Glorious Mud


Being stuck in the mud never felt so good.  The usual nuisance of “sinking while pruning” seems a welcome hindrance this year.  My smile widens with each heavy step and I can’t help thinking that “thaw” is a beautiful word.

There are many things that signal spring to my internal body clock: bottling new wines, the smell of melted wax and new cardboard, writers cramp, bud counts, the Masters, muddy paws and baseball.  Together, they form a complex emotional mix of stress (bottling and dead buds) and thrilling relief (tasting the new wines and the promise of golf season).

April 2nd was my own personal vernal equinox this year, as we bottled all of our new wines (830 cases!) without a hitch.  It represents the culmination of three years of work for the 2012 reds and a year for the 2014 whites.  Big thanks to all of my helpers, from the case fillers to the bottle dumpers to the humble stackers.  I’ve said it before, but my biggest advice to someone starting a mini craft winery like ours would be to find a reliable mobile bottling line.  Glenn, Randy and Justin from Hunter Bottling make my life easy on bottling day.  The new truck is amazing!

Those who’ve joined our contact list will receive an email in the coming weeks with details of the new release.  Our goal is to re-open the barn by May 1st and I can’t wait for everyone to try the new wines!

Good to the last drop!



Cheers to A Successful Season!

My first experiences with the marathon that is a winery-based harvest came at Blomidon Estate in Nova Scotia, then later back in Ontario at Creekside.  I was completely unprepared for the long haul that loomed ahead.

Prior to Blomidon I was only familiar with the limited perspective of the grape grower.  When the crop was off, your job was done!  I was ignorant to the efforts that went into processing and fermenting our freshly picked fruit.  My early days in Nova Scotia taught me that it was far more difficult being responsible for the combined task of growing the grapes and making the wine.  Despite the initial ass-kicking, I somehow rationalized starting my own winery just a few years later.

I took much of what I learned at Blomidon and applied it at Five Rows.  As a smaller producer than most, I concede we have it easy compared to the big guys, and that is partly by design.  Our collection of varietals lends itself to a nice even picking schedule, with a bit of a break mid-harvest.  While everyone else is taking in Chardonnay and Merlot, we usually have the time to finish up pressing Pinot Noir and begin preparation for Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Each vintage is it’s own beast, a grueling battle with much reward at the end.  Days seem to go on forever early in September then rapidly get shorter as the season draws to a close.  The evening feast is the shining beacon at the end of each day and beer becomes your religion.

Then rather abruptly, like a wall of lake effect snow, it’s all over and you are left wondering what to do with yourself.  You are conditioned to getting up and hitting the ground running, now there is actually time for reflection and leisure.  The daily caffeine and adrenalin rush is no longer required, but can be hard to ween yourself from.

Mostly you try to get back to a normal life.  Your significant other barely remembers who you are and rightfully expects you to make up for three months of being absent and tired.  So now is the time to give back.

This year I spent my first day of “freedom” raking leaves in the snow, walking the dogs and picking up groceries…and enjoying every minute of it!

2012 Riesling Vinification Notes

2012 “Jean’s Block” Riesling

Vineyard:  Our Clone 49 Riesling vines budded out very early in 2012, perhaps two weeks ahead of a normal year.  Although this may sound advantageous, it was actually problematic.  A sudden frost followed bud-break and many fragile buds were frozen dead.  Luckily, we left an extra cane that could be tied down to add a few precious growing shoots to the sparse canopy.  The summer growth period proceeded nicely with warm temperatures and little rain.  A lighter crop load required less thinning and ripened quickly near the end of August.

