New single-vineyard chardonnays from Niagara underscore the great potential for the variety when matched to ideal sites. Christopher waters reports
STELLAR CHARDONNAYS FROM the Quarry Road, Mottiar, Brickyard and Oliveira vineyards have quickly joined the ranks of Niagara’s top wines. These newly minted wines are not only must-taste for fans of earthy, individual wines, but also show the need for further investigation of the land and its true potential.
Shiraz MottiarMALIVOIRE WINE CO. MOTTIAR VINEYARD CHARDONNAY
WHEN GRAPE VINES WERE PLANTED IN 2005 AT WHAT IS NOW known as Mottiar Vineyard, it was the first organized farming the Beamsville Bench site had seen in almost two decades.
Malivoire Wine Company winemaker Shiraz Mottiar recalls that some abandoned pear trees were the only evidence of agricultural usage at the three-hectare Quarry Road property, which is situated high on the Niagara Escarpment, three kilometres from Lake Ontario and 100 metres above it.
“It was probably thought to be too small to be commercially viable, which it is…” Mottiar says with a laugh. “I don’t think about the money that I put into it. Luckily, I’m not trying to make money on yield.”
Mottiar explains that the north-facing, sloping vineyard has a five-percent grade that makes it an interesting site for grape-growing. Its soils are clay loam over layers of limestone and sandstone bedrocks, which gives it natural affinity for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir planted there.
The site is also Mottiar’s home, which fosters a sentimental bond between the vintner and the vines that he personally tends. “It’s just the right size that I can manage it,” he explains. “This is my baby.”
The vineyard was originally planted in consultation with Deborah Paskus, winemaker at Prince Edward County’s Closson Chase Vineyard. Paskus suggested planting a diverse mixture of clones, including some cuttings from local vineyards. Vines went in the ground in 2005 and 2006. Mottiar says the 1.1 hectare block of Chardonnay includes clones 95, 96, 75 and the newer 548 selection.
The first crop yielded two barrels of Chardonnay — one two-year-old and one three-year-old, both French oak— about 45 cases of wine. (Production has grown to five barrels from the 2009 vintage, which should yield approximately 110 cases when it comes time to bottle in 2011.)
“It was pretty small to bottle and do a label order, but that’s one of the nice thing about being winemaker here,” Mottiar says. That small patch proved to be markedly different from Malivoire’s long established Moira Vineyard Chardonnay, which is celebrated as one of Niagara’s icon wines.
The 2007 Moira Chardonnay is made in a bigger, richer style, with abundant vanilla, butterscotch, peach and pineapple notes. By contrast, the same vintage’s Mottiar Chardonnay comes across as fresher and more delicate, with citrus and apricot notes and more upfront minerality. In simplistic terms, Moira comes across as a New World expression of Chardonnay, while Mottiar Vineyard has more of a French accent.
“I love seeing the differences between the different farms,” says Mottiar, who works with Chardonnay from Malivoire’s estate and Moira Vineyard as well as fruit from his vineyard and the Epp and Eastman vineyards, which are farmed by Malivoire under long-term lease agreements.
“I just treat it as it tells me to treat it,” Mottiar says, of the Chardonnay from his own vineyard. “Because it is made to be a single-vineyard, we can give it a similar barrel treatment as Moira.”
Duarte Oliveira Jr. / Darryl BrookerHILLEBRAND WINERY WILD FERMENT OLIVEIRA VINEYARD CHARDONNAY
ONE SIP AND A SMILE SPREADS ACROSS DUARTE OLIVEIRA JR.’S face. “It tastes like home,” he says appreciatively.
He should know. The wine is Hillebrand’s 2007 Wild Ferment Chardonnay that’s produced with grapes from his parent’s vineyard.
Winemaker Darryl Brooker agrees that the flavour profile is distinctive. It’s unique to that vineyard. “You can see the character in the grapes but especially in the barrels after ferment,” he says. “The aromatic profile is identical. That’s the vineyard.
“At a blending session of 90 to 100 Chardonnays, I can always spot the Oliveira vineyard. That character stands out a mile away.”
Brooker has been a fan of the vineyard since he took the reins at Hillebrand Winery in 2005. He remembers being instantly impressed with the Oliveiras’ attention to detail at their Beamsville farm.
He spread the fruit across an assortment of French oak barrels to see how it would develop and released the output as Hillebrand’s single barrel Chardonnay label in 2005 and 2006. Convinced of the quality of the site, Brooker created a new label specifically for the fruit in 2007, the Wild Ferment Oliveira Vineyard Chardonnay.
It’s the only single-vineyard wine Hillebrand produces from a property not owned by the company. Duarte Oliveira Sr. and his wife Maria have been farming the vineyard and selling grapes to Andres (now Andrew Peller Limited, owner of Hillebrand Winery) since 1979.
Oliveira Sr. recalls taking charge of the farm, which was planted to a mix of native grapes, French hybrids and vinifera, and not knowing what to do with the Chardonnay. “We lost the first crop to downy mildew,” he explains.
The following year, he radically changed the way the Chardonnay was farmed, including retraining the vines and aggressively stripping leaves for better fruit exposure.
