 

2016 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

Production: 119 cases

Aromas –  intense and alluring, floral notes with strong citrus undertones, apple

Palate –  zippy acidity, a real depth of flavour, balanced finish, excellent food pairing wine, serve slightly chilled

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

 

Dormancy and Dinners

Perhaps the number one thing I look forward to each winter season is the opportunity to participate in a few Winemaker Dinners with my family.  When the vines are dormant I tend to be as well, so invitations to be a part of these lavish evenings are received with great joy!

We were very fortunate this year to be featured at a dinner hosted by the Ontario Wine Society (Toronto Chapter) where the theme was a celebration of Lowrey Vineyard Terroir through a comparison of wines made from our fruit.  The OWS brought together a wonderful group of winemakers who’ve worked with our grapes over the years – specifically Pinot Noir.  The event took place at Barque Butcher Bar and the pairings were facilitated by Michael Godel, who spoke very kindly and shared some flattering observations about our humble little vineyard in St. David’s.

Thomas Bachelder acted as host for the evening and I would’ve been perfectly content to listen to Thomas wax poetic about Terroir and Pinot Noir for the entire night if it was up to me!  Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Wines also brought some very interesting insight to the Terroir debate, as well as some stellar wines.  He pointed out that he sees hallmarks of Lowrey Terroir not only among certain varietals like Pinot, but across varietals as well.  We all agreed that there are distinctive elements that define the Lowrey flavour and aromatic profile, as well as textural and mouthfeel similarities.  Ilya also noted that as our collective wines age (that is wines made by Bachelder, Five Rows and Leaning Post from Lowrey fruit) the similarities of Terroir tend to become more pronounced.  The effect of the winemaker giving way to the effect of Terroir over time is a very interesting concept indeed.

I feel very proud that Mario Adamo thought enough of our Five Rows wines to inquire about purchasing some of our fruit for his own winery venture.  The dynamic brother-sister duo of Julie and John Paul Adamo joined us for the evening, and Julie did a great job taking us through their journey to start a winery in the hills of Hockley Valley.  It was exciting for me to see what an excellent job they’ve done with the Pinot Noir from our 2008 planting.  I see great potential for this block based on their initial efforts, and I highly recommend giving the wines of Adamo Estate Winery a try sometime soon!

Highlights of the dinner were detailed in the latest OWS newsletter and can be read here.

The Grand Crew

 

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)