The Mad Scientists of the Niagara Peninsula

By: Alyssa Andres

Many wine regions of the world are known for producing a certain style of wine. In many Old World wine regions, they are bound by laws as well as centuries of tradition to grow only particular grapes and use specific techniques in their vineyard and winery. In Ontario, Canada, winemakers have the complete freedom to play around with their winemaking styles and manipulate their grapes as they see fit. From the varietals they grow to the way they ferment and age their wines, nothing is off-limits. As an extremely youthful winemaking region, Ontario is still discovering what it can do. In the Niagara Peninsula, there are a few winemakers determined to push it to the next level.

Unexpected

At Big Head Wines, father and son duo, Andrzej and Jakub Lipinski, are two winemakers that have been evolving and growing their practices over the past decade in the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-region. As a family that dedicates the majority of their time to their winery, they started experimenting with different winemaking styles and techniques as a way to keep interested in wine. Jakub says he was initially hesitant to try different techniques for the general public but would play around for friends and family to see what kind of results he could yield with various out-of-the-box methods. After several years of experimentation, the Lipinskis learned that these methods created wines with more character and interest than the average bottle.

  Big Head Wines started out producing big Bordeaux style blends but has since introduced the Big Head Raw Series to their line of wines. The Raw series uses minimal intervention techniques, wild fermentation, whole cluster carbonic maceration, and is bottled completely unfiltered. The Raw White series was the first to be released in 2016 and featured three single varietal offerings: Pinot Gris, Savagnin and Chenin Blanc. They could not keep the bottles on the shelves. A year later, the Big Head Raw Red series was released and featured Syrah, Petit Verdot and Pinot Noir in the same style. Again these wines were met with rave reviews. The Raw Series has serious weight and depth but also the potential to develop beautifully over time. The flavors in each bottle are complex and often unexpected, and these nuances will come out even more as they age.

  Today, the father and son are using carbonic maceration on just about everything in the winery, from Gewurtztraminer to Malbec. They believe this technique unlocks the full potential of the grapes, specifically when it comes to aromatics. Jakub Lipinski says he has not had a bad experience using carbonic on any grape varietal – red or white – and will continue to explore the possibilities within that style of winemaking. Their latest Big Head Raw release is a Cabernet Sauvignon using a variation of this technique. While the wine is low intervention, the process of producing it is still incredibly labor-intensive. The Cabernet grapes are sun-dried appassimento-style before undergoing carbonic maceration for ten days. They are then pumped over for two weeks before being destemmed. After being destemmed, the skins are added back into the wine and aged in clay for five months before being bottled unfiltered. The result is a wine with much more depth and complexity than the typical big, overly oaked Cabernets that have become so common in the liquor stores.

  The Lipinskis believe the market is changing, and more and more of their audience is interested in something new and different. Some people are interested in a Chardonnay with notes of gunpowder and matchstick or a Pinot Gris that drinks more like a Pinot Noir. Wine lovers are becoming more open to alternative notes and more interested in the process behind the winemaking.

Unbound

  Head winemaker, Ryan Corrigan, of Rosewood Estates Winery, also believes that people want to hear the story behind the wine and that North Americans are no longer as brand loyal as they used to be. Many wine lovers are constantly looking for the newest, coolest thing. That is why he’s decided to turn his winery into a full-out research and development lab where he can develop new styles, flavors and textures in Ontario wine that no one has ever tasted before.

  Winemaker at Rosewood since 2016, Corrigan takes a traditional approach in his winemaking with the intention of getting to the root, or “the heart,” of each varietal. He is transparent in his methods and as mindful as possible in his practices. While his craft approach to winemaking is not new, it is something that has been neglected by many modern-day winemakers, who instead opt for high volume and quick production. For Corrigan, patience is a virtue. He will literally take years to create some of his wines, playing around with and combining different techniques to see how they affect the final product’s flavor and aroma.

  Unbound by any rules or traditions, Corrigan creates everything from skin contact white wines to meads using honey from the winery’s extensive apiary program. The winemaker-meets-mad-scientist is also concocting a Vermouth and Amaro using different types of oak barrels, and he is experimenting with co-fermenting honey with wine and apple cider. The results are a huge hit. The skin contact white, Pure Imagination, sold out three weeks after being released. Rosewood’s 2019 Pet Nat, Nebulous, sold out in 15 minutes and has inspired Corrigan to create a white Pet Nat using Muscat grapes. Their 2019 Flora Rosé was also hugely successful.

  The time and care Corrigan puts into creating his wine has definitely paid off. The winery has a huge following awaiting his newest releases. One of these releases will be a sparkling wine that uses the solera method on the base wine to add a different layer of texture and body as well as oxidative notes reminiscent of sherry. Corrigan is also playing around with oxidative effects in red wines. He is trying to uncover the true potential of the grapes.

  As a very young and emerging wine region, Corrigan believes Ontario has an opportunity to become world-class, offering never before seen flavors. By manipulating the grapes using a multitude of methods, he intends to discover everything that Ontario grapes are capable of and how to represent that best.

Unique

  Another winemaker creating unique representations of Niagara grapes is Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Winery in Stoney Creek, Ontario. The long-time winemaker and his wife, Nadia, bought their property in 2011 and has since been creating wine with the goal of expressing the unique terroir of the region. He uses minimal intervention techniques and traditional methods of winemaking to allow this terroir to shine.

  Senchuk has taken this concept one step further with his line of wines aptly titled Freaks & Geeks. This series is as odd as it is unexpected. For The Geek Riesling, Senchuk uses the solera method on Riesling grapes to create a robust expression of the typically delicate grape. Currently in its fourth vintage, 2017’s The Geek rested for 22 months on the lees from all three previous vintages before being racked and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The resulting wine is a combination of stone fruit, mineral and flint with a creamy texture and complex aroma.

  The Freak Pinot Noir is an entirely sulfite-free wine using 100% whole clusters. The grapes are hand-picked, hand-sorted and hand-punched down twice a day for three and a half weeks. The wine is then transferred to barrel, where it undergoes spontaneous malolactic fermentation and stays for 10 months before a single racking and bottling without fining or filtration. The Freak has distinct earthy notes combined with dark red fruit and a lengthy finish. These bottles are only two from Senchuk’s experimental series that draw wine “geeks” to the tasting room each day. Not available in the liquor store, guests come from far and wide to visit the retail location to get their hands on these bottles.

  Wine lovers and connoisseurs are jumping on these funky new releases and encouraging the Ontario wine industry to continue to develop in this way. Palates are changing, and flavors like pencil shavings, tar and mushroom are becoming welcomed additions to a bottle. Many consumers are moving toward more natural styles of wine that use fewer sulfites and less human intervention. Ontario’s newest winemakers are taking advantage of this changing market and taking the opportunity to explore the possibilities of winemaking within the region. Without anything holding them back, winemakers like Senchuk, Corrigan and the Lipinskis can make decisions in their wineries that would be considered by some to be unorthodox. But, by experimenting with new varietals, techniques and combinations, these winemakers produce examples of wine that have never been seen before. While many winemaking regions continue to play it safe and pump out big, juicy reds and light, crisp whites, expect to see the unexpected coming out of Ontario.

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