The best winemakers often talk about the importance of minimalism in creating authentic, terroir-driven wines. But this ethos can lead to some strange places. In fact, some of the most intriguing wineries in Ontario are so minimalistic that they barely exist at all. “Virtual wineries,” as they are known, lack all the physical trappings that one associates with the messy business of making wine: these wineries own no vines, vineyards, presses, vats or buildings. Their only possessions are intangible: a name, a graphic design, and the winemaker’s expertise.
Virtual winemakers operate by purchasing fruit from independent farmers and renting the facilities necessary to vinify the grapes and bottle them for the market. As Lynn Ogryzlo wrote in the October 2010 Tidings, virtual wineries allow people to enter the winemaking business even lacking the small fortune necessary to purchase land and equipment.It’s a strange idea to think that these winemakers piggyback on more established wineries — it certainly doesn’t make them parasites. In fact, the sudden increase in the number of virtual wineries heralds a new stage in winemaking evolution for Ontario. “What we’re doing makes everything in Niagara run more efficiently: renting equipment, buying excess fruit,” says Andrew von Teichman of the Generations Wine Company. “This is great business for the existing assets, a lot of which could use that help.”
In the complex ecosystem of the wine industry, virtual wineries allow for a new degree of specialization. “Just because you’re a good winemaker doesn’t mean that you’re a great vine grower,” says Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Winery.
But not all virtual winemakers operate for the same reason. Some, like Ilya, are up-and-coming winemakers who are using their virtual winery as a stepping stone to purchasing their own real estate. Others, like Charles Baker, are established masters who want to keep their day-job while pursuing their own idiosyncratic obsessions. Finally, some virtual wineries are huge commercial operations that strive to achieve good value by aggregating grapes from all over Ontario. What makes them all similar? A sense of adventure.
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2008 ($35)
Charles Baker is a Director at Stratus, but he is also one of the pioneers of virtual winemaking — since 2005 he’s been releasing small quantities of Riesling under his own name. This handcrafted wine is less a commercial venture than a love letter to this enigmatic grape. His interpretation of Riesling is soft, off-dry and finely balanced. The peach and baked fruit apple flavours are mellow and chubby, but an energetic acidity keeps the whole package buoyant. Idiosyncratic and interesting.
Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2009 ($35)
“The vineyard is so important,” Charles Baker told me at a recent tasting. “And the vineyard is the vineyard owner.” This is especially true in Charles’ case, because the vineyard owner is Mark Picone, the award-winning chef and slow-food advocate. A gourmet’s attention to detail vibrates throughout this bottle. The wonderful minerality of Picone Vineyard’s limestone terroir runs throughout the wine, and it spikes the finish like a firecracker. This is a ripe, full Riesling with astounding pizzazz.
Generations Wine Company Union Red 2009 ($13.95)
If Charles Baker Riesling is the academic extreme of virtual wines, Union Red is at the other end of the spectrum. It parlays the flexibility and low overhead of the virtual model into an inexpensive but good-value table wine. The Union label is so popular that Generations is already producing over 10,000 cases per year (compared with Charles Baker’s run of 300 cases). It’s an engaging blend with distinctive notes of raspberry and sour cherry. The body is ripe, silky and fun.
2027 Cellars Featherstone Vineyard Riesling 2009 ($24.95)
A vital advantage for virtual wineries is their flexibility in picking the best grapes that a region has to offer. “I can find a 30-year-old vineyard instead of waiting for my own to age,” Kevin Panagapka of 2027 Cellars told me. The Featherstone Vineyard was planted with Riesling in 1978 and is part of Featherstone Estate — these are among the oldest Riesling vines in Niagara. Kevin uses this fruit to make a tart, vibrant Riesling with a delicious ribbon of green apple and stony complexity.
2027 Cellars Falls Vineyard Riesling 2008 ($20.95)
The 2027 Cellars creed is simple: “I think Riesling is the best expression of Ontario’s terroir because there is no maloactic fermentation and no oak,” says Kevin Panagapka. “I took out all the variables so you can only see the terroir.” The Falls Vineyard exhibits the best of the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation: a zesty acidity braced by mineral notes from the soil’s rich clay and shale. This is a light but incisive Riesling, with a pungent complexity of petrol, flowers and citrus.
2027 Cellars Fox Croft Vineyard Riesling 2009 ($20.95)
The Fox Croft Vineyard is arguably the best of 2027 Cellar’s Riesling triumvirate; it is certainly the most fragrant and complex. It takes muscular fruit from the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation and translates it into a ripe and surprisingly agile bottle. The aromatics are amazing: stones, rain, lavender and the classic German note of petrol. As Kevin says, “You don’t need a great winery to make a great bottle of wine. You need a great vineyard.”
Mike Weir Chardonnay 2009 ($14.95)
Mike Weir Estate Winery is not only one of the first of Ontario’s virtual wineries, it is the most commercially successful: approximately 20,000 cases are distributed every year to every province in Canada. The golf pro uses this label to raise funds for his children’s charity; the wine itself if produced at Château des Charmes. His 2009 Chardonnay is an easy-going bottle with crisp apple flavours framed by a spicy texture. It’s clean, well-balanced and versatile.
100 Marks Wines Pinot Noir 2010 (unreleased)
This is the inaugural vintage of 100 Marks Wines, the side-project of Jeff Hundertmark, the winemaker at Marynissen Estates. Jeff set out to create a “deep, dark, rich Pinot Noir” and he has succeeded in spades. It’s made from fruit from the Murdza Vineyard in St. Davids Bench, a sub-appellation that generally creates the ripest red grapes in Ontario. The 100 Marks Pinot has a meaty texture stippled with notes of chocolate, pepper, plum and leather. It’s decadent and full of character.
Nyarai Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($19.75)
Steve Byfield, the principal of Nyarai, is the cellar master at Calamus Estates and uses their facilities to make wine under his own label. His passion for aromatic whites like Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc is especially apparent in this excellent bottle. It has a light, charming bouquet featuring notes of peapod and white blossoms. The palate is mild but persistent, with complex filigrees of tangerine and star fruit lingering into a long finish.
Leaning Post Winery Pinot Noir 2009 ($38)
A virtual winery means that the winemaker isn’t tied to his or her estate’s vineyards, which means they can search an entire region for the fruit that suits them best. Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Winery told me that it took him a year to find the block of vines that he wanted to work with to create this lovely Pinot Noir. It has a classic Burgundian nose of sour cherry and old leather, following through to a gamey, thyme-infused palate with nuanced complexity and lots of capacity to age. Outstanding.
Leaning Post Winery Riesling 2009 ($25)
This stunning Riesling greets you with a fragrant nose of orange blossoms and rosehip. The delicate bouquet plunges into a chewy palate of rich tangerine and mineral notes. A bracing seam of controlled acidity runs from the initial attack to the lingering finish. This wine already has a lot of personality, but 5 to 10 years will only add more complexity to its vibrant character.
Five Suns Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (unreleased)
Peter Graham of Five Suns has transmuted the nearly ideal growing conditions of 2010 into a rich and brawny Sauvignon Blanc that plays with one’s expectations about what this varietal is supposed to be. This is not an elegant New Zealand S.B., but rather a spicy, fibrous and rich wine imbued with herbal notes of anise, peppermint and basil. It showcases a key trait of virtual wines: answerable to no one, the winemaker can be daring.