Playful Sauvignon Blancs from Niagara
Written by Amanda Allison
Photography by Elizabeth Kaye & Tyler James
They may make 100 cases, or maybe 3,000. They may handle the grape differently during the winemaking process. They may note different key aromas or flavours. But these three winemakers have one very important thing in common, a true love of Sauvignon Blanc. They’ve all seen firsthand that this is a grape that can stand out in Niagara, and not just because it’s flying off the shelves. They believe that, despite its extreme winter tenderness and disease pressures, there’s something noteworthy happening. They agree on treating it right in the vineyard, spending time to manage its vigorous growth and picking on flavour, rather than sugar ripeness. They see eye-to-eye on the success of barrel-fermentation, which brings another level to this fresh, lively white and creates a richer, more complex wine with more depth and smooth mouthfeel. They even agree about Sauvignon Blanc’s ability to be a star at the dinner table, believing the combination of vibrant flavours and elegant acidity allows it to work terrifically well with food. Sure, their styles are distinct. Definitely, they each have something to offer. This is what Niagara Sauvignon Blanc is all about.
Fortunate SonWes Lowrey
Five Rows Craft Wine
For five generations, the Lowrey family has grown grapes for several local wineries, but it was Wes Lowrey who turned the family farm located in St. Davids into a winery.
“When we first started, we wanted to make a small amount of wine from our vineyard and still grow for other wineries,” he explains. “We set out to make a few different varieties, Pinot Noir being the one that we thought we’d always make wine from, and then Pinot Gris was one that popped up early on.” Even though they’d grown Sauvignon Blanc to great success for Creekside Estate Winery, the grape was a mere afterthought. “The first time we decide we’d do it, we held back a ton for ourselves and sold the rest. We made a couple of barrels and went from there,” he says. “Very quickly we came to find out it was the fastest selling variety each year.”
Given his background, Lowrey has a great understanding of the vineyard and the difficulties Sauvignon Blanc vines face, especially during winter. In the cellar, he’s relied on received wisdom from those who came before him. “I’ve been the beneficiary of seeing what’s worked in the past with our fruit,” he says of the barrel-fermented style he has embraced.
“When we first grew for Creekside… there was more of a tendency to do tank-ferment and you had a different style of wine because of that; it was more grassy and citrussy,” he says. “In my opinion, barrel-fermented stuff tends to be more complex, a little more tropical and have a little more weight on the palate.” Lowrey has gravitated towards having more of that style in his finished wine, while still relying on a small percentage of tank-fermented wine to add freshness. The end result is a complete smash, selling out quickly to great success.
“This wasn’t the first grape we set out to do, but it’s become one of the more valuable members of our winery.”
Five Rows Craft Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Niagara Peninsula $25 This delicious offering from Five Rows promises to sell out quickly, just like the previous vintage. A bright, fruity nose leads to a fresh palate that’s loaded with citrus, stone and a hint of bubblegum. This is slightly sweet and soft, but with a vivacious personality that’ll have you hooked. It would work well with seafood dishes or platter of soft cheeses. It’s oh-so enjoyable and a truly unique example of what Niagara Sauvignon Blanc can be. Simply charming. fiverows.com
I chose “dynamic” for a couple of reasons. From a viticulture prospective I see Sauvignon Blanc as being very vigorous, with tremendous shoot growth that needs to be properly managed to achieve healthy, flavourful fruit. In the winery, Sauvignon Blanc delivers aromatics of such intensity that I am continually blown away.
Global PerspectiveMarlize Beyers
Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery
Even though she’s been in Niagara for several years now, Marlize Beyers often compares winemaking here to her native South Africa. Joining Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery in 2010 after time at other local wineries including Flat Rock Cellars, Beyers brought a wealth of experience making wine in cool-climate areas, including the blossoming Elim wine region near Cape Agulhas at the tip of South Africa. “It’s a very different climate to make Sauvignon Blanc in Niagara and a completely different style that we do at Hidden Bench,” she explains. “In South Africa, I made Sauvignon Blanc mostly from very cool climate areas, yes, but the style was completely different.”
Not only are the soil structures special, with Beamsville Bench containing more limestone, the fruit is treated differently too. “We handle it extremely gently, no skin contact, which is another style difference from what we did in South Africa,” she says about the Cape’s reductive style, keeping wine and oxygen separate, creating a fresh, fruity New World style. “Here we settle it and then it goes to barrel. All our Sauvignon Blanc is barrel-fermented, co-fermented with Semillon, in a very traditional style.”
