Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, it’s wild, all right. And for a growing number of Canadian winemakers, wild is the new cash cow as they venture further and further beyond the tried and true methods of making wine to create something that is, well, beautifully and wondrously weird.
And wine geeks are lapping it up.
Only a scant few years ago being a wine baron was such a predictable vocation. Grow Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the right places in Niagara, and, boom, you’re in business. Add Syrah and Pinot Gris to that list in the Okanagan, and, boom, you have a well-rounded portfolio. In Prince Edward County, it’s Pinot and Chard, that’s all you really need, right?
Hang on, not so fast.
There is a primordial shift occurring across the wine regions of this nation that cannot be ignored. No longer, as Cat Stevens sang, can you get by just upon a smile.
You need some boom-boom, more intriguing arrows in the quiver, if you want to capture the taste buds of an ever-growing geeked-out segment of wine lover, weaned on the Brett-infused, hopped up and psychedelic world of craft beer, who crave something new and completely off-the-wall different. They don’t want smiles. They want giggles. They want to be blown away, weirded out, with whatever kind of funk you can throw at them.
A surprising number of winemakers are only too happy to oblige.
“We’re trying to provoke a conversation,” Hinterland Wine Company’s Jonas Newman tells me as we sip fresh crushed Gamay straight from the tank at his winery in Prince Edward County winery.
Jonas, winemaker and co-founder of Hinterland Wine Company, acknowledges that finding an identity in a crowded market is the first priority for a young industry. He and his wife Vicky Samaras chose sparkling wine — from traditional bubbles, to charmat, to the ancient method (that pre-dates Champagne) of ancestral — to establish their identity. “But there will always be room for the kink,” Newman says, “as long as we are honest about it.”
That “kink” for Newman comes in the form of his Hinterland Ancestral, a vintage-dated sparkling Gamay with a cult-like following that clears the shelves nearly as quickly as the winery makes it.
Named for the original method of making sparkling wine, the ruby-hued Ancestral is produced using similar techniques first employed by the monks of Saint-Hillaire abbey in 1531 and is the tradition most famously implemented in Jura mountain region of Bugey-Cerdon in eastern France. The carbon dioxide is captured during primary fermentation, which produces a lightly spritzed, sweeter sparkling wine that’s lower in alcohol.
Bella Wines’ Jay Drysdale, on the Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley, wild ferments his organically grown, single-vineyard Gamay Ancestral and uses no sulphur. It is essentially an early-pick Gamay with sparkle; an austere, pure, fresh, tangy and intense wine that is as true an expression of the vineyard as you can get.
While sparkling wines in Canada are evolving and being reinvented by winemakers, from low to zero dosage wines (no added sugar), to extended lees aging, to pétillant-naturel (pét-nat), to luxurious and decadent bubbly Icewines made from Vidal or Riesling or even “ice cuvées” crafted with a shot of Icewine added to the sparkling wine, there’s a far greater shift occurring in the edgier wineries, which find breaking from tradition (or returning to simpler times, depending on how you look at it) a more attractive and/or adventurous path to take.
Back in Niagara, Southbrook winemaker Ann Sperling is presiding over a carboy of a roiling, gurgling mass of organically- and biodynamically-grown Vidal grapes that are happily fermenting naturally in the warmth of a late fall day.
This is Sperling’s second vintage of “orange” wine, a 100% natural (nothing added, including sulphur) white wine that gets its glowing amber colour from skin contact during fermentation. “For our first batch we wanted to gauge response,” she says. Sommeliers in Toronto were only too eager to jump on board and curious consumers quickly followed suit.
“When you’re talking ‘no additives’ a segment of people gets excited. They are looking for something pure,” Sperling says. Only 150 cases of the Southbrook Orange Wine were produced in 2014; that has quadrupled for the 2015 vintage.
“It’s like today’s music,” she says. “With better and better ways to reach niche consumers.”
In BC’s Okanagan Valley, one winery has taken the term “niche” mainstream.
The Okanagan Crush Pad, which includes the Haywire, Narrative and Samantha brands (among others), has transformed its entire portfolio into one of the most progressive in the country.
