Thinning in the Rain
Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of singing the song “Here Comes the Sun” to my daughter every morning, in hopes of changing the prevailing weather pattern of 2017. I make an effort not to complain too much about the excessive rain around her, just to lessen the chance she grows up to be a crotchety grape farmer. So, instead, we focus on “sunnier” topics and stories from glorious vintages of the past.
She has no idea that you can literally watch the vines grow this year – we must have set some kind of record for photosynthesis by now! I can’t recall a year where every bud on every shoot is alive and thriving. On the macro level this is a great thing (healthy vines, good crop level, replenished water table), but when you are fully immersed in this tropical Niagara jungle on a daily basis, you quickly realize the enormity of task we are up against.
The rains of 2017 have been a frightening reminder that there is no “typical” growing season anymore. There could not be a more stark contrast between two vintages than 2016 and 2017 to this point. Consequently, our vineyard strategies have had to be dramatically altered to account for the increase in shoot growth.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just aggressively thinning down the vines to their “normal” level, because the few leftover shoots and clusters would grow too vigorously. Therefore, I’ve taken more of a staggered approach to thinning this year, letting vines gradually acclimate to the increase in water and nutrient uptake. Keeping more shoots and clusters on the vine for a longer period of time can also be risky, because too much crowding in the canopy might lead to increased disease pressure. So being out there every day thinning, scouting and gauging shoot growth is essential.
Thankfully, the disease pressure has been minimal thus far…that is until we sustained some hail damage over the past week, presenting a new challenge of split and bruised berries. Split berries and excessive humidity are the perfect recipe for Botrytis, so we are pulling leaves and opening up the canopy a little earlier than normal to help dry up the hail damage. For the record, I’m not quite comfortable using the B-word around Frances yet.
This season has proven to be an exercise in patience and adaptation. I hold out hope, looking at the sunny long range forecast, that my determined morning sing-along is finally paying off!
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
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
Times and Diapers are a Changin’
As we get ready for another busy spring season of new wines and budding vines, I’m faced with an unforeseen conundrum. It comes in the form of a nine pound baby girl named Frances, and the seeming lack of hours in a day to do what I used to do.
Those who have read this blog would know me as a hyper-focused creature of habit, eagerly devoting my time to barn and field. In my defence, the task just draws you in completely – to the point where it consumes much of your thought and attention should you let it…and I do. I’ve managed to convince myself that this is the only possible way to make good wine and damned be the person or thing (aside from my dogs) that gets in the way of this ultimate pursuit!
Enter the cuddly conundrum. My wife, Tanya, and I recently decided to start a family and were blessed with a healthy baby girl on March 19th, 2017 – the ultimate reality check. To say that my priorities have been altered would be an understatement, but not quite in the way that I expected. At a time when I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed and stretched thin, I somehow feel more capable than ever to summon the effort required to produce the best possible fruit that our land will allow. Little Frances has no idea that she’s already had a positive impact on the way I approach farming and life.
Perhaps it is a renewed sense of stewardship for future generations or perhaps it is just adrenaline. Either way, I feel more inspired to work hard and less restrained by previous fears and uncertainties. This is entirely due to the support of those around me: Tanya, my parents, retail staff, vineyard crews and our beloved “Five Rows Faithful”. I know I can count on them to keep the barn humming, even when I’m at home being a Dad.
So no need to worry, the wines will get the same attention they always do – you’ll just have to sit through a few baby pictures to get a taste!
My Wines Are My Songs
Few things inspire me more than people who can write and perform music. Every year I try to attend as many concerts as possible to nurture my love of live musical performance. The beautifully raw sound, the connection with the audience and seeing someone uninhibited at the top of their craft is as good as it gets.
I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can never be a rock star, but it struck me one summer night, as I was walking out of a Bahamas show at Jackson-Triggs, that I’m lucky enough to express myself through my wines and in conversations with visitors to our barn.
The more I thought about it, the more I came up with interesting parallels between me and my songwriting idols. Here are a few:
Songs have music and lyrics, wines have viticulture and enology.
I prefer to release “albums” as opposed to catchy singles.
We are constantly being judged, often times right to our face (this can be good and bad).
People want to hear the hits (Sauv Blanc), so you must resist getting tired of playing them and never take them for granted. However, you can’t rest on your laurels and should always strive to create new content.
It can feel monotonous at times, but you have to remember that every performance could be someone’s introduction to your work.
There are times when we want to be new and innovative and times when we’d rather be rooted and old-fashioned.
Like the best songs, wines speak to everyone differently and are often interpreted in unanticipated ways.
Eventually other people take ownership of your work and you have to let it go.
There is much solitary time, but the joy is in sharing your craft.