Winery:  The bulk of our Riesling is purchased by Fielding Estate Winery.  In talking with Winemaker (and friend) Richie Roberts, I learned that he likes to harvest Riesling with fairly high acidity to give some vibrant life to the resultant wine.  As a bit of a “Riesling rookie” myself, I decided to experiment with this approach and harvest our 2012 crop at a higher TA value than I normally would.  We brought in our Riesling on September 13th (earlier than ever) and the pressed juice tasted beautiful!  The higher TA meant a juice with lower pH, and consequently a sluggish start to the fermentation.  Eventually, with the help of a little extra nutrient, the W15 yeast hit its stride and worked at a nice slow pace over the next month and a half.  The fermentation was finally halted on Halloween at a specific gravity of 1.006, a point where I perceived balance on my palate.  Over the winter months the wine was protein and cold stabilized prior to coarse filtration.  We bottled 96 cases on March 26, 2013.  The 2012 “Jean’s Block” Riesling is now available for purchase in our barn.

Price: $25.00

Alcohol: 12.0%

“Off With The Cabs!” (and hurry)

Never in my experience as a Viticuluralist has the end of a growing season been so clearly defined.  A couple of weeks back I glanced at the long term forecast and didn’t like what I saw.  As the resulting “Frankenstorm” began taking shape, the decision to harvest our last fruit of the season on Friday, October 26th was an easy one.

The sunny and warm conditions we experienced that day belied the imminent storm hovering in the Atlantic.  We happily snipped clusters and reminisced about the unique season we had just experienced.  Unprecedented heat and prolonged periods of drought combined to give us the ripe grapes we now toted to the wagon.  Slowly but surely, the five rows I had chosen for our 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon graciously handed us their bounty.  As usual, we harvested three rows from our younger Clone 169 Block and two rows from our trusty “Old Block”.  I’ve come to appreciate that these two vineyards complement one another very well.  I count on the Clone 169 vines for the ripe, dark fruit characters, while the old block always supplies a uniquely elegant structure.

As we set up the crush pad later that afternoon, I was struck by the harmonious way old vintages seem make way for new ones.  Just as the 2012 Cab Sauv grapes were processed into bins in the back of the barn, the last few cases of 2009 Cab Sauv were making a hasty exit out the front door!   The interior floor space freed up by these case sales was much needed for the incoming bins.  A second example arises as the 2012 Shiraz finishes fermentation.  It would need to be pressed soon, meaning the 2010 Shiraz must be racked out of barrel and blended, so the wood can be re-used to house the pressed 2012’s.  This poetic cycle appeals to my love of order and flow – one in, one out.  The fact that 2010 and 2012 were very similar growing seasons deepens the bond between these two wines that now share both lineage and cooperage.

I would like to thank all the people who have braved the wet weather to pay us a visit over the busy months of harvest.  I apologize to those “first-timers” who came at a time when our once plentiful stacks were now gone or critically low.  We do still have limited quantities of 2009 Pinot Noir and 2009 Cab Sauv Icewine available, and we plan to stay open for tastings until Christmas.  Please stop in if you have a chance.

Cheers to a great vintage!!

2011 “Jean’s Block” Riesling


Many oenophiles consider Riesling to be the best-suited white grape varietal for the rigours of Niagara regional terroir.  It’s a treat to grow, with good crop levels and minimal finicky hand-labour compared to tight-clustered Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.  It has decent winter hardiness and tends to thrive in our slightly “cooler climate” (my current air conditioning bill might disagree with this categorization).

Vinifying Riesling is where things get a little more complicated.  So many different styles and so many variables to experiment with.  Although we grow Alsatian Clone 49 in Jean’s Block, the resultant wines I’ve crafted tend to be an amalgam of varying Riesling profiles.  The 2011 vintage features the subtle, mineral-laden nose of an Alsace Riesling, but the richness and depth of flavour of my favourite German styles.  The natural acidity is the strength of the wine, balanced with a touch of residual sugar.  Over the years, I’ve found that Riesling takes a while to open up after the stress of filtration and bottling, so we usually release it later than our other whites.  Riesling fans will tell you that it’s a mistake to drink it too young anyway!

In the ongoing quest to improve wine quality, we decided to employ a different pressing technique in the fall of 2011 – a gentle, whole-bunch squeeze in our old wooden basket press.  It proved to be very time consuming and a huge headache to clean out, but I think the end product justifies the extra effort.  I also experimented with a different yeast, R2, on 50% of the juice, while using my old standby, W15, on the other half.  Fans of our Pinot Gris might recognize some of the elements that R2 brings – rounder mouthfeel, tropical fruit notes – in this Riesling.

