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Regal Fizz

A Dream of Making Great Sparkling on the Fringe

Written by Amanda Allison Photography by Jeffery Kirk

  • Sparkling Wit: Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras, of Hinterland Wine Co.
  • Oh Deer: Hinterland’s rustic door knocker greets guests
  • Jonas Newman, Vicki Samaras and their sons in the tasting room of their Hillier, Ont. winery
  • Pop Props: Scenes from Hinterland Wine Co.
  • Pop Props: Scenes from Hinterland Wine Co.
  • Pop Props: Scenes from Hinterland Wine Co.
  • Prince Edward County
  • Waiting game: Batches of Hinterland 2009 Rosé mature in the cellar
  • Waiting game: Batches of Hinterland 2009 Rosé mature in the cellar
 

Prince Edward County. It’s a land that creates serious challenges for winemakers. Vines must be buried to hinder Jack Frost’s icy grip in the often brutal Ontario winter. The limestone soils and climate add character to the wines, yes, but also overwhelming acidity if they are handled incorrectly. And no matter what anyone says, as a wine-growing region that just aged into double digits, it still makes everyone doe-eyed rookies.

It’s here that four wineries pursue making sparkling wine, not against these elements, but because of them. The hope is that Prince Edward County’s rugged and rustic soul will yield the raw materials for crafting refined and rarified sparkling wine as good as those produced any place on earth, including Champagne.

“We will not make any more still wines. Full stop. The focus of the place is going to be to make sparkling wines only,” says Jonas Newman of Hinterland Wine Company, with a serious sparkle in his eyes.

It may seem like a bold move to outsiders, but to those who know how long Newman and his partner in both life and the field, Vicki Samaras, have been researching this adventure wouldn’t give it a second thought. They learned from the best at Thirteenth Street Winery in Niagara, tipping their hats to the sparkling gurus there, including mentor Gunter Funk. Add into that an undeniable fervour for bubbly and you have a single-minded winery that’s become a cult-like obsession to fans of their craft.

So, why sparkling? For a busy family with two young boys whose lives all revolve around timing, Newman says it’s the same logic in the field. “For us, it’s what squeezes into the season. It makes a lot more sense for us to do something that will ripen,” he explains. “The major advantage for growing sparkling here is that you can wait.”

He remembers back to the 2009 harvest, where Hinterland crews wrapped up the first week of October, but other wineries were stressed, picking three weeks later in a muddy pile. “You can’t really wait for Pinot Noir here, you can’t wait for Chardonnay to get Niagara-ripe, because you gotta lay down (your vines), you gotta get out of the way for winter.”

There’s a rough and tumble sense to Hinterland, as they build and grow into the company they foresee. Currently, no winery in the area has the equipment to produce tank-fermented sparkling wine or finish the traditional method process, which sees secondary fermentation take place in the bottle that the wine is sold in. Hinterland is hoping to change that one day. They’re slowly increasing their equipment in a bid to be more self-sufficient.

“We’re kind of slapping it together as we go,” says Newman. But that doesn’t mean this is some sort of mishmash operation. “Contrary to the digs, we’re trying to be serious about it,” Newman laughs. Samaras completes his train of thought, “We put our investment in the vineyard.”

To differentiate themselves from the other few wineries making sparkling in the region, Newman and Samaras are trying to innovate to keep things interesting. This might mean more atypical blends or even other grape varietals than traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay making it into the cut, such as Sauvignon Blanc. For right now, though, they’re aiming for a less ambitious goal.

“We’d like to be able to carry a meal,” Newman explains. And the dessert match would be Ancestral, a self-proclaimed promiscuous, strawberries-and-cream Gamay Noir offering that works equally well with Indian food.

They weren’t exactly sure how a fizzy red wine would work out. It was a nail biter decision from the moment they bought the fruit from neighbours, the Grange of Prince Edward Vineyard and Estate Winery. “We made the most that we could afford to pour down the drain,” Samaras explains with a shrug and a sly smile. Today, she’s sorry they only made 100 cases.

