Terroir Domesticated

By / Wine + Drinks / March 14th, 2024 / Like

Gabe Demarco is a disrupter. 

Gabe is the winemaker and viticulturist at Cave Spring Winery in Niagara, and his take on terroir could revolutionise winemaking techniques in Ontario.

In a word, his idea is to follow terroir – in all its meanings – from the vineyard and bring it right into the cellar.

The concept came to him when he tried to replicate a Loire-style Cabernet Franc. The wine turned out to be less than desirable and Gabe vowed he would never make a ‘copy-cat’ product again. “After all,” he says, “every time we make wine, it’s a year of our life.”

Why, he argued, should Ontario slavishly follow the European approach to winemaking, from growing to ageing to bottling? This meant no commercial yeast (all table wines at Cave Spring are wild ferment) and no French, Hungarian or American oak for his new style wines. 

“Then I thought about domestic vessels. What do we have in Ontario, what craftsmen do we have? We have a lot of stone and concrete craftsmen who can make a vessel of the stone that’s at the root of our soils,” says Demarco.

So, Gabe Demarco, with a local company called Liquid Quarry, designed a concrete barrel. 

“We’re not the first to use domestic concrete but we are the first to take stone from the Escarpment and build it into the vessel.”

It took two and half years to get the right formula to produce a thin concrete, light weight barrel.

And here’s where terroir comes in. Says Demarco, “We use dolomitic sand which is a by-product of quarrying limestone from the Niagara Escarpment. We integrate this into the concrete mix.  Instead of using just sand, we use a mix of sand and dolomitic sand with concrete.  What we find works in our terroir is smaller format and neutral vessels because it works with our acids and our wine style to show terroir. So, when we decided on this concrete vessel, I wasn’t thinking large concrete vats but 210-litre, the size of a Bordeaux barrel – a barrel-thin concrete vessel that is strong enough to stack and move and make the wine taste pretty damn good.” 

“We’re in generation two of our prototypes,” says Gabe. “Currently we have six vessels made by called Liquid Quarry.”

Ultimately, Gabe thinks they will land between the 400- and 500-litre mark, “but the goal is to be able to use these things in a flexible fashion. I wanted it to be as lightweight as possible and as moveable as possible (it’s four times the weight of an oak barrel)…. It’s not an oxidative closure but you’re going to get a catalytic exchange between the wine and the concrete. You are getting a dynamic relationship between wine and concrete.”

Currently ageing in these concrete barrels are Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. “The first year we made the Riesling was in 2021, a challenging vintage but what the vessel did to the wine was excellent,” indicates Demarco.

I tasted the 2021 Cave Spring Riesling made in the concrete barrel against the same wine raised in stainless steel. The concrete wine was bone dry with a chalky minerality; whereas the stainless-steel version is a more commercial product with recognizable residual sugar. Both were delicious.

In addition to the experiments with concrete barrels, Gabe Demarco is also researching the organoleptic effects of creating a solera system for Riesling. The original barrel was laid down in 2018. I tasted a sample: it reminded me of a white wine from the Savoie region.


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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