The Rains of 2013

It is not the most glamorous time to be a grape grower.  I’m reminded of this in the midst of a downpour, as I trudge through shin deep mud on my way to cut rotten bunches out of barely ripe Riesling.  I pull my hood tight and turn on my radio headphones in hopes of a distraction from the gloom.  “There will likely be snow next week,” the announcer says as I slop past many tons of yet to be harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  Icewine anyone?

It’s been that kind of year.  As farmers we’re quite accustomed to being at the mercy of mother nature, and have in fact been spoiled by six consecutive years of decent growing conditions – with a couple of real beauties sprinkled in!  It’s rare in any type of farming to have more than a few good years in row.  Hence, you’re never as rich as your best year and you’re never as poor as your worst.

At times like this it’s important to remember that you can only do everything in your power to give yourself the chance to produce premium fruit.  I’m confident we’ve done just that and I still believe it a possibility to craft great wines from these grapes, albeit with less room for error.

My parents remind me of the “old days” when wet vintages seemed to be a little more common.  Tales of stuck harvesters and trucks  – and fields so saturated with water that the only choice was to hand pick and hand load (no tractor!) whole vineyard blocks thick with fruit.  It stands to reason that in wet years the crop is usually much heavier and far more difficult to harvest.

I finally get to Jean’s Block and in the time it takes me to knock the clods of mud off my boots, the rain abruptly stops.  Halfway down the first row I fail to discover as many rotten clusters as I had anticipated and the sun even threatens to peek out of the clouds.  As I approach the old pear tree hill that is now Ravine Vineyard I start to smell the most amazing aromas coming from atop the hill.  I’m reminded of the hearty lunches that we traditionally enjoy on those cold harvest days.  With that, the glamour returns.

A Few Reviews

We’ve had the good fortune this summer to play host to a wide variety of wine enthusiasts.  Each tasting is enjoyably unique and it’s been a pleasure to meet so many new fans of our wine.  The feedback for our newest wines has been wonderfully motivational, as every thank-you note, email, review, recommendation and bottle registered on our provenance page makes working outside in the blazing July heat and humidity much easier to endure!

Here are a few recent reviews from some of those visitors:

Rick VanSickle – Wines in Niagara

Zoltan Szabo – City Bites Magazine

Fouduvin Wine Forum

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%

Mother Nature or Winemaker’s Nurture?

The last couple of weeks saw a flurry of action at our family vineyard.  The “perfect” summer of 2012 ended with a stretch of wet weather that spawned nervous moments and tough decisions.  Looking back, I probably worried more than I should have (what’s new) because the fruit hung on wonderfully through the intense downpours and resultant humidity.  In a nine day span we were able to harvest all of our Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.  It’s rare that all four of these varietals mature within such a short window.  Perhaps that is what we will remember most when we enjoy the wines of 2012, just how early and quickly everything ripened.  Even the later varietals taste like they are not too far off – a very exciting prospect!

As I fall into my daily ritual of fermentation checks (specific gravity, temperature and taste), I ponder whether this may be my favourite time to be a winemaker.  I enjoy the solemnity of this stage,  the wines are mine and mine alone.  It won’t be long until I share them with my friends, but for now they are mine to protect and nurture.  Each day there are surprises and letdowns, comebacks and revelations, but most of all there is respect for a process that I did not invent, nor will I ever perfect.  I will only get so many chances to do this in my lifetime.

I used to feel pressure at this stage to repeat past successes, but now I know that it is a foolish pursuit.  The wines will be what they were destined to be the moment the grapes were clipped from the mother vine.  The job of the farmer is what crafts these wines.  Sure, I control the fermentation with choice of yeast, temperature and nutrition, but I can no longer impact the natural elements of the harvested grape.  It is those natural elements, supplied by the Terroir, that make a wine special.

I hold out high hopes for these young wines as they bubble their way through fermentation.  The Pinot Noir is particularly intriguing this year.  The aromatics are so intense!  There are few things I enjoy more than punching down a bin of actively fermenting Pinot.  It is a grunt at times, but also very therapeutic and mesmerizing (according to Wilma).  Your entire year’s work reduced down to a single vessel of beautiful aromas and colours.  As I said, a good time to be a winemaker.

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.

A Dinner With Friends


A winemaker prepares for a “Winemaker’s Dinner” with the hope that his or her wines will show their best and contribute positively to the evening’s festivities and fare.  My pre-dinner jitters were immediately settled when I walked into Treadwell’s on Saturday and was greeted by so many familiar faces.  It was like walking into the warm atmosphere of a family dinner.

As we drove to Port Dalhousie, I’d managed to convince myself that by now people must be sick of hearing me rattle on about leaf-removal techniques in Pinot Gris or the benefits of whole-bunch pressing in Riesling, but surprisingly that was not the case!  People expressed genuine interest in hearing the behind the scenes viticultural and enological practices that we employ at Five Rows.  I found this very encouraging and flattering.  But let’s not kid ourselves, the people came to hear Howie and Wilma tell their stories – and those two never disappoint!