“It seems if we had to identify with a style it’d be dry and racy, very focused,” says winemaker Adam Delmore, of efforts with traditional method sparkling wine since the Grange of Prince Edward Vineyard and Estate Winery’s inaugural vintage in 2007.

Just because the young winemaker has his eye on a distinct style, doesn’t mean he waves off tradition. Typically using equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Delmore confides is the same clone Champagne Bollinger uses, the Grange creates Old World style sparkling wine.

On that track, Delmore started experimenting with building complexity in the base wine for his bubbly. “We were waiting on bottles and so we thought “Okay, it’s not great to just leave it in tank. What can we do?” he explains about the 2009 vintage. “We brainstormed and the vineyard manager and I came up with the idea of barrels. That added a nice component.

“It brings out that Old World character. Arguably in a blind tasting, you might very well think it’s European,” Delmore says. “I believe, because of that, with sparkling wine from the County — there is value.”

At under $16, the Casa-Dea Estates Winery 2008 Dea’s Cuvee offers good value. Made from 100 percent County fruit and undergoing secondary fermentation in a reinforced stainless steel tank, winemaker Paul Battilana thinks it has something different to offer.

He worked with the lees to add more complex nutty or toasty notes into the base wine, while the tank-fermented process, known in the industry as the Charmat method, preserves the fresh fruity character.

“It’s a little bit closer to traditional tasting, you get a little bit of that nuttiness, but you still have a distinctive Charmat flavour profile,” he says. And the price point is probably a good thing since it’s popular both at the winery’s La Pergola Restaurant and at his home. “My wife usually asks for the second glass,” he jokes.

“Sparkling, I think, can do very well in the County. I’ve had some phenomenal sparkling,” Battilana says thoughtfully about his counterparts in the area. As a relatively new arrival to Casa- Dea, he knows there’s huge potential for growth. “Just with this one here, I think it’s promising.”

With a total of 65 acres of vineyards now between two farms, Casa-Dea is one of the largest plantings in the County, but that doesn’t mean they’re expanding. “I want to focus more on small batches,” the Niagara transplant explains. “I want more flexibility to be creative and create something really unique.”

Casa-Dea didn’t produce its Dea’s Cuvee in 2009, but is gearing up to produce its first traditionalmethod bubbly, for which Battilana says he’ll draw from friendly inspiration. “I’m definitely looking more toward what Frederic Picard at Huff Estates is doing, that kind of style. It fits.”

Frederic Picard just returned from a three-day trip to Champagne where he was focusing on learning how to improve his sparkling program – and getting a bit jealous about the set-ups at some of the producers he visited.

“They have a lab bigger than my winery!” he exclaims. “We are in Prince Edward County and we’re far from everything. There’s no lab; we don’t have the right equipment.”

“We all just do the best we can,” the native Frenchman says. “But I think we’re learning the techniques, slowly. Not one of us made sparkling before, or grew grapes in Champagne.”

They’ve learned how to re-ferment in bottles and when to harvest grapes for sparkling. “But really, our region is still so young,” Picard says about the region he calls the laboratory because everyone is experimenting. “I might be retired by the time we find out what two or three products work beautifully here. But, we need to try. We just need time.” He is determined to be continually picky, despite the rush to grow as an industry. “We have to be careful to increase in quality with increasing volumes.”

His passion for sparkling to succeed in the County, though, is evident. “It’s my favourite wine,” he says with obvious relish. “If I could, I’d just make 100 percent sparkling like Jonas.”

These winemakers’ attempts to make sparkling shine in the County are intertwined. Each relies on the experience of the next as they learn about and adapt to the region’s climate, soil and personality. By taking calculated risks, they look to create original styles while maturing in both quality and quantity. They hope that one day, they’ll be able to say they figured out not only how to endure the conditions of this rugged Canadian wine region, but also how to flourish making the most elegant and dazzling wines imaginable.



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