“It doesn’t matter where you make the wine, it’s the quality of the fruit,” declared Kevin Panagapka of 2027 Cellars at a recent tasting of 6 virtual Ontario wineries. This seems to be the general mantra of all the talented winemakers showcasing their wares on that dreary early-spring Saturday in Toronto. What is a ‘virtual winery’ exactly? A ‘virtual winery’ has no building, no tasting room, no cellar, no bricks and mortar at all to call its own. Essentially, the ‘virtual winery’ model is a way for a winemaker to practice his or her craft without having to come up with the astronomical investment needed to build a winery and purchase land. Instead, they buy grapes from trusted grape growers and rent space from existing wineries and use their facilities, and the internet serves as their retail store. It’s a model that has been found around the world for decades, but it has increased in popularity in recent years, including right here in Ontario.
‘Virtual winery’ is a term that’s used mainly in North America. Thomas Bachelder, who makes wine in 3 so-called virtual wineries in 3 different countries, prefers the term ‘micro négoce’ or ‘micro négociant’ instead. A ‘négociant’ is a wine merchant, usually French, who buys grapes and vinifies them, or buys wine and blends them, and then sells the wine under his or her own label. Négociants who specialize in very limited-production wines would be ‘micro négociants’. It fits.
I think the term ‘terroir négociant‘ also aptly describes this growing group of winemakers. Some time ago, Jancis Robinson, wrote an article called “Burgundy’s New Breed of Negociants,” in which she calls these smaller, quality-driven merchants ‘terroir merchants‘, as “they are every bit as passionate about squeezing terroir, or a sense of place, into a bottle as those who run the best small domaines” (Jancis Robinson). While Jancis is referring to a special group of winemakers in Burgundy, I think this also applies to the owners of our very own ‘micro negociants’ here in Ontario.
The 6 winemakers who gathered at Canoe in Toronto on Saturday, all proudly spoke about hand-selecting the healthiest grapes and minimal intervention in the winemaking process in order to bring out the full expression of the grapes and the unique terroir of the vineyards.
Thomas Bachelder makes wine in 3 different wine regions – Oregon, Burgundy, and Niagara. He buys organic grapes wherever possible and rents space in wineries to make the wines. In Niagara, he makes the wines out of Southbrook Vineyards. One day he hopes to go to bricks and mortar and own his own domaine, but right now he’s happy as a micro négociant. He’s dedicated to illustrating the unique expression of the 3 different terroirs he works with so he’s made all 3 Chardonnays in the same way – “It’s not only Meursault that can show terroir,” he says. To read my full tasting notes on Bachelder’s 3 2009 Chardonnays, please read “Bachelder’s Trio of Chardonnays”. (I highly recommend all 3 Chardonnays.)
Charles Baker is one of the original ‘virtual wineries’ in Niagara. His wine (he only makes Riesling) is made at Stratus and his grapes come from the Picone Vineyard and, since 2010, the Ivan Vineyard. He now has 7 vintages under his belt with 2005 as the inaugural vintage. Right now he is only interested in making wine with Riesling. When asked, Charles did say that if he had a winery, he would be interested in working with Gamay, but that he certainly has no plans to own his own winery right now.
Riesling 2010 Picone Vineyard: (11.5% abv., 18 g/l rs.) 2010 was a very warm vintage so this wine is a bit broader than the other 3 in the line-up. There’s a pretty floral note with lots of mineral, lime and green apple aromas. The acid is crisp, even for a warm year, with flavours of peach, mineral, and green fruit with a touch of smoke on the finish.
Riesling 2009 Picone Vineyard: (10.5 % abv., 27 g/l rs.) 2009 was very cool and wet until the autumn when the sun shone for about 6 weeks, saving the vintage. The grapes had already captured relatively high acidity which shows through in the wine. Aromas of petrol, smoke, wet stone, and citrus. Nervy and tense on the palate with a good dose of residual sugar to balance the high acid. Really good.
Riesling 2005: Very much alive and kicking! Still lots of fruit on the nose – green apple, lemon/lime – with aromas of petrol and wet stone. The palate is beginning to show signs of maturity with yellow apple, sultana raisins, earth, and petrol. Off-dry to balance the acid. A wine with lots of character.
Nyarai, made by winemaker and owner Steve Byfield, used to be made out of Calamus, but they have recently moved over to Diprofio Wines. Nyarai began in 2008 with grapes from the 2007 vintage and quickly became known for crisp, flavourful Sauvignon Blanc. Steve also makes other white wines using Chardonnay and Viognier, as well as delicious red blends.