2011 “Jean’s Block” Riesling is a wine that means a lot to me personally.  I welcome you to come by starting this weekend to give it a try.  There are only 48 cases available, so we must limit purchases to 4 bottles per customer.  Retail price is $25 per bottle.

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.

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


Now that I have a few moments on my hands, it’s probably a good time to do a little housekeeping and update everyone as to which wines we currently have available.  After a busy summer, I regret to inform that the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris have officially been sold out, but the following two wines can now be enjoyed:

2008 Five Rows Cabernet Sauvignon

Much will be written about the fabulous “Bordeaux” reds from Niagara in 2007 and 2010.  Little to nothing will be written about the late-ripening reds from 2008 and 2009.  For that reason, I am perhaps more proud of the Cabernet Sauvignon we grew and vinified in 2008, than any other wine we’ve produced.

Trying climatic circumstances called for extreme measures in the vineyard.  As the harvest approached, it became apparent that early season thinning and leaf removal efforts were not going to cut it in 2008.  We doubled our efforts and dropped more fruit than I am normally comfortable with.  The winery I envisioned, however, could only be built on these tough decisions.

On October 24th we harvested only 68 picking boxes from two full rows of our Clone 169 Block.  The fruit was very clean and showed surprising ripeness in both flavour and tannin for its 22.5 degrees Brix.  It was a pleasure to pick and process.  We went on to harvest 82 more picking boxes from our “Old Block” on November 2, after extracting as much life as we possibly could from the dwindling foliage.

The two blocks of fruit were processed into separate one tonne bins, and cold-soaked on the skins for five days.  I decided to try a new yeast strain, Zymaflore FX10, with the slightly riper Clone 169 fruit.  FX10 is known to produce wines defined by their elegance through a combination of structure, volume on the palate and intense colour.  The Old Block fruit was fermented with F15, a new favourite yeast of mine after a successful experiment in 2007.   Both ferments concluded uneventfully after six days with peak temperatures around 30C.  The wine was left on the skins for a further 4 days of post-ferment maceration before pressing.

Malolactic fermentation was carried out in 1 new and 3 older French oak barrels.  It was left in oak for 24 months before final blending and bottling on April 6th, 2011.  Based on previous vintages, I felt that two full years spent in barrel and resisting the temptation to use more new oak were essential to properly aging this Cab Sauv.

The two blocks produced remarkably different wines, ultimately leading to an interesting, complex blend.  I’m always amazed at the differences between individual barrels of wine from the same vineyard.  Is it due to terroir, clonal difference, oak influence, yeast strain, fermentation dynamics or all of the above?  As the years go by I hope to peel back the layers and discover just what makes our Cab Sauv end up the way it does.

The 2008 is an elegant wine, with an aromatic intensity that is unexpected by many who’ve tried it.  It has a delicate, soft mid-palate that suggests early drinkability, unlike 2007.  It is very reminiscent of the 2004 Five Rows Cabernet Sauvignon at this early stage.

2010 Five Rows Riesling  “Jean’s Block”

The 2010 vintage was a hot one.  Niagara vineyards amassed more growing degree days than any year in current recorded history.  This is perfect for ripening reds but can present challenges to producing crisp, aromatic whites.  It was very easy to produce “flabby” and “blousy” white wines in 2010 if grapes were over-thinned, over-exposed to sunlight or left hanging too long.

We harvested and pressed about one tonne of Riesling from Jean’s Block on Septmeber 30, a full two weeks earlier than in 2009.  The picking decision was based strictly on acid and flavour.  Around mid-September the grapes had plenty of sugar (19 degrees brix) to make the style of Riesling I was after, but it took a while to coax out the wonderful flavours I remembered from last year.  Waiting too much longer to pick was a risk, however, as acid levels were declining quickly in the late summer sun.  So September 30th was the day I pulled the trigger.

