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The Outsiders

A different approach to great Niagara wine

Written by Christopher Waters Photography by Heidi Ram

  • Wine Club: Kevin Panagapka, Steve Byfield, Thomas Bachelder and Charles Baker were photographed at the Hermitage in Ancaster
  • Wine Club: Kevin Panagapka, Steve Byfield, Thomas Bachelder and Charles Baker were photographed at the Hermitage in Ancaster
  • Wine Club: Kevin Panagapka, Steve Byfield, Thomas Bachelder and Charles Baker were photographed at the Hermitage in Ancaster

As is the case in every corner of the winemaking world, some of the best Niagara wines are made in the shadows. A growing brigade of vintners are creating brands outside of the established system. They don't own wineries. They don't own vineyards. As such, they don't meet the requirements to get the necessary processing licence from the provincial government. But they are inordinately skilled, emphatically passionate and supremely motivated to find ways to express the best of the region. As one of the most successful of the current crop of Niagara outsiders, 2027 Cellars owner Kevin Panagapka explains that projects like his give winemakers the opportunity to produce stellar wines at a small volume. "I think it is a great way to showcase what you are super-passionate about without having to dump huge cash into it to start off, which I don't have." By working in leased space at supportive wineries and collaborating with like-minded vineyard owners, so-called virtual wineries are able to produce small batch, craft wines that are capable of turning heads. Given the personal nature of these ventures, no two are alike, which adds greatly to their appeal for anyone looking to experience the rare and the authentic.

Numbers Game

Kevin Panagapka
2027 Cellars
Vineland
2027cellars.ca

 

Kevin Panagapka started 2027 Cellars in 2008 by producing 100 cases of Riesling from a single vineyard in Vineland. This year, he potentially has five vineyards online, with an eye to producing more than 800 cases of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The talented young winemaker says the scope of the project has evolved, but the concept has always been the same.

"You don't have to have a huge bankroll to make a great bottle of wine," Panagapka says. "To me, you need a great vineyard, great barrels, good technique and a solid vision of where you want to go with things."

The focus from the start has been about lining up good vineyards to ensure he has the best possible fruit to work with. That dedication to quality means he has made certain wines from certain vineyards in some years, but not in others.

"I have always had a clear idea of where I wanted to go with the wines," he continued. "But the business part has been the new part for me. There is a very real business part to owning a winery, having to sell wine and managing inventory. That has been a learning experience for me."

The 2027 Cellars label is made at Featherstone Estate Winery in Vineland, where Panagapka works during harvest to assist owner/winemaker David Johnson. These days, he figures he divides his year roughly in half. Six months making wine, six months selling.

"When I grow tired of working in the cellars, it's time to get out and sell the wines. And, when I am tired of being out there selling, it's time to go make wine," he says. "It's a nice balance."

The expansion of 2027 Cellars' portfolio was a bid to add diversity to his product line. Having single-vineyard Pinots, Chardonnays and Rieslings, as well as a traditional-method sparkling, gives him more to offer. "So, instead of going into restaurants in Toronto saying, 'Here's one Riesling and if you don't like it I have to go…,' Now I have more options for people to purchase."

 

2027 Cellars 2011 Falls Vineyard Riesling Vinemount Ridge, Niagara Peninsula $18.95 There's more flesh and fruit next to the other Riesling produced by 2027 Cellars in 2011. It's a classic Niagara-style expression, with pronounced sweet and sour character. The nose is subdued at present, offering a delicate, fresh, wet stone and lime zest note. On the palate, there's much more going on, with bold and refreshing apricot and ruby grapefruit flavours. A touch of bitterness adds to the lingering, racy finish. Made exclusively for release at the LCBO in September. 200 cases.


United Nations

Thomas Bachelder
Delaney-Bachelder
Niagara-on-the-Lake
thomasbachelder.com

 

When Thomas Bachelder and his family plotted strategy for life after Le Clos Jordanne, they took stock of the three places where the wildly successful winemaker had worked. Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara each had a place in their hearts as well as strengths from a winemaking and business standpoint.

In the end, they hatched a plan that would see him produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in all three places. After years of working for others, it was time to create something personal where Thomas and his wife Mary Delaney could work with the long list of friends and associates they had developed over the years.

"The goal is not to become rich," Bachelder explains. "The goal is to make our living while making the kinds of wine we want to make.

"We have great contacts," he continued. "We call up people and say, 'Can we have a piece of this vineyard? Can we work in a corner of your cellar?'"

After establishing high profile projects, Lemelson Vineyards in Oregon and Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara, Bachelder said the idea of something small appealed. But, in a way, the Niagara native explains, this united nations approach was only possible because he needed to delegate responsibilities to effectively manage things at those larger operations.

He said he learned how to assign tasks without feeling like he wasn't making the wine: "Is the wine going to be less good because I don't personally top up every barrel? I don't think so."

Having produced three Chardonnays, one from each place, in 2009, the Bachelder craft wine brand is about to explode into an expansive collection of single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinots produced in 2010 and 2011. There is also a small batch of Aligoté from a prized spot in Burgundy that Bachelder needed to buy to get some coveted Puligny-Montrachet. It wasn't part of the plan, but that's part of the fun of calling the shots.

