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SOMEWHERE IN NIAGARA — I travel these country roads often, past the roadside fruit stands, row after row of vigorous vines swaying in the summer breeze and farmers tending to their corn, potatoes, peaches, grapes and whatever else turns dirt into cash.

The scenery can morph from pastoral to grandiose to country kitsch in the blink of an eye. Niagara wine country comes in all shapes and sizes and I soak it up in an unending quest to discover the next big thing, that one wine that shines just a little brighter than all the others.

You can only find it be exploring the far reaches of Niagara, from the perfectly paved roads to the dusty trails that look like they lead square into the middle nowhere. I take in the popular wineries, for sure, but I am also looking for unique wines made by winemakers who are driven by nothing more than their passion for the very best of what Niagara can deliver. This is where I find excitement. That uncompromising desire to craft wines that rise high above the tide; wines that have the potential to set new benchmarks in a young region still finding its way.

Who will take Niagara to the next level? What does the future look like?

Funny you should ask. I just may have some of the answers right here as we explore four Niagara visionaries who are just beginning to step out of the shadows with wines and portfolios that show this region at its very best.

This is my Fantastic Four:

Note: This article first appeared in Tidings wine magazine. Some comments have been expanded for this post.

Five Rows Craft Wine

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You need to know where you’re going to find this small, family-run winery in the heart of St. Davids. An inconspicuous sign on York Road points left on Tanbark Road, through a small subdivision and down a dusty dirt road to the tiny barn where miniscule quantities of wine are bottled and hand-numbered, each and every one of them, every vintage.

Here you find the Lowreys, a fifth-generation farming family working a 35-acre vineyard that produces craft wine grapes for top wineries in the area.

The family, Howard and Wilma Lowrey, and son Wes, are primarily growers who supply some of Niagara’s best fruit to a select few wineries and winemakers.

Howard and Wilma run the accomplished wine grape growing operation and tasting room at Lowrey Vineyards while Wes, a winemaker and viticulturalist by training, crafts small batches of wine that exemplify the terroir of the St. Davids Bench and the style of the Lowrey farm.

Only 700 cases of wine are made spread across six varieties: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The name of the winery is a tribute to the original five rows of Pinot Noir planted on the family farm that has been the source of some of Niagara’s finest Pinot over the years.

What I like about Five Rows:

First of all, when you visit the winery you are always greeted cheerfully by Wilma Lowrey no matter how crowded the tasting room is. You can taste the wine but be prepared for a friendly conversation about anything but the wine. Then there’s Wes Lowrey’s style of wines. He uses top fruit for a small production that highlights what he feels grows best in St. Davids and he makes them all in a style that is consistent year after year. These are substantive wines, unique to Five Rows, that are bold, highly structured and worthy of your cellar.

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The motivation behind Five Rows from Wes Lowrey:

“My original motivation was to prove to myself that I could actually craft a decent wine out of my own grapes. After many years of marvelling at what other winemakers were doing with our fruit, I felt starting my own winery was dependent on producing those same great wines — something I was not sure I had the skill do at first. Luckily, I came to find that if I was motivated to grow the best grapes, the end result was usually premium wines.

After being open now for six years my motivation has changed to maintaining a standard that people have come to expect from Five Rows. By striving to express the uniqueness of our terroir through the wines that I craft, I hope to carry on a family tradition of growing quality fruit in St. Davids for many years to come.”

Try this:

Five Rows Craft Wine Pinot Gris 2012 Niagara ($25, 92 points)

Now this is something, a serious Gris that’s not afraid to let its freak flag fly. 70% of the fruit is barrel fermented and barrel aged in old, neutral oak barrels for six months. The nose shows ripe McIntosh apple, melon, poached pear and spices that swirl around the edges yet never overpowers the fruit. It has some weight and viscosity on the palate, some tannic structure, but it is the fruit, laden with apple and pear, that shines in the mouth with bits of spice and honey all balanced out by a firm beam of acidity.

Where to get them:

Winery or online here

2027 Cellars

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Kevin Panagapka, owner, winemaker and chief bottle washer, of this “virtual winery,” has made some stunning wines since he started his business in 2007.