Following the addition of pectinase enzyme, pressed juice was cold-settled at 4 degrees Celsius for two days.  The clear rackings were then inoculated with W15 yeast, a great choice for optimizing bright fruit characters in aromatic whites.  It’s also a good cool-fermenter, able to withstand temperatures as low as 10C.

I was able to stretch the ferment over two months at an average temperature of 11C.  It was stopped at a specific gravity of 1.005, a level that I felt exhibited balance to my palate.  You have to be careful when stopping a ferment for off-dry balance as sometimes the carbon dioxide bubbles can lead to a raised perception of acidity, tempting you to halt the ferment too soon.  My rule of thumb is to taste often until I find the right balance, then wait 12 hours before killing the ferment.   It seems to have worked for most of my whites thus far.

Over the course of the next three months, the wine was cold stabilized, fined with bentonite and sterile filtered.  78 cases were bottled on April 6, 2011.  As with the 2009, this Riesling went through a lengthy period of bottle shock before I was comfortable that it had returned to the wine I remembered in tank.  Consequently, we waited to release the Riesling three months later than our other 2010 whites.  In the end this proved advantageous, as the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris both sold out very quickly.

Aromatics: citrus, peach, floral notes

Palate: a surprisingly weighty Riesling, it has ample acid to balance the slight amount of residual sugar; pleasing minerality and fruit characters

Price: $25.00/bottle

Production: 78 cases

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine Release


As winter draws near, it’s fitting that our 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine is finally ready for release.  The bottles are signed, the labels have been folded and the wine is drinking beautifully!

Excitingly, we were just informed that this wine has received a silver medal in the Icewine category at the 2011 Canadian Wine Awards.  Full results will be made public in the December issue of Wine Access.  I must admit that this was not an easy wine to make (it drew my ire on many occasions) and to be recognized in this manner is especially gratifying.

I remember the day we harvested this fruit very fondly.  After an evening of perfect freezing conditions (-12 degrees Celsius) it was decided that we would hand pick five rows of specially selected Clone 169 Cabernet Sauvignon.  A beautiful day unfolded before us, with a light snow gently filtering the weak rays of winter sun.  Having spent the last three months fending off voracious flocks of starlings, the relief of harvesting was palpable that morning, and probably helped us brave the cold.

I quickly learned that everything involved in Icewine production is slow and difficult.  Pressing was a very long and drawn out process, but we were thankful for each singular drop of juice that slowly dangled and fell from the press spout.  The fermentation was also a marathon, as yeast don’t normally take kindly to such extreme conditions.  Proper nutrition and attention to fermentation dynamics were of the utmost importance.  Slowly but surely the sugar became alcohol and the amazing Icewine flavours began to reveal themselves.  The goal was to produce an Icewine that would not be perceived as being “too sweet” and I think we achieved that.

The challenge continued when it came to filtering and bottling this lucious, thick liquid.  In fact, it required as many pads to filter this measly 270L as I used for the rest of my entire 2009 vintage!  Bottling into narrow 200ml glass was a treat as well.  First the corks wouldn’t fit properly, then the bottles started tipping over on the filling line.  Keep in mind that any spillage of icewine is magnified many times simply due to it’s scarce supply.

Perhaps the easiest and most enjoyable part of this wine was the label design.  It’s a fun process and I’m always impressed with the original concepts that are born on the magic blackboard at Insite Design.  They always seem to come up with ways to make my wines feel special.  For a sneak peek at the package concept of this wine click here.

Many times over the course of this Icewine experiment I promised myself that under no circumstances would I ever do this again.  Based on the tremendous response to this wine, however,  I may now have to eat crow and reconsider.

Sometimes crow tastes good.


2008 Five Rows Pinot Noir Vinification Notes

2008 Five Rows Pinot Noir:

Now that we’ve been at this venture for a few years, it’s interesting to look back at my old blog entries upon the release of a new wine.  This entry from October 6, 2008 aptly tells the story of our 2008 Pinot Noir:

“Vintage ‘08 is upon us and to this point things have been…well…in a word …WET!!  Enough rain already.  I mean just when I thought we were in the clear we got doused by the remnants of a hurricane, and for the record: I don’t like Ike. Thankfully, the last couple of weeks have more than made up for the rain, with plenty of sunshine and perfect ripening conditions for the early varietals.