My wines are my songs – not everyone will like them, but that’s okay.
On behalf of my family, I would like to extend a warm holiday ‘Cheers’ to all those who’ve helped make this our most enjoyable winery season to date. We were thrilled to have so many familiar faces join us for their annual tasting visit – and before we knew it all the wines had left the barn.
To all those who happened upon Five Rows for the first time in 2016, we say welcome, and we look forward to seeing you again next year!
The holidays tend to be a time when our friends dust off and crack open an older vintage of our wine (we do the same), a tradition that we are very proud to be a part of. Please let us know how your bottle has aged and evolved by registering it on our Provenance page.
Merry Christmas to all!
Reflections on 2016
It is difficult to sum up an entire growing season in a couple of words, but I’d bet if you asked a bunch of Ontario grape growers and winemakers to describe 2016, the bulk of them would quickly reply, “hot and dry!”
That will be the narrative going forward, but obviously there is much more to explore about this fascinating season. I learned many things in 2016, most of which the hard way. There was no precedent in my memory bank for such prolonged dry conditions, especially when the weather forecast seemed to feature a constant 60% chance of precipitation five days from now. Front after threatening front would approach and break-up at the escarpment, splitting north and south of St. David’s and leaving us basking in sunlight.
I was reticent to use irrigation early in the season and this proved to be a tactical error. Having completed a Master’s Degree in Viticulture entitled “Examining the Effects of Deficit Irrigation on Cool Climate Chardonnay”, you’d think I’d know better. When we finally decided to irrigate our vines, it was inevitable that a chain would break on our traveler cannon, and the town would impose water restrictions…our drought continued.
The first lesson learned is that you are flying blind if you don’t take steps to measure vine and soil water status to gauge potential stress. It was pointed out to me that this is second nature in BC, but foreign to many Ontario farmers. We tend to think of a drought as something that pops up every five years or so (2007, 2012, 2016), but perhaps it will prove to be a climate change related trend going forward.
Thankfully, the older vines didn’t seem to mind the stressful conditions and continued to thrive. Younger vines, those plated in 2009 and later, showed signs of stress even with supplemental irrigation. Bloom phase is a critical point in the season to ensure the vines have adequate water and nutrition. The lack of early rain in 2016 meant that any spring nutrition added in the form of fertilizer and manure could not percolate down to the roots at bloom, ultimately leading to poor fruit set.
Another observation from this past year is that some blocks have not fully recovered from the winters of 2013 and 2014. Replacement of dead and damaged trunks has left these vineyards unbalanced in terms of vine status, nutrient allocation and ultimately vigour within each row. More evidence is the increase in crown gall virus, which can be caused by cold temperature splitting of trunk tissue.
The effects of the drought may actually have a short term silver lining. In 2016, winemakers were thrilled to see lower crop levels, smaller berry size, moderate vine stress and little canopy growth after veraison – all of which being favourable conditions for crafting premium wines. If the aromatic intensity of the 2016 whites is of any indication, we have may have something to be very excited about.
I’m sure 2017 will present its share of surprises and challenges, but I definitely intend to be more proactive when it comes to the water and nutrient status of my vines.
Am I a writer or am I a winemaker? Is my time better spent writing a blog post or thinning Syrah? These are the types of burning, legacy-defining, useless questions that plague my thoughts over the grueling days of harvest. I believe it to be an innate method of stress deflection to have internal debates about completely nonsensical topics.
The debate continues:
I will be forever grateful to my friends Barry and Leslie for encouraging me to start a blog chronicling some of my family farm stories. However, none of this would have come to fruition had I not become a winemaker first.
From the earliest days of creative writing in grade four, I had an affinity to tell stories – but hated taking the time required to sit down and type them out. I do not possess the patience to write a book.
I am definitely a better writer after consuming a few drinks. Ironically, being a winemaker requires a laser-like, sober focus to achieve best results.
Easy growing seasons in the vineyard make for boring stories and difficult writing (if not boring wines!). Thankfully, Niagara NEVER has easy growing seasons and 2016 has been a prime example. If you weren’t lucky enough to have have old, deep-rooted vines or access to irrigation equipment, your winemaking skills were put to a serious challenge. Everyone loves a wine with a good back story.
Some of my best wine-related writing will never get seen by the masses. It is confined to my private cellar notes and yearly harvest log, which read like great tragedies. I tend to be a “pessimistic optimist” whose emotions rise and fall with the daily fluctuations in weather. Frustration and vulnerability ooze from the wine-stained pages. Conversely, the winemaker in me strives to never let them see me sweat.
In the end, it becomes obvious that all aspects of my job are dependent on one another for me to achieve success. I take comfort in this thought, feeling fortunate to have such a fluid job description.
