By: Alyssa Andres
The Niagara Peninsula is the largest viticultural area in Canada, with two regional appellations and ten sub-appellations. The peninsula sits between the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, creating a unique microclimate that is sheltered from prevailing winds and insulated by its proximity to the lake. Many small rivers and streams in the area provide an excellent water source for vineyards through the long dry summers, and the soft aspect of the escarpment provides excellent drainage. Centuries of erosion have created a complex soil structure that varies from location to location within the regional appellations, from clay and silt to limestone and sand. The unique variations in soil are ideal for creating wines with distinct character and personality.
These marked distinctions in terroir and climate mean that a Cabernet Franc will taste remarkably different from one vineyard to the next within the peninsula. Some winemakers believe there is definitive variation in grapes even from one end of a single-vineyard to the next. For this reason, some Niagara wineries are moving toward labeling their wines by single-vineyard and starting to define what the best vineyards are in the region.
Just like the Grand Cru vineyards in France, certain vineyards in Niagara stand out as being supreme. Cave Spring is a vineyard that first rose to esteem as one of the finest in the region. Located in the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Escarpment, it is owned by the winemaking family, the Pennachettis. The vineyard gets its name from the limestone caves and natural springs that surround it.
Cave Spring Vineyard sits along the steep cliffs of the escarpment, planted on gently sloping hills that provide optimal drainage and retain ample moisture during the Mediterranean summers experienced in the region. The escarpment also captures the temperate lake effect breezes from Lake Ontario, which lengthen the growing season and allow for optimal flavor and ripeness in the grapes. Above, on the ridge of the escarpment, the vineyard is surrounded by hardwood forest. The forest retains plenty of moisture that slowly filters through layers of sedimentary rock, feeding mineral-rich water into the vineyard. The soil is a stony clay: a complex mixture of limestone, shale and sandstone that give Cave Spring’s wine a distinct minerality.
Cave Spring focuses on Riesling and Chardonnay, which the Pennachetti family believes exhibit the ultimate expression of the vineyard’s terroir. They use only the top 5% of grapes from the best blocks and parcels in the vineyard for their CSV estate release. Some of their old vines date as far back as the mid-1970s. The wines are delicate and aromatic with notes of melon, lime, white blossom and a characteristic wet stone that comes from the vineyard’s terroir.
Both the Riesling and Chardonnay are dry, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavors achieved from the vineyard’s ideal location. CSV wines are only produced in the best vintages when the growing season allows for it, but the Pennachettis say there are few years that conditions do not permit, due to the vineyard’s premium locale.
Down the road from Cave Spring Vineyard, in the Twenty Mile Bench VQA sub-appellation, Tawse
Winery is also making note of their ideal single-vineyard locations. Owner and founder Moray Tawse purchased his first vineyard in 2000 and now owns over 200 acres of prime grape-growing real estate in the Niagara Escarpment. All four of his vineyards are comprised of limestone clay loam, which gives Tawse wines a unique depth and character. Tawse is not only labeling his wines by single-vineyard, but he has also divided the vineyards into different blocks so he can further define the terroir within each plot. The Cherry Avenue Vineyard has three blocks, each named after his three children: Robyn, Carly and David. Each block is home to different grape varietals, from Riesling to Cab Franc, each thriving in the vineyard’s deep clay soil.
Tawse winemakers practice organic and biodynamic farming as well as minimal intervention winemaking techniques to allow the resulting wines to display as much of the vineyard’s terroir as possible. The variation between each single-varietal estate bottle is surprising as each plot receives varying amounts of sunlight, precipitation and drainage. Having an array of different plots allows Tawse to pick and choose which of his grapes he uses for single-varietal each year, as growing conditions vary dramatically from season to season.
For this reason, some winemakers in Niagara choose not to purchase the best land in the region, but instead, act as classic French “negotients” and buy the best grapes from a multitude of different growers and vineyards in the area. This allows them to pick and choose where they get their grapes instead of being tied down to a specific plot.
One winemaker in Niagara working this way is Thomas Bachelder. He has made it one of his goals to define the best single-vineyard plots in the region. Originally from Quebec, Bachelder started his winemaking education in Burgundy, where he became extremely interested in terroir and its impact on wine. After producing wine in Burgundy and Oregon, Bachelder settled in Niagara, where he specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He labels his wines with the name of the single-vineyard, and his latest release goes as far as to define the different ends of these single-vineyards.
In his most recent release, Bachelder produced three Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs from five different vineyards in the Niagara Escarpment.
Three of these vineyards are part of the Wismer Vineyards, a collection of eight farms in the Twenty Mile Bench that are becoming known within the region as some of the best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Two of Bachelder’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are single-varietals from the Wismer-Parke vineyard, but one is made using only grapes from the vineyard’s west side. The 2018 Wismer-Parke “Wild West End” has a distinct iron, flesh and game note that the other sides of the vineyard do not offer.
Therefore, Bachelder has taken the notion of single-vineyard and brought it one step further, defining the unique flavor profiles found from one end of a vineyard to the next.
One of Bachelder’s other favorite vineyards in the Niagara region is the Lowrey Vineyard. Two of his 2018 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are made with grapes from Lowrey, one using only Pinot Noir from the oldest vines on the property, planted in 1984. Located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation, the vineyard is owned by the Lowrey family, who have farmed the land for five generations. The family turned from fruit farming to grape growing in 1984 when Howard Wesley Lowrey first planted five rows of Pinot Noir.
Since then, the Lowreys have been supplying grapes to some of Canada’s most prestigious winemakers, including Ilya Senchuk from Leaning Post Wines and Kevin Panagapka from 2027 vineyards. However, the Lowrey’s keep a small percentage of the grapes from their 35 acres of farmland for their craft wine, Five Rows.
Five Rows Craft Wine has become well-known in the region for producing beautiful, complex wines that sell out before anyone can get their hands on them. The family takes a minimal intervention approach to their winemaking, avoiding artificial pest control and fertilizers, with the intention of producing wines that are truly characteristic of their vineyard. They tend to the vines by hand and treat each vine as an individual to ensure optimal fruit quality. Their hands-on approach produces some of the most highly sought after grapes and wine in the Niagara region, from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
All of their fruit comes from their vineyard, and only small quantities are produced. The extra love and attention given to the vines pay off. By focusing on quality over quantity, the Lowreys have defined their vineyard as one of the best in the region.
By labeling single-vineyard locations, Niagara winemakers can clearly define why their wines are superior. Just like winemakers in Burgundy and Bordeaux, who are known for their specific Grand Cru sites, Niagara is in the process of developing a similar map.
Now, consumers can learn what vineyards to look out for and start to understand the flavor profiles of different sites compared to others. The diversity in terroir, elevation and climate in the Niagara region means that flavors can vary dramatically from vineyard to vineyard. It is important to define extraordinary vineyards and understand why they are so special.
As this burgeoning winemaking region continues to grow and businesses expand to accommodate the market, these are the areas that need to be protected. By defining the best single-vineyards and including them on the bottle, Niagara winemakers can display the complexities found in each of these sites and clearly exhibit the impact these locations have on the wine.
The vineyards start to take on their own personalities, and consumers can begin to taste the characteristics of each one. It’s the next step in the future of Niagara wines.