What would you do to try some of Ontario’s most innovative wines? Spend two hours digging out your car after the first snowstorm of the year? Drive forty kilometres in white out conditions in a 4×4 to the Vineland Research Station? Well, no one has ever denied the fanaticism of those of us who are a special breed: wine writers.
Enter The Foreign Affair, Niagara’s only winery dedicated to producing all wines from the appassimento method. Appassimento is the time-honoured technique of drying grape clusters, either tied on strings, on mats or stacked in crates before fermentation. Think Amarone or Sfursat.
In the early 1990s, Len Crispino was stationed in Milan as Chief Trade Representative between Italy and the province of Ontario. One of his accomplishments included having Canadian wines being entered into Vinitaly for the first time. While there, he and his wife, Marisa, began a love affair with the wines of the Veneto, notably the Amarones of Quiseppe Quintarelli.
After returning to Canada, plans were put into motion. Len and Marisa partnered with brother-in-law Louis, and in 2001 forty acres were planted. Andrzej Lipinski, Niagara’s ubiquitous driving winemaker/consultant was soon brought on board. The first vintage of 2004 yielded 97 bottles. “We wanted to do something different and innovative,” says Crispino. “So we applied Old World techniques to local grapes, producing a uniquely Canadian product … our version of Amarone.”
Originally the plan was to apply the drying technique to the red grapes, but inspiration soon befell Lipinski, and the idea of doing the same with the white varietals was implemented, to further distinguish the winery.
“In Ontario we have variable weather conditions each year, so drying grapes helps to bring concentration and consistency to the final product. For example, in 2007, we dried out the grapes only 10% because it was a very hot and ripe year. In 2008, a challenging year, we dried the grapes 25%,” says Lipinski. “Another variable to the final product is the time it takes to dry the grapes. A long slow drying process creates a wine with more dried fruit qualities: raisins and prunes. A shorter version helps to produce wines that are more over ripe with a chocolate character.”
The drying process is not an easy one, nor is it cost effective. All grapes must be picked by hand, triaged for any rot and then placed in crates in well-ventilated barns for months to desiccate. Currently, Affair rents space at six different locations and labour costs are 60% higher than regular winemaking. According to Crispino, “You get what you pay for. Most of our wines range between $28 and $44. They are niche products and are in line with market and boutique wineries.”
Of the wines tasted, I gave the recently bottled 2007 Chardonnay, which contains 20% dried grapes, a tentative score between 89-91 points, as it was going through a bit of bottle shock. The barrel samples of both the 2007 Merlot (89-91) and 2007 Cab Sauvignon (90-91), which contain 10% dried grapes showed good plumness, with the later having a definite chocolate and mint quality.
One of the two best wines was the barrel sample of the 2007 Cabernet Franc, a wine made entirely from grapes that were dried for 100 days. It is layered with flavour and extract. I gave it a tentative score between 91 and 93. The other was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon “Recioto style” (92 points), which sells for $80/500 ml. It possesses 126 grams/litre of residual sugar. In Veneto, the minimum sugar requirement for this style is 42 grams, with the best wines usually clocking in between 90 and 100 grams. It is a rich offering that gushes chocolate, plums, mint, herbs and raisins on the long finish. A pure contemplation wine if there was ever was one.
Down the street at Cave Spring Cellars, winemaker Angelo Pavan also extols the virtues of grape drying. “Without a doubt, we are a cool climate wine region. We first established ourselves with Riesling and Chardonnay. Then it was sparkling wine. As proof, many are getting in on the act, and I believe our sparklers are second only to Champagne. Appassimento is our Next Big Thing! It will provide consistency regardless of vintage.”
When asked about the negative factors, Pavan says “None so far. It is a natural way of doing things. You look at places like California where they let their grapes hang on the vine for a long time to concentrate the wines, but when all is said and done, they have to either add water back because they are too rich, and/or de-alcoholise. Those are manufactured products.”
Cave first started drying grapes in 2005. The recipient of those jewels was “Lapenna,” a blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% dehydrated Cabernet Sauvignon. Subsequent appassimento wines are still in barrel and decisions on their future are forthcoming.
So far they have concentrated solely on both Cabernets. “Cabernet Sauvignon dries better because of thick skins. Cabernet Franc holds up well also. We are also looking at Merlot, which is a bit trickier. For the future, maybe Gamay,” adds Pavan. To accommodate plans of increased production, Cave Spring is in the process of building a new facility with an environment that is both low in humidity and with good ventilation for the appassimento process.
In 2003, I remember touring Magnotta Winery’s Beamsville location with their sales manager at the time. We hit it off quite well as we were both rather new in our respective positions. During the walkabout of the facility, he took us on a short detour into an area dominated by three-tiered wooden racks. A little perplexed, I commented to him that they reminded me of what I had seen in the Veneto earlier that year. His response was a wink of the eye and a quiet finger over the lips, signifying “mum’s the word.”
That wink would become Enotrium, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that is dried for a minimum of 30 days in a low humidity environment with temperatures between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius. After fermentation, the wine is aged in new oak, giving more complexity and flavour. “We wanted to produce a red of character and proportion, not normally associated with a cool climate growing region. By drying, you concentrate the natural extracts, including tannins, sugars, acids, anthocyans and aromatic compounds” says Magnotta’s product consultant, Cesar Valente. “The end result is full-bodied red of great complexity and immense depth of character. The only downside is low yields.”
The first vintage in 2001 was indeed full-bodied, with a terrific nose of plums, blackberries, mint, violets, spice and vanilla. The palate added coffee, chocolate and dark fruits with noticeable heat, which is normal for this style of wine. I gave it 89 points. The 2002 garnered an identical score. The current release is the 2004 and it showcases a bouquet of plum, ripe cherries, cassis, chocolate, smoke and spice. In the mouth, it is medium- to full-bodied with mint/herbs, cherries, plums, chocolate and some heat resonating on the finish. The finish is lengthy with some supple tannins backing the experience. Drink it over the next two to three years, preferably with osso bucco or bison steaks.
It’s these maverick ideas that make us curious. These are the types of wines that could easily became signature products, and easily convert any Niagara red wine naysayer into a devout believer.