Owned by Steve Lornie and Christine Coletta, with winemaking duties falling to Matt Dumayne, OCP has matured into one of the most exciting self-contained wineries in BC, dedicated to natural, organic, and pure wines using minimalist intervention in both the vineyard, and winery. What has been remarkable is the determination to turn the OCP brands into 100 per cent organic while using natural methods to craft the wines.
“It has been an amazing amount of work,” says Coletta. “We were like parents of newborns: over-anxious, overbearing and hovering. Perhaps we are a little more relaxed about the process now and have built up confidence in our conversion process and the outcome.”
As of the 2015 vintage, oak barrels have been fully replaced by concrete tanks and amphorae for fermentation and aging. Sulphur dioxide is also used sparingly, if at all, and no additional additives including nutrients, tartaric, tannins and enzymes are used at all in the winemaking process. All the wines at OCP are wild fermented using only native (wild) yeast that is naturally occurring on grape skins.
That all adds up to a stunning portfolio from stem to stern of some of the most unique wines being made in Canada right now, not the least of which are two naturally-made “orange” style wines, a red and a white called Free Form, with no sulphur at all and no filtering.
Every bottle in the OCP stable has a story to tell, from concrete or amphora aged to natural, organic and wild fermentation. There’s even an “ancient method” sparkling wine made under the Narrative label that is produced using the pétillant-naturel (pét-nat) method that’s bottled during fermentation without filtering, fining and stabilizing to show the more delicate and interesting characters unique to the vintage.
Oh, baby, it’s a wild world, all right, and it’s getting wilder. To wit:
Road 13 Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley pulled out staples such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make room for more Rhône plantings. The future is being reflected in the new VRM 2013, a Rhône blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, the 2014 Marsanne and 2013 Syrah Mourvèdre. Other BC wineries, Stag’s Hollow and Pentage, for example, have also placed an emphasis on Rhône varietals.
In Niagara, where weather limits the varieties that can be grown, a long list of wineries has added appassimento- (drying of grapes) style wines to their portfolios. Foreign Affair, Rennie Vineyards, Big Head, Reif, Colaneri and Pillitteri all use some method of drying grapes to add complexity and concentration to many of their reds (and even a few whites).
Then there are the “fringe” varieties: Albariño (Stag’s Hollow loves this Spanish grape so much they have sent Sauvignon Blanc to the junk pile and are replacing it with this), Sémillon (a beautiful wine on its own or blended with Sauvignon Blanc … it suffered greatly in Niagara from two bad winters but finds consistent success in BC), Gruner Veltliner (Culmina makes a fabulous wine out of this Austrian staple), and a whole whack of experimental and established plantings including (but not limited to): Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Tannat, Tempranillo, Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara … the list is endless and ever growing.
More profound, perhaps, and more controversial, for sure, is the stylistic approach being pursued by some modern winemakers trying to etch their names not only on the Canadian wine-scape but also on a global scale.
Take renegade winemaker François Morissette, for example.
Shunned by many of his own peers in Niagara, who argue he doesn’t support the local wine industry, but loved by many outside his own region for the unique approach he takes at the Pearl Morissette Winery in Jordan, Morissette doesn’t have time to deal with all the drama surrounding his style of winemaking.
The truth is he doesn’t really care what his critics think; no, not one bit.
He’s been a pain in the ass for VQA, viewed as a snake oil salesman by many veteran Niagara winemakers and an outspoken cheerleader for the style of wines he wants to make.
Niagara, for Morissette, is just a place in the world to make his wines. In his mind, his wines have no borders and he’s just as thrilled to sell a couple of cases to some obscure wine shop in Germany as he is getting listings at the LCBO and SAQ, perhaps more so.
He loves the fact that his wines are sought out almost exclusively by geeks, collectors, and somms, either here or in far-flung places where his wines are, shall we say, more appreciated.
I have had more people tell me they dislike his wines than I have heard from fans. Which, to him, is totally cool; he doesn’t make wine for the masses, only to a niche audience that appreciates the nuances and the pure, minimal-interventionist, low sulphur and reductive style of winemaking he employs. It’s not for everyone.