Writer. Winemaker. Vineyard Philosopher.
Some of my recent thoughts on the 2016 harvest can be seen in video form here.
Vineyard workers sneeze in unison as the unmistakable smell of grapevines in bloom wafts across the peninsula. Each pull of a shoot or yank of a sucker knocks thousands of pollen particles into the air – and eventually into our collective nasal passages to create one mighty “sonic bloom”.
What a difference a year makes. I remember the abject despair with which I traversed these rows last spring, as one vine after another collapsed into oblivion. The growing season of 2015 became more about rejuvenation than celebration in a number of varietals – particularly Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
I can’t begin to describe the relief in watching the tender suckers I white-knuckled together last season become the strong, fully-budding trunks I see before me now. There are still failures, but not nearly in the magnitude of 2015. Ideal weather conditions have helped get us back on track and now I can shift my focus back to formulating a plan to shape and position these burgeoning vines.
Please stay with me here as I attempt to outline a mindset that some may find perplexing. I was a weird kid (you can debate whether this has changed) who always found comfort in a well-organized strategy. Toys were for displaying and cataloging, not playing with. Upon receipt of the official Toronto Maple Leaf 1984-85 Fact Book, I set out to memorize the birthdays and relevant personal facts of the entire roster, just so I could be prepared if anyone ever asked me. Kids growing up in the Google age will never experience the joys of memorizing useless facts – like Walt Poddubny’s pre-game meal or Bill Derlago’s favourite out of town restaurant.
So here is where my head is at when I look out over the vineyard on this first day of summer: roughly 150 rows to tackle, at an average of 3 rows per day, means that I should be able to finish properly fashioning my vines in about 50 days. Factoring in that my progress will be slower as the days get hotter and the vine growth intensifies, and throwing in the odd “wife-mandated” day off, I should be done thinning in about two months.
I’m most efficient working down each row from left to right and prefer not to leave an unfinished row at the end of the day. One veteran move is to always work on the shady side of the row (west side in the morning, east side in the afternoon), as it will keep you cooler throughout the day and the contrast will be better for locating unwanted growth.
My traditional starting point would be the Pinot Noir blocks, but the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are showing the strongest vigour this year, with an inordinate amount of secondary shoots and an explosion of centrally located growth – all of which must go!
There is a method to this mindset, as I find greater motivation when jobs have a clear start and end point. It is one reason why we release wines only once per year. The wine is bottled and the wine is sold, then we start all over again. It may be what appeals to me most about farming – every season has a harvest, an ultimate prize to work toward and celebrate upon it’s completion.
That’s enough typing for now…I’ve got three rows to finish.
The Next Vintage: 2015 Whites
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The story of our 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is filled with both. The bad news starts with the amount of damage sustained by the vines after a second consecutive harsh winter. Very few of the suckers that were brought up to become new trunks in 2014 actually made it into the 2015 growing season. There were those that looked like they were going to bud out, only to agonizingly collapse a couple of weeks later. The sheer number of dead buds made for disproportionate growth and vine vigour issues – meaning lots of extra work. The far north end of the block looked more like the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse than a vineyard, replete with half-dead, split trunks oozing crown gall tumours…
The good news is that we had any Sauvignon Blanc fruit at all! In fact, 2015 was an amazing growing season for whites, with moderate heat and cool nights during peak ripening time. The lighter crop ripened very quickly, ultimately leading to intense concentration of flavours and aromatics. I stuck with my tried and true formula in the winery, with 75% of the juice fermented and aged in my trusty old French oak barrels and 25% done in tank. The finished wine was blended, filtered and then bottled on April 6th, 2016.
Aromas: “a nose for days”; candied pear, lemon/lime, melon, grilled pineapple
Palate: rounder, riper, more weighty mouthfeel; pineapple, hint of lime; enjoyed best at cellar temperature (60-65°F)
Production: 210 cases
2015 Pinot Gris
Our Pinot Gris sustained similar winter damage to it’s neighbouring Sauvignon Blanc, which was surprising because it is considered a much more winter-hardy varietal. Another sobering reminder of just how much sustained extreme cold the vines experienced in the winter of 2014.
The very light crop (about 40% of a normal year) made the vineyard work easier to stay on top of, ultimately producing some of the cleanest fruit we’ve ever seen in that block. Pinot Gris is my favourite varietal to walk through in the fall because of the cool look of the tight, metallic-pink coloured clusters and the intense aromas in the air. Tasting each berry is a treat, as flavours explode in your mouth. You can almost anticipate the texture of the wine they will soon create.