2011 Sauvignon Blanc: 30% was fermented in 5 to 6 year old barrels. This wine has aromas of fresh hay, grapefruit, mineral, citrus, and gooseberry. Crisp and juicy on the palate with a long length. Another great Sauvignon Blanc from Nyarai!
2010 Viognier: 100% stainless steel. Medium intensity with notes of honeysuckle, orange zest, peach, and apricot. A creamy texture with very great acidity for a Viognier. Long finish.
2010 Red Blend barrel sample. To be named “Cadence”. This wine is still in barrel (all old oak) and the blend has not been finalized, but it will contain Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. This very young wine has aromas of lead pencil, chocolate, plum and other dark fruit. A little white pepper on the palate in addition to dark fruit, mineral and spice. The tannins are still young and quite fuzzy, but should soften with more time. I’m looking forward to trying the final wine, as there is lots of potential here!
Made by Jeff Hundertmark, winemaker at Marynissen, these wines are made under Marynissen’s licence and Jeff rents space from his employer to make his wines. While Jeff says that he doesn’t focus on any particular grape or style of wine, he makes wines that Marynissen doesn’t produce. He doesn’t label his wines varietally because he wants people to focus on what’s in the bottle, not on what’s on the label.
White Merlot 2011: (100% Merlot, 11% abv, 24 g/l rs) The grapes were all hand-harvested and pressed right away. Any pink that leached into the juice from the Merlot grapes settled out through the winemaking process and now this wine is a pale lemon colour. Very fruity aromas of peach, pear, almost like fruit cup syrup. Very light and easy drinking with a soft sweetness.
2010 Red: (91% Pinot Noir from St. David’s Bench, 9% Gamay from 35 year old vines in Four Mile Creek) Notes of campfire smoke, toast, vanilla, and dark berries. A sturdy structure with good acidity and firm, but ripe tannins. Good length.
Kevin Panagapka is the winemaker and owner of 2027 Cellars and he rents space out of Featherstone Estate Winery to make the wines. He began this virtual winery in 2007 and makes single vineyard Riesling (except 2010), Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, as Kevin believes these are the best grapes for Niagara’s climate. Kevin admits that he owns a virtual winery because he can’t afford to build one, but he claims he would like to one day. He only makes a tiny amount of wine which typically sells out very quickly.
2011 Fox Croft Vineyard Riesling: (11 g/l rs., 9 g acid) A complex nose of wet stone, ripe peach, green apple, citrus, and tangerine zest. The zesty acid is balanced by a little residual sugar and ripe fruit flavours, a touch of petrol, and wonderful Niagara minerality. Long length.
2010 Queenston Road Pinot Noir: This wine underwent a wild fermentation, a wild malolactic fermentation and is unfined and unfiltered. It was aged in 30% new Burgundian oak and 70% old oak. Overflowing with aromas of smoky cherry, cranberry, earth, spice, and pink blossoms. A very silky texture with sweet vanilla, ripe cherry, mineral, and dark spice flavours that linger forever. Fantastic!
Ilya and Nadia Senchuk named their virtual winery ‘Leaning Post’ after the posts found at the end of each row of vines that supports the wires on which the vines grow. Leaning Post is also a reference to the support of friends and family that the couple have had to lean on in order to make their dream of owning a winery a reality. Their goal is to take unique single vineyard sites in Niagara and turn them into distinct, terroir-driven wines. In 2011 they purchased a property in Winona which will eventually become the site of their real bricks and mortar winery.
2009 Foxcroft Riesling: The grapes were picked very late – on Nov 2 and 3 – at 22 Brix. The wine spent 15 months on the lees. (13 g/l rs, 10 g acid, 12.5% abv.) Complex aromas of petrol, grapefruit, green apple, peach, mineral, and smoke with a slightly floral note. Delicious and juicy on the palate with a long length. Finishes quite dry despite a little residual sugar. One of my favourite wines of the tasting!
2009 Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir: 32 year old vines. Grapes were picked October 28 and the wine spent 14 months in 40% new French and 60% 5 year old French barrels and underwent a light filter. This wine is brimming with aromas of cranberry, rhubarb, cherry, beetroot, and smoked meat. Tannins are still a bit firm so decant if drinking now, or cellar for a couple of years.
2010 Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir: (barrel sample). This wine is still in barrel and Ilya said he’s not sure yet when it will be bottled. Being from a warmer vintage, this wine has riper, richer fruit than the 2009 with lots of ripe cherry, currant, strawberry, spice, and smoked meat aromas. Fine tannins and a silky texture. I’m looking forward to the finished product.