Other growers were quick to tell him that “You’re crazy to do that,” but the vines thrived. The focus on quality has never wavered. Nor has the family’s individual approach to harvest, which sees the Chardonnay picked by hand over the course of a weekend. The extended family does all of the work, including preparing a bountiful homemade harvest meal that’s presented midday.
“You spend so much time and effort during the growing season, why rush it at the last minute,” says Duarte Jr. “It goes back to enjoying what you’re doing. When you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Derek BarnettLAILEY VINEYARD BRICKYARD CHARDONNAY
CHARDONNAY HAS BEEN A MAINSTAY OF THE LAILEY VINEYARD from the beginning. In any year, the stalwart grape variety represents 20 percent (or more) of the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery’s 10,000-case production that might be spread over four or five labels depending on the quality of the crop and the creative whim of winemaker Derek Barnett.
“A good core of people come to us strictly for Chardonnay,” explains Barnett, winemaker and manager of the estate winery. “A lot of them are essentially looking for the style of Chardonnay that they are used to buying.”
A lucky number of those loyal clients are likely to greet a new favourite when Lailey debuts its Brickyard Chardonnay.
Brickyard encompasses the newest part of the Lailey Vineyard, located at the front of the farm beside the Niagara Parkway, which was planted in 2004. Its name alludes to the history of the site. In 1800, settler John McFarland set up a kiln and started firing bricks for construction of his home located across the street.
The new 3.2 acre parcel is planted to Pinot Noir (2-1/2 acres), with a half an acre of Chardonnay and small amounts of Petit Verdot, Semillon and Malbec.
Barnett said the decision of what to plant there was made based on the character of the heavy clay soils.
“It was the soil. It was Burgundy. We put the Pinot Noir on higher ground and the Chardonnay on lower ground,” he explains. “The soils were more in tune with Burgundy varieties than anything else.”
Fruit has been harvested from those young vines since 2006. Barnett says the character has always been different from the Chardonnay planted elsewhere on the property, but the resulting wine didn’t stand on its own until the 2008 vintage.
“We seriously thought about it in 2007,” he says. “We really wanted to do it, but the wine wasn’t ready. In 2008, suddenly there was enough complexity and the structure was there.”
Some 135 cases of Brickyard Chardonnay were produced in 2008 (115 cases in 2009). The new addition to the portfolio showcases extremely fresh aromas and flavours suggesting pineapple, green apple and yellow apple.
“It’s so different from the Chardonnay at the back of the property,” Barnett says. “It’s different from the Old Vines Chardonnay. It’s different from what goes into the Canadian Oak Chardonnay.”
Paul PenderTAWSE WINERY QUARRY ROAD CHARDONNAY
WHEN MORAY TAWSE FIRST PURCHASED THE QUARRY ROAD VINEyard in 2005, winemaker Paul Pender and the winemaking team had reservations about the site. Having been spoiled with working established (mostly) old vine vineyards such as the (circa 1979) Robyn’s Block, they were now facing something of a problem child.
“At first, I hated it,” recalls Pender, who has worked at Tawse since 2004. “Now it’s my favourite site.”
Pender’s outlook changed as the potential for the vineyard became more and more apparent. The site was converted to organic farming practices in 2005 and then to biodynamics in 2007.
Working with Yves Hérody, a pedologist from the Jura who consults worldwide, has helped the team at Tawse fine-tune its farming practices.
“We learned that the site has abundant active calcium — it’s everywhere,” says Pender, who explained how trenches were dug throughout the vineyard to get a better grasp of the make-up of the soil. “It starts about six inches down and goes down as far as we’ve dug.”
As a consequence, farming practices involve using fresh manure to get more biological life into the soils and special biodynamic sprays to create an acid that breaks down the limestone into a soluble form that’s accessible to the vines.
“It’s definitely a very mineral site,” Pender explains. “It’s been fun to see how the wine has come back to life as the soils have come back to life.
“I think that mineral aspect of the vineyard is starting to show itself more and more each vintage. Even in 2007, a hotter year, it’s there.”
The 48-acre site is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. Vidal and Baco Noir vines that were planted on the property have been removed and an additional 26 acres of Pinot, Chardonnay and Riesling will be going in the ground this year.
The Chardonnay produced from the site in 2005 became part of Tawse’s larger volume Échos Chardonnay. Since 2006, however, barrels have been kept separate to release a single-vineyard Quarry Road bottling.
“There’s nine acres of Chardonnay at Quarry Road (at the moment). That’s too much to produce as a single vineyard, so we continue to declassify some of the barrels,” Pender explains. Production for the inaugural vintage was 200 cases. The 2008 vintage will yield between 450 and 500 cases.
Pender is quick to mention that demand for Quarry Road Chardonnay continues to increase so it’s nice to have the ability to grow production to meet that interest without sacrificing quality levels.
He also says he has also enjoyed seeing the differences between fruit from the younger Quarry Road vines and the crop from the old vines that produces Tawse’s flagship white, Robyn’s Block Chardonnay.
“Robyn’s is always fat and round, where this has always been a more focused wine,” Pender says during a recent tasting of the two single-vineyard wines.
“Robyn’s is just so easy to make. Quarry Road has taken a little more work. We’re learning about how to farm it, how to press it and so on to best express that vineyard.”