We harvested our ripe Pinot Gris on September 18, 2015. Believe it or not, one of the challenges I face crafting my whites is finding good, used white wine barrels. It seems that more and more winemakers are holding onto their prized neutral wood – and I can’t blame them! I was fortunate this past vintage to pick up some great older white barrels from J.L. Groux at Stratus, and about 66% of my 2015 Pinot Gris juice was the direct beneficiary. All juice was fermented with R2 yeast and likely went through a partial, wild malolactic fermentation.
Appearance: golden pink colour
Aromas: honey, peach, vanilla, Honeycrisp apple, cream soda
Palate: velvety texture, good balance with ample acidity; important not to drink too cold – 60°F is good
Production: 110 cases
2015 “Jean’s Block” Riesling
Many experts feel that it takes about ten years for a planting of grapes to really come into its own. I feel like the wine from “Jean’s Block” is getting more complex with each vintage and it bodes well for this relatively young, 9-year old Riesling block.
What I like most about Riesling is their reliability from a growing perspective. They crop well, ripen without issue and always seem to have enough acidity to make a nice wine, whether your preferred style is dry or off-dry.
We harvested the 2015 crop on October 8th and the fruit came in at 18.3 degrees Brix. Previous vintages have taught me that “two yeasts are better than one” in terms of wine complexity, so I split the juice into two tanks: 900L fermented with W15 and 375L with R2. What resulted was one of the longest fermentations I’ve ever experienced – the ferments started on October 16th and didn’t reach a “balance” point (Specific Gravity 1.003) until December 1st! This was not done by choice, but the results were a pleasant surprise. Sometimes yeast just become a little sluggish in high-acid/low pH must. There were times when I thought the fermentation was stuck, but I chose not to re-inoculate and patience paid off in the end.
I love the nose produced by Clone 49 Riesling – it’s just so fresh and intense! We bottled this wine on April 6th, 2016.
Aromas: apricot, peach, lemon, green apple
Palate: both sweet and sour notes perceptible; resolves into crisp, dry balance
Production: 130 cases
The Next Vintage: 2013 Reds
2013 Pinot Noir
In looking back at my harvest notes for the 2013 Pinot Noir, I’m immediately drawn to the “Fruit Condition” section where I have written: excellent; “Some of the nicest we’ve ever picked.” – Wilma. I remember it well, and it makes me smile as much now as it did when she said it on September 18, 2013.
We hand-picked 90 boxes from rows 3, 4 & 5 and 64 boxes from rows 8 & 9. These are the rows that I traditionally use, and they represent a good cross section of terroir from our oldest vines. The Pinot was sorted four times: first I do a quick pass on my own before we harvest to remove any obvious rot; then each picker must inspect clusters as they cut them; a third inspection takes place as boxes are loaded onto the wagon and finally again as they are dumped into the crusher. Those select few Pinot berries that made the final cut ended up filling two fermenting bins.
After a four day cold soak at 18°C, the first bin containing rows 3, 4 & 5 was inoculated with RC212 yeast and the second bin (rows 8 & 9) was inoculated with W15. Fermentation lasted about a week, with peak temperature around 34°C. Wines were then inoculated with malolactic bacteria strain MBR31 and racked to barrel. After 24 months in oak (100% French, 20% new), the wine was blended and eventually bottled on April 6, 2016.
Aromas: “Like walking into a pantry”; ripe cherry, dried spices, truffle
Palate: light velvety texture; good balance; enjoyable now, but just enough tannin to make you want to lay it down for a while
Production: 145 cases
2013 Cabernet Sauvignon
A later Spring than 2012 (few are earlier) led to an interesting vintage that felt like a constant uphill battle. The growing degree days were just not adding up, so an effort was made to dramatically reduce crop level at veraison. Then we waited…and waited some more…until all the leaves had fallen and finally picked our Cab on November 15, 2013.
The fruit was quite desiccated on the vine at this stage, almost a late harvest look, and we actually ended up with close to 23 degrees Brix and reasonable acidity. The drastic thinning gamble had worked, but at the expense of tonnage. We ended up with only 117 picking boxes of Cab Sauv from five rows that would have normally yielded 150 boxes.
The fruit was processed into two bins and after a four day cold soak, Bin 1 was inoculated with FX10 and Bin 2 with F15. Finished wine was blended, inoculated with MBR31 bacteria and racked to barrel where it would spend the next two years. Two new French barrels were used (Taransaud and Billon) along with a couple of wily veterans. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled on April 6th, 2016. This wine will surprise many people.
Aromas: cherry, blackberry, anise, loose-leaf tea
Palate: flavours as intense as the nose; nice texture; savoury; integrated tannins make it both drinkable and cellar-worthy
Production: 100 cases
*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