“I try to intervene as little as possible, because it’s such a delicate variety,” she says. This means not moving it around or working it too much and relying on neutral barrels. “The oak has to be restrained; it shouldn’t overpower the wine,” Beyers says, of letting the fruit express itself. By fermenting and aging in barrel, she says the wine takes on a richness, complexity and sometimes smoky character and the acids soften naturally, which is especially important in Sauvignon Blanc that’s high in malic acid.
The difference between this style and tank-fermented is crucial to Beyers. “It’s pure and elegant and a true expression of our unique terroir, is food friendly and age-worthy and has had a following for a number of years now,” she says.
It may be different than South African-styled Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s no less special.
Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery 2010 Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $40 Everything about this single-vineyard wine is deep. From its golden hue to its rich palate, this is a serious Sauvignon Blanc-based blend with real interest. With loads of tropical fruit, a pervasive flinty note and just a hint of herbaceousness, this is a traditional take on white Meritage with an Ontario twist. Winemaker Marlize Beyers hits the perfect balance of power and restraint by fine-tuning the oak integration. Enjoy with pasta in cream sauce or herbed pork. Fall 2012 release. hiddenbench.com
The Sauvignon Blanc/Nuit Blanche we produce has a character that reminds of wet stone or earth — in essence, terroir. The soils of Hidden Bench are very diverse and rich in limestone (over seven distinct soil types), which imparts a natural complexity in our wines. I don’t like to use the word “mineral” as it is too controversial and hard to explain scientifically as the minerals taken up by the vine (that ends up in the wine) are below the threshold of what we can actually taste.
Creekside Estate Winery
According to winemaker Rob Power, the first Creekside wine to create a buzz was the 1998 Sauvignon Blanc. From that moment, they went in big. “It’s our leading white wine both in terms of sales and where we put it in our own personal pantheon,” he says. “I think it’s a grape that’s closely associated with our identity.”
Today, production includes 3,000 cases of Sauvignon Blanc that’s nearly 100 percent tank-fermented and the barrel-fermented wine used for both the Laura’s White blend and their Sauvignon Blanc Reserve. Then there’s one-off Undercurrent labels made when special batches present themselves. It’s easy to see that Creekside has bought into the Sauvignon Blanc craze — and for good reason.
“It’s trending up hard,” says Power. “I think people are starting to appreciate the freshness, crispness and minerality, the zestiness and dynamic aspects of it. People are starting to get what it’s about.”
And what it’s all about at Creekside is flavour. Sauvignon Blanc vines are tender, but beyond that Power sees a huge upside. “If you can get it through the winter, every year it’s going to make a really interesting, fresh wine. We can always find that flavour window, it may move back two to three weeks vintage to vintage, but it always happens.”
Having both styles is key at Creekside. “The initial thought of putting Sauvignon Blanc into barrel is counterintuitive, but like a lot of other white wines in barrel, when you take it out of stainless steel you get a lot of things that you really wouldn’t expect,” he says. It’s not just the more tropical fruit accents, but creates roundness in the wine. “It allows you to make a very different wine style.”
Power thinks this style is helping the understanding of terroir in Niagara, setting our wines apart from the austerity of Sancerre and in-yourface aspects of New Zealand.
“It’s neat to start to be able to define in your own head what you’re going to expect from Niagara,” he says. “It’s also cool that people are starting to appreciate it.”
Creekside Estate Winery 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Niagara Peninsula $13.95 (620724) This is the wine to kick-start your taste buds after winter. A fragrant white with expressive lemonlime, apple and grass notes on the nose and palate, this is the perfect balance of sweet and tart. Vibrant and lifted with deep notes of tropical fruit and a slight herbaceousness, it’s just the refreshment one needs on a hot summer’s day. A long, refreshing finish compels you to take another sip. This zesty option is a lovely match for goat cheese salad or white fish dishes. creeksidewine.com
Sometimes our Sauvignon Blanc wines have the flavour of grapefruit zest, but it’s not just about flavours, it’s the overall mental effect. A glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the afternoon has the same invigorating effect on me as a great cup of strong black coffee at sunrise. It’s not about the caffeine — or the alcohol. It’s energizing aromatherapy in a glass. It’s verve, exuberance and liveliness stimulates the senses and the mind.