Take a Trip
The names of Coyote’s Run, Frogpond, Flat Rock, Ridegepoint, Palatine and Hidden Bench don’t (yet) trip lightly off wine lovers’ tongues like Inniskillin, Peller Estate and Château des Charmes.
They are some of the small farm and estate wineries that exist in the shadows of the traditional behemoth producers with bulging budgets. They are what the French refer to as garagistes, due to their tiny production of vins de garage and their minute, yet impressive, wineries.
Lenko Vineyards is probably Niagara’s best known garagiste. This family-run operation in Beamsville produces absolutely amazing reds that seem to be sold out more often than they are available. The Old Vines Merlot is a seductive style, which offers lots of toasty, vanilla-scented oak that’s about as tasty as you can get.
There is no parking on the farm, just put your car under the shade of a fruit tree and hope you’re invited into the kitchen to taste some wines. In season, Mrs Lenko tempts wine tasters with a freshly baked piece of pie made from fruit from the surrounding orchards.
Touring around doesn’t get any better than this. Especially when it includes some amazing wines.
Working out of a garage (literally) on Larkin Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake is family-run Frogpond Farm. It’s Niagara’s only certified organic winery, with the entire property organically run — from the vineyards to winemaking. Jens and Heike Gemmrich have produced two wines, a Cabernet/Merlot and a Riesling, since their first vintage in 2001. The medium-bodied red delivers delicate berry, plum and wet-earth character with the Riesling offering a refreshingly crisp counterpoint.
Total capacity is almost 2,000 cases per year, all sold from the garage or through the incredibly active website. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Gemmrich was lured to Canada in 1994 to work as winemaker at Stonechurch Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Once here, he settled into his own vineyard, and now he is in the enviable position of making wines the way he wants to — so he does. In April, they just released a third wine, a juicy Cabernet Franc that’s a well executed mix of ripe blackberry, plum- and current-scented fruit with a hint of fresh sage.
Some of the small wineries also come with a food sensibility you just can’t resist. David Johnson and Louise Engel made their living in Guelph’s gourmet business before selling it all and settling into a hilltop farmhouse in Vineland. Dave planted more grapes on the twenty-three-acre farm to add to the existing vineyard, and a few short years later, in 1999, with the help of local winemakers Herb Jacobson and Jim Warren, the first vintage of Featherstone Estate was produced.
Today, Featherstone is Niagara’s smallest full-time winery, and Johnson’s passion lies in a vineyard where he demands low yields and proper soil conditioning. Paper fibre is added to the soil, improving its ability to retain moisture during dry periods, while yields are reduced by pre-bloom crop thinning.
The results justify the effort with wines that are concentrated and elegant. The Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc gush of pure fruit and make beautiful summer sippers, while the Merlot and Pinot Noir are becoming known as long-distance runners with their depth of fruit and supple tannins. Either are a must-have choice for dinner.
It just makes sense that this duo would include some gourmet food to go with their wines. They can’t resist serving up light lunches on their huge wraparound porch. In case the wines and food weren’t enough, from the porch you can feast your eyes on the rolling Niagara countryside, Lake Ontario and the Toronto skyline.
In fact, others are serving food with great wines as well: Mauro and Anna Scarsellone at Ridgepoint Wines are Niagara’s only brother-and-sister operation. At the small winery on Cherry Avenue in Vineland, they serve up a lighter version of authentic Italian cuisine to go with their well-crafted wines.
The Nebbiolo is one of the super Ridgepoint wines seeking to balance local and international flavours. “Nebbiolo does well in Niagara, so we’re following it’s potential,” says Mauro. The 2004 offers wonderful depth and complexity with aromas of truffle, coffee and leather. Even now it’s showing signs of being a benchmark wine, a reference point for understanding what Niagara can do with this Italian grape.
It’s amazing how these wines reflect their owners. Whether garagiste-style or stand-alone wineries with limited edition and single vineyard bottlings, it’s easy to build a loyal following for wines like the Maleta 2002 Meritage, Coyote’s Run 2003 Pinot Noir Reserve and the 13th Street 2004 Sauvignon Blanc — top on many wine lovers’ lists and a quick sellout.
David Sheppard honed his skills making wine at Inniskillin for over twenty years. He and Steve Merzda, a life-long grape grower, oversee the vineyard and winemaking at Coyote’s Run. They produce limited editions in a small winery tucked into the base of the St David’s Bench. Though they managed a whopping 5,000 cases in 2005, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the insatiable appetites of wine collectors who know them.
Tasting wine is a fairly objective business, and on a base level anyone can train their palate to discern the various flavours. But the wines here are above any base level. By tasting wine together, Dave and Steve have calibrated their palates, and now there’s a certain harmony — a certain note — they both hear; that’s the exceptional quality that comes through their wines. Their outstanding Pinot Noir Reserve is classic Burgundy-style with luscious silkiness layered through flavours of blackberries, grilled meat and smoke that hangs on.
Perched near the top of Mountainview Road is Fielding Estate. This standalone winery/retail store was started by Ken and Marg Fielding who fell in love with the wine industry during a visit almost ten years ago. Today, they’re hands-on proprietors, and their son Curtis manages the sixty-five acres of vineyard and his wife Heidi is the hospitality manager.
Curtis Fielding can be described as a sort of “terroir-ist,” who uses vineyard techniques with an open mind. As a result, his 2004 Syrah shows the rich depth of the vineyard’s black soil, with deep smoky cherry fruit and a mouthful of black and white pepper hovering over a rich, complex body.
Then you have Steve Kosis, the methodical owner of Mountain Road Wine Company in Niagara, who isn’t so concerned about appearances. The winemaker looks at home in jeans and a T-shirt and his no-frills facility with a bottling line sprawled against a wall and a hodgepodge of stacked barrels and forklifts isn’t intended to impress visitors. Anyone tasting Steve’s elegant Cabernet Sauvignon can attest that fancy appearances don’t count for much.
He currently makes about 120 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve per year. It’s a sleek, rich, minerally style with dots of red cherry, herb and currant. Equally impressive is the gorgeous Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay (225 cases), rich, complex and deeply flavoured, yet elegant and graceful with tiers of creamy pear, butter, fig and melon that are remarkably long and concentrated on the finish.
There is no average price range for these small batch, handcrafted wines. It’s more a matter of value. When you find an outstanding Riesling that is priced competitively due to the mere fact that there is no marketing budget to promote what it deserves, it makes you want to get your car out of the garage and drive out to taste Niagara’s best vins de garage.