"We are discovering this as we go along," he says matter-of-factly.

Bachelder 2010 Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay Beamsville Bench $45 The Saunders Vineyard represented part of the blend for Bachelder's inaugural Niagara release. Here, a carefully chosen section is presented as a single-vineyard bottling that is marked by great freshness and minerality. This is the most expressive and elegant of the three vineyard selections made in Niagara in 2010. One sip is all it takes to know this is a terrific bottle of wine. It's dry and a bit tight now, but promises to unfold gracefully over the next eight years.


Humble Nature

Steve Byfield
Nyarai Cellars
Jordan
nyaraicellars.com

 

More than four years after releasing his first wine, Steve Byfield was finally able to watch someone carry one of his bottles to the cash register at a winery.

Without a winery or tasting room to call his own, the winemaker responsible for Nyarai Cellars has survived by selling his wines to restaurants, online and via the LCBO. He gained another sales channel in June, when DiProfio Wines in Jordan celebrated its grand opening.

DiProfio plays host to Byfield's winemaking venture, by allowing him to lease floor space at the winery and make wine under their licence. The family also encouraged him to take a corner of their retail shop to showcase his wines. On that first day, the Hamilton-based winemaker relished the opportunity to pour his wines to customers and hear immediate feedback. "That was pretty cool and also very rewarding and humbling," he says.

Byfield's choice of words is telling. Nyarai took its name from a South African word meaning 'be humble' or 'humility.' It's an apt expression for the mild-mannered winemaker who has quietly and determinedly made the wines that he wants to make in Niagara. The core of his small production (Nyarai hopes to produce 1,200 to 1,300 cases of wine this year) is a vibrant and intense Sauvignon Blanc that is knit together from different vineyards located around the region.

"That is one of the benefits and advantages of being your own boss," he explains. "Hopefully you are focusing on varieties that you're passionate about and want to explore. Sauvignon Blanc has always been a varietal that I am passionate about."

In addition to Sauvignon Blanc, Byfield produces a flavourful Viognier and a number of red blends featuring Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. He has Pinot Gris, Semillon and Petit Verdot on his wish list if he can find some available fruit before harvest. "We are looking to build a brand and take that brand to the next level by increasing production at a modest pace, as long as sales and reputation allow it."

Nyarai Cellars 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Niagara Peninsula $19.95 The flagship release from Nyarai has seen an evolution in style over the years. Byfield says the new release shows the vintage as well as his desire to produce a Sauvignon Blanc that's more in line with a Loire Valley expression. That means more minerality and an abundance of grassy aromas and flavours that are kept in check from becoming too pungent or aggressive. This successful white offers good concentration and richness, thanks to a 30 percent portion of the wine that was fermented in old oak barrels. 370 cases.


The Enabler

Charles Baker
Charles Baker Wines
Niagara-on-the-Lake
charlesbaker.ca

 

When Charles Baker launched his eponymous Riesling in 2005, he was continuing a project started when he worked at Cave Spring Cellars. While at the Jordan winery, the sales executive made a Riesling he called Django, after noted jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Baker felt adopting the gypsy musician's name was fitting given that he was making wine without owning vineyards or a winery. When he took a job at Stratus Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that idea grew in scale and ambition. He was able to create a commercial wine, working in tandem with chef and vineyard owner Mark Picone and the winemaking team at Stratus.

"There is a big difference between myself and the other three being featured," Baker said on a break from our photo shoot. "They are bona fide winemakers… I am enabling these vineyards to be put into bottle. I am the one facilitating the introduction of somebody's vineyard to a bottle and, after that, to somebody's glass."

All four of them share the same desire to find new ways of putting Niagara into a bottle, he added. Baker has just bottled the seventh vintage of the Picone Vineyard Riesling. Two years ago, he added a second site to his portfolio – the Ivan Vineyard, located near Tawse Winery in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation.

"The ambition is to capture Riesling from different vineyards from across the peninsula," Baker says.

"I only work in Niagara. I have to work within the parameters of my daily life. I have to work within the building where I am employed at Stratus, who are amazingly generous to allow me to do this. But I am not stopping it at two vineyards. The idea is to look for different expressions from different appellations."

Baker doesn't have a timeline for expanding his network of superior Riesling sites. He hopes that serendipity will play a role. "I think in time I will meet other grape growers who will want to work in the same vein."

Charles Baker Wines 2010 Picone Vineyard Riesling Vinemount Ridge $35 The warmth of Niagara's 2010 vintage is evident in this ripe, concentrated Riesling that still manages to showcase the expressive mineral, floral and savoury notes common to the Picone Vineyard. Ripe citrus and a hint of honey on the palate are nicely balanced by the wine's natural acidity and a slightly minty/herbal note that lingers on the finish. The wine comes across as dry, which is a significant departure from the 2009 release, but is merely a reaction to the weather conditions of the growing season. 440 cases.



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