Andrzej Lipinski is a firm believer that Mother Nature should not stand in the way of making a great wine. And he has a pretty good idea of how to make consistently ripe, complex and flavourful wines in Ontario no matter what the weather delivers. It’s no secret that Ontario winemakers are dealt a different set of circumstances each and every growing season: from cool and wet, to hot and dry, and everything in between. Making a consistently ripe red wine is simply impossible.Lipinski, winemaker at Colaneri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Organized Crime Winery in Beamsville and the new Burning Kiln Winery in Norfolk County, is making a career out of drying grapes in old tobacco kilns to provide a ripeness and structure to wines that nature can’t always deliver. “You can have consistent wines every year,” Lipinski says. “The idea is to never have green wines.” Lipinski first started making appassimento (air dried) style wines when he was the winemaker at The Foreign Affair Winery in Vineland, Ontario. Their high-end, Amarone-inspired portfolio is made predominantly with 100 per cent or partially dried grapes, using sheds to dry the grapes as opposed to used tobacco kilns.
He was then hired to build a portfolio of wines for the new Colaneri winery. The collection’s goal was to represent the family’s Italian tradition by using the best of what Niagara offers in terms of grape varieties. Almost all of Lipinski’s wines are made in the appassimento style, including a yet-to-be released line of sweet recioto-style white wines including Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sauvnignon Blanc and Vidal. The process of drying grapes, in this case using modified tobacco kilns for varying amounts of time, concentrates flavours and gives the wines more body, complexity and concentration. “I want to be different, not like everyone else. People want choice,” says Lipinski.
He got the idea for using old tobacco kilns after a visit to the town of Simcoe, formerly a major tobacco-growing region in Ontario that has seen sales of tobacco products plummet in recent years. He modifies the decommissioned tobacco kilns for grapes and continuously experiments with the airflow and temperatures that optimize the concentration of grapes over days and weeks.
Lipinski uses different percentages of dried grapes for his wines and, in some cases, 100 per cent dried grapes for his most complex wines and sweet varieties.
His techniques have caught the eye of farmers in tobacco country, who are quickly turning tobacco crops into grape vines. Lipinski was hired as the winemaker at the new Burning Kiln winery, located just outside the official Lake Erie North Shore wine appellation, along the shores of Lake Erie in Norfolk County.
Burning Kiln, with 20 acres planted of Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Savagnin, is the latest addition in a growing list of wineries in the region that have formed the Ontario South Coast Wineries and Growers Association, which extends from St. Thomas to Dunnville in Ontario.
Lipinski wants all the new wineries to use only tobacco kiln-dried grapes to make their wines, as their stamp on a regional style that will draw tourists and wine lovers to the area. All but one (Riesling) of the Burning Kiln wines, which will be released to the public for the first time this spring, are made from dried grapes. Lipinski says the sandy soil in the region produces fruity, aromatic wines, but they lack complexity. The drying of the grapes provides the structure and concentration they need to be successful as a wine-producing region, he explains. “What we want is to make a name for the region on drying grapes. It needs to be different for them,” says Lipinski. “And it has to be everybody” using the technique.
Lipinski is not the only one jumping on the appassimento bandwagon. Other winemakers, such as Reif Estate winemaker Roberto DiDomenico, are tinkering with dried grapes. DiDomenico purchased two refurbished kilns in 2009 and, after the first-ever production of Canadian raisins last year, experimented on a few different wines using kiln-dried grapes. A rare and expensive totally Botrytis-affected sweet Riesling was made, and the winery has just released a brand new wine from Reif called The Magician, a blend of Shiraz and Pinot Noir, made from 20-25 per cent kiln-dried grapes.
The resulting wine, from the unspectacular 2009 vintage in Niagara, is a fuller-bodied, complex wine with concentration, black fruits and pepper. Characteristics DiDomenico says just weren’t possible without the kiln-dried fruit. “Why weren’t we doing this a long time ago?” he asks. “I think (kiln drying) is on the rise, and will create a lot of new and exciting wines.” DiDomenico says that the kilns give the wines more flavour and intensity. “We have the tools; why not do it?”
He admits that it’s a steep learning curve trying to figure out how much fruit to dry and what varieties and vintages work best. He won’t make a follow up to his Riesling TBA or The Magician until he gauges public reaction to the new styles, but he’s planning on a lot more research with kilns and has some other kiln-dried wines in the works.
For DiDomenico and other winemakers in Ontario using dried grapes, the process evens the playing field for vintage variation. Most would agree that Ontario enjoys, on average, three really hot summers in a decade. Any help it can get from a method that’s been employed in Italian winemaking for centuries to make better, full-bodied and complex red wines is a good thing.