“I’m not making wine for Ontario, I’m making wine for the world,” he goes on to say.
Morissette is an island onto himself. A lone wolf with some crazy ideas that manifest themselves in the wines that he makes. You either dig them, or you don’t. And a lot don’t.
It is texture that defines his wines, texture achieved through oxidative winemaking, the catalyst for skepticism over his wines.
Morissette is an experimental winemaker, pushing wild ferments to the limit, while stretching the boundaries of what VQA deems acceptable and teasing consumers’ palates. “From Day One we have not introduced anything to the wines but a little bit of sulphur,” he says. So, most of his wines are exposed to oxygen, very little filtration and fining (if any) takes place and sulphur is used only if he thinks a wine needs it. His ferments take place naturally in large neutral oak foudres, concrete eggs and increasingly in clay amphorae.
In his words, “you can have some VA (volatile acidity), you can have some brett (brettanomyces) but it can’t take over, it can’t be a justification for being lazy.”
His wines garner a lot of attention, which rankles traditionalists in Niagara to no end. “Being different is what our industry needs. We need the troublemakers, the misfits, the crazy ones,” a Niagara winery industry person, who remains anonymous here, told me.
“But there always seems to be drama around each one of their wines. It’s not a good or bad thing, just an observance. There’s always a story and a drama around their stuff.
“Oddly enough they have become an iconic winery here in a very short time. And this drama is how it’s been done. But this happens everywhere. Marcel Deiss? Joly? Piuze? Bourdy. Wine would be so boring without it. So, I welcome it, our region now has relevance because of them but at the end of the day it’s drama.”
Only time will tell if all this drama will succeed at the box office, but as long as there are those willing to go along for the ride, the script will continue to be written.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Five wines that are like nothing you’ve tasted before)
94 Inniskillin Sparkling Vidal 2014, Niagara ($80/375 mL)
The nose is a gorgeous mélange of orange marmalade, honeycomb, peach and mango. It has a vigorous mousse on the palate to go with sweet, compoted fruits, fresh and delicate notes of pineapple, tangerine and peach and a luxurious texture that’s accentuated by the tiny bubbles that tickle the palate through the finish. A rich, exotic treat that is well worth the high price.
92 Road 13 VRM 2013, Okanagan ($29)
The blend is 72% Viognier, 25% Roussanne and a splash of Marsanne with fermentation and aging in older (neutral) oak barrels. Love the nose of poached pear, apricot, soft vanilla, spice and minerality. It is defined by its texture on the palate with round and fleshy fruit and a broad range of pear, exotic tropical fruits and subtle spice notes. Delicious stuff.
92 Haywire Free Form Red 2014, Okanagan ($55)
The Red Free Form is another natural wine made with no intervention in the cellar. It’s fermented with wild yeast in amphora where it aged on the skins for 8 months. No sulphur was added. It has a pure and attractive nose of extracted cherry, raspberry and black currants. It is a beautiful wine on the palate with a rich broth of red fruits, crushed currants, raspberry, bramble and lovely silky tannins.
91 Pearl Morissette Cuvée Mon Unique Gamay 2013, Niagara ($29)
This is wild-yeast fermented in open wood fermenters and is made with zero added sulphur. It shows savoury cherry, boysenberry, blueberry and bramble fruit on the nose. It’s so fresh and alive on the palate with a range of purple fruits and cherries in a juicy, yet vibrant, style.
90 Narrative Ancient Method 2013, Okanagan ($40)
This pétillant-naturel (pét-nat) style of sparkling wine was bottled during fermentation without filtering, fining and stabilizing to show the more delicate and interesting characters unique to the 2013 vintage. It is made with 100% Chardonnay and each bottle will display different nuances depending on when it is opened. The nose shows lemony biscuit, racy grapefruit and cream. It has a gentle mousse followed by a vibrant core of citrus, melba toast and vanilla cream.
Photo: Francois Morissette from the Pearl Morissette Winery in Jordan