As one might anticipate, the true star on this night was the food.  James, Jason and staff completely outdid themselves, coming up with a stunning menu that left everyone raving.  The liveliest debate was reserved for deciding which course and pairing was our favourite.  I was partial to the Pinot and Tuna.

It’s always amazing to me that our wines just seem to smell and taste more intense when served at Treadwell’s.  Perhaps it’s the heightened anticipation of the senses or maybe its the proper serving temperature and stemware.   Whatever it is, I was relieved that each wine seemed to go over well.

I decided to use this group as guinea pigs (they seemed rather willing) to demo a blending trial of our yet to be released 2009 Pinot Noir.  The 2009 vintage was a dream for Niagara Pinot growers, who were treated to perfect ripening conditions for a change.  I put together a blend of 85%  2009  Pinot and  5% from each of three different barrels of 2010 Pinot.  The blend composition was determined based on some areas where I felt the wine could use a lift.  One of the 2010 barrels was Clone 777 (first crop), which added an interesting fresh raspberry dimension to the aromatics.  It plays well off the typical burgundian notes always present in the  Clone 115 Old Vine Lowrey Pinot.

We decided to pit this 2009 blend against our 2007 Pinot Noir to see how it stacked up.  I felt that the 2007 had gained some aromatic complexity since I last tried it, but it’s lively tannins tell me that this wine could still benefit from a bit more time in the cellar.  It was agreed that the 2009 blend really showed promise, and some people even preferred it over the 2007!  We will bottle the 2009 (maybe this exact blend) in April, with a release anticipated for early in the summer.

Thanks to all who attended for making this such a memorable experience!



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 Riesling “Jean’s Block”

We often discuss a vineyard year in terms of the wonderful wines that result.  I’ve certainly heard many superlatives thrown around in describing just that from Niagara’s 2007 Vintage.  For a change, I’d like to give a different account of  2007, one of extreme vineyard challenges and of personal highs and lows.  This is the story of Jean’s Block.

I was blessed on February 24th of 2007 to marry my soulmate.  Our honeymoon would have to wait, however, as my hard working new spouse still had some schooling to take care of.  Having just moved back from the easy-goin’ east coast, I was about to embark on my first summer at the helm of our yet to be named winery.  There wasn’t really any wine yet, just nerves and self-doubt.  Were we making the right decision?  Am I really a winemaker?  There was only one way to find out.

My mother-in-law, Jean Tkaczyk, was always a fan of Riesling.  She’d made it clear to me over the years at many lively family dinners that I’d better make her a Riesling one day!  I’d always promise her that I would, but there was that small hurdle of not having any Riesling grapes in our vineyard.  It was never a variety that our winery clients had desired, so it had never been planted.  I fondly remember a trip that Jean, Tanya and I made to Vineland Estates one summer to taste their renowned Rieslings.  I quickly became a convert.  On that day I was convinced that our new winery needed this variety in its portfolio.

My parents and I decided to plant 14 rows of Clone 49 Riesling on the easternmost part of our farm adjacent to Four Mile Creek.  It is a well-drained block, with good airflow and a mixed soil composition of sand and clay-loam.  I was well aware that the ultimate challenge with Riesling is keeping the rot at bay, and these parameters would surely help in our efforts.  Clone 49 originated in Alsace and is widely considered to be better suited for Niagara-on-the-Lake and St.Davids Bench terroir.  It’s known for producing wines featuring floral and tropical fruit notes.

My father spent the spring of ’07 doggedly preparing his field for the coming vines.  It was an exciting time.  We were off to a hot, dry start to the growing season with all varieties well ahead of schedule.  One problem: where were the April showers?  They never came.  For that reason I’ll always remember 2007 as a challenging drought year more than anything else.  We actually had to purchase irrigation equipment!  This was unimaginable on a farm that had been bathed with adequate rainfall for five generations.  There had been dry years in the past but nothing like this.  Maddeningly, it would rain in Queenston and Virgil, but not in St. Davids.  It was a bleak prognosis for our soon to be planted Riesling.  Young vines need lots of water, and there simply wasn’t enough available in the soil.  As the time to plant drew near,  however, this was the furthest thing from our minds.

Heartbreak.  We lost Jean to cancer that summer.  I’ll never be able to understand such things.  She will always be remembered with love and her zest for life is still resonant in her children.  Her Riesling vines were planted in sorrow.

When I work in Jean’s Block today, three years later, I’m struck by it’s beauty.  Not only did it survive the drought of 2007, it thrived.  It is without a doubt the prettiest spot on our farm.  I’m reminded of Jean every time I look up to see a majestic hawk or encounter a curious cardinal sitting on the top wire.  She loved nature and took every opportunity to get her hands dirty in the garden.  I’ll never take these earthly pleasures for granted again.  My worries magically disappear in Jean’s Block.

The first crack at making wine from this vineyard came in 2009.  We harvested about 500kg of fruit on October 25th.  The cool ferment was carried out solely in stainless steel with W15 yeast.  The wine was left slightly off-dry (14 g/L), but has plenty of acidity to balance the sweetness.  We bottled 36 cases on August 30th, 2010.

Bottles #2 through 437 are now available to you.  Bottle #1 was put away for someone special.  I hope she likes it.