One winemaker who cautions against using appassimento-style winemaking as a cure-all for a weak vintage is Cave Spring Cellar’s Angelo Pavan. “We’re not trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” he says, adding that you cannot get rid of “green” flavours simply by drying the grapes. They are only amplified.
Paven makes one appassimento-style wine from grapes he dries in a special drying shed. The fruit is picked in a slightly under-ripe state to allow for extended drying without spoiling. Strong, natural air flows at the site, allowing for a gradual desiccation of the grapes over a period of 60 to 120 days.
Perhaps Masi, the famous Veronese wine producer known for its appassimento wines, says it best in a report shared with other winemakers around the world:
“Appassimento is a method that leads to an increase of quality by creating desirable attributes of structure and softness in a wine. Perhaps it is possible in the case of certain wines that would otherwise remain merely interesting rather than seductive and sought-after, to enhance their overall elegance, make them more attractive on the palate, and give them more complexity on the nose using this technique.” The report concluded, “Verona style is a force for change in the world.”
92 Colaneri Pinot Grigio “Cavallone” 2009 ($25)
Made from 20% dried grapes, barrel fermented and aged for 7 months and picked in late October. This is one amazing Pinot Grigio. Beautiful copper colour with expressive peach, melon, tangerine and pear fruits on the nose. It shows elegance and richness on the palate with apple, spice and stone fruits all touched by vanilla and honey. Wow.
89 Colaneri Gewürztraminer “Mistera” 2009 ($25)
Made from 50% dried grapes and barrel fermented and aged for 7 months. The nose is all about rose petals, grapefruit and lychee to go with exotic spices and subtle wild honey. It’s only slightly off-dry on the palate with citrus, spice and lychee.
93 Colaneri Pinot Grigio Recioto 2010 ($30/375 ml, released in late fall)
These recioto-style sweet wines, which will be made instead of Icewine, were tasted out of barrel. They are super-sweet, viscous wines made from Chenin Blanc, Vidal, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, and are unlike anything else being done in Niagara. The Pinot Grigio is a masterpiece with honey sweetened peach, melon, and citrus aromas that are viscous and oily on the palate with super-ripe fruits, caramel and baked brown sugar notes.
92 Colaneri Sieme 2009 ($40, late summer release)
This is the flagship red blend with Syrah (50% kiln dried), Merlot (30% kiln dried) and Cabernet Sauvignon (100% kiln dried). Sieme is Italian for “together,” and certainly apt for this wine. Barrel tasted, a gorgeous nose of roasted meats, black fruits and an array of spicy bits. It all works on the palate with a beautiful synergy of wild, dark fruits, smoke, cedar, spice and black licorice.
92 Cave Spring Cellars La Penna 2007 ($35)
This is Cave Spring’s only appassimento-style wine made at the winery. Winemaker Angelo Pavan used drying racks in a naturally ventilated barn high up on the Beamsville Bench. This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is the class of the La Pennas, a gorgeous wine with a fine nose of cherry-kirsch, red plum, prunes, sweet spice and vanilla. Even in its youth this wine explodes with flavours on the palate — from sweet red fruits to roasted coffee bean, chocolate and layers of spice and toasty oak all coming in wave after wave. Built for the long haul in the cellar.
93 Reif Estate First Growth Totally Botrytis Affected (TBA) Riesling 2009 ($50/200 ml)
This is the first white wine Klaus Reif and Roberto DiDomenico have made in the super elite First Growth series. Drying the noble rot grapes in the tobacco kiln draws water from the fruit, leaving behind ultra concentrated Riesling juice that’s then fermented into a sweet, intense and magical dessert wine with classic wild honey notes. Sublime on the nose with buckwheat honey, dried apricot, sweet tropical fruits and marmalade notes. It’s viscous and wildly exotic in the mouth with lemon pie, honeycomb, tangerine and racy, zesty acidity to balance the sweetness.
87 Reif Estate Winery The Magician 2009 ($20)
Winemaker Roberto DiDomenico used 70% Syrah and 30% Pinot Noir for this unusual blend. Both varieties were vinified separately, with 30% of the fruit kiln dried. The nose shows sweet raspberry, cherry, oak and spice. It shows surprising heft on the palate for a 2009, with black fruits, cherry-raspberry notes, black pepper, earth and soft tannins.
86 Burning Kiln Cabernet Franc 2010 ($23, released in May at the winery)
The first wines from this South Coast winery will be released in May, and Tidings got a preview tasting of this Cab Franc. A lovely nose of cherry, cedar, smoke and spice. Nice depth of flavour to go with smoky fruits, plum, tobacco and a touch of roasted herbs on the finish.