As per usual, the “Heartbreak Grape”, Pinot Noir, lived up to its moniker and provided lots of nervous moments and second guessing.  In fact, one day in the vineyard while pondering a harvest timing decision, I found myself singing aloud to the Clash hit “Should I Stay or Should I Go”.  The Pinot were clean but slightly underripe, with threatening weather on the horizon (“If I go there will be trouble / And if I stay it will be double”).  Ultimately, we decided not to pick and wait out what suddenly became Hurricane Ike.  All the water led to some berries actually splitting and roused us into action.  Led by a Pinot-loving mother hell-bent on saving her crop, the three of us spent two mind-numbing days cutting out individually split berries and underripe clusters.  On September 16th and 17th we finally hand-picked our first two tonnes of fruit.  In the end, what came in was ripe, clean (thus receiving the Wilma stamp of approval) and fermented into some really intriguing stuff.  I experimented with a new yeast strain this season called W15, which after pressing today, is the early favourite to put into our 2 new Sirugue barrels.”

Fast-forward to 2011 and that Pinot-loving mother can be proud of the wine she helped save.  The 2008 is reminiscent of many past wines featuring Lowrey Pinot.  A classic blend of bright cherry fruit, some floral notes and spice dominate the nose.  Flavours of black raspberry and vanilla bean resolve into a pleasingly soft mouthfeel.  Tannins are much more approachable than the 2007 Five Rows Pinot Noir at the same stage.

Technical Data: 12.6% alcohol,  5.4 g/L residual sugar,  pH 3.45

Price:  $50/bottle

Barrels: 5

Production: 106 cases

2008 Five Rows Shiraz Vinification Notes

2008 Five Rows Shiraz:

The tale of Lowrey Shiraz began many years ago with a firm handshake.  Our relationship as a grower for Creekside Estate Winery started in the late 90’s and continues to this day.  Shiraz is a staple for Creekside, grown and vinified to perfection year after year.  Given this success, we naively agreed to plant some of these vines soon after our partnership began.  Little did we know just how sensitive and vigorous Shiraz could be!

This combination of winter sensitivity and summertime vigor is a challenging prospect for the grape grower.  Early in their lives, these vines saw some pretty severe winters that almost led to their extinction in our vineyard.  Massive re-plantings and constant re-trunking were needed to restore their numbers.  Our hard work and patience was rewarded with some stellar vintages in the 2000s, ultimately inspiring me to take a crack at making my own Shiraz in 2008 (and yes, it will always be “Shiraz” not “Syrah” to us because we planted it for an Aussie!).

The fruit for this wine was harvested on October 23 following some pretty dodgy conditions in the summer of 2008.  We initially thinned the vines down to two bunches per shoot, but had to remove additional clusters in the fall, as it became clear that ripening would be a challenge.  We hand-harvested about one tonne of fruit from each of our Shiraz clones (7 & 100), then sorted before de-stemming into fermentation bins.

A long cold soak was employed to help with colour extraction and tannic development.  I chose to ferment the slightly riper Clone 7 fruit with RX60 yeast, but opted for F15 with the Clone 100 bin.  Ferments were carried out at an average pace, with four daily punch-downs.

One new Taransaud barrel, two older French and a lone American oak barrel were used for the maturation process of this wine.  Malolactic fermentation was carried out in barrel.  After 24 months in oak, the final blend was assembled and allowed to mingle for about 8 more months.  This exciting wine was bottled April 6th, 2011.

Aromas:  blackberry, black currant, lavender, smoked game

Flavours:  dark chocolate, coffee bean, raspberry

Production:  105 cases

Technical data:  13.0% alcohol,  pH 3.30,  TA 8.55

Price:  $50.00/bottle