As a virtual winemaker (he does not own a winery and operates under a “host” licence, in this case Featherstone winery in Vineland) Panagapka is able to source grapes from what he feels are the top vineyards in Niagara.

He is simply making some of the finest wines in Niagara from the varieties he thinks do best in this region: Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Panagapka has the advantage of purchasing fruit from the finest vineyards in the sub-appellations he chooses for the kind of wines he wants to make: Pinots from Queenston Road on the St. Davids Bench; Chardonnay from Wismer’s Fox Croft Block on the Twenty Mile Bench; Riesling from Falls Vineyard and Fox Croft Vineyard on Vinemount Ridge.

It’s a formula that has worked brilliantly for Panagapka. The best fruit with wines made exactly how he wants to make them and no one from marketing or finance on his case.

What I like about 2027 Cellars:

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Panagapka is one of the finest winemakers in Niagara, an independent soul who is fond of saying “I make wines that I like to drink.”

All his wines are terroir-driven and he has found the right vineyards for the varieties he makes. His new Pinot Noir from 2011 is stunning and is the first Pinot to show a new direction for him with this grape.

After producing pretty, silky, delicate Pinots he’s moved in the direction of the Chambertin style from the Cotes de Nuits in Burgundy. These are longer-lasting wines with grip and will fully reveal themselves over time as all that fruit, wood spice and tannins harmonize.

The motivation behind 2027 Cellars from Kevin Panagapka:

“For me it’s the challenge of producing unique wines from each single vineyard. I’m fascinated with the concept of ‘terrior’ and its application to single vineyard wines in Niagara. Each year that I make a wine from a single vineyard, I gain some new perspective on the various attributes of the site. As each growing season in Niagara presents different challenges, making expressive wines in this cool climate region is a creative process. Producing wines that reflect the vineyard’s individuality is the ultimate goal. I change some small viticultural or winemaking process each year that I believe makes a better, more expressive wine from that site. It’s an infinite work in progress … (which is the fun part!).”

Try this:

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2027 Cellars Queenston Road Pinot Noir 2011 Niagara ($35, 93 points)

Made with wild fermentation, no fining agents or filtration and finished in Tonnellerie Sirugue French oak, 20% of it new. The nose is much deeper and earthier than previous vintages but still the ripe cherry and raspberry rise to the top with beetroot and oak spices mingling in the background. The wine does a turnaround on the palate, guided by a wall of fine oak tannin and earth, dirt, loam and Pinot funk that slowly reveals the fleshy beetroot, the sour cherry, the anise and darker fruits. It’s altogether a more masculine expression of this fascinating grape that starts with a wink and a promise but delivers a subtext of complexity that will make you work for the pleasure within this intellectual offering.

Where to get them:

Featherstone Winery, online here or at Vintages stores.

Thomas Bachelder

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Thomas Bachelder has spent the vast majority of his time on this earth in pursuit of good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And he has done it well, from Burgundy to Oregon and at his home base of Niagara.

There is no questioning his skill with these two grapes, his illustrious resume speaks for itself. But the path he and his wife, Mary Delaney, are now on is getting the full attention of wine lovers not only in Ontario and the rest of Canada but also in the other two regions he’s making wine: Oregon and Burgundy.

The Thomas Bachelder project, a tri-regional virtual winery adventure, that takes him on the road for 12 weeks of the year, is now in its third vintage for the Chardonnays while the first Pinot Noirs started arriving at stores in the fall.

Bachelder applies the same winemaking skills to each of his wines under his label: organically-sourced grapes where possible, minimal intervention, the same deft touch with similar, mostly older, oak barrels for 16 months, and all, or mostly all, grapes fermented using wild yeasts.

He takes a Burgundian approach to winemaking and has turned out single-vineyard wines as well as more regional blends to expand the portfolio.

What I like about Thomas Bachelder:

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It is the passion of Bachelder that shines in all his wines. He sources wonderful fruit from his connections in all three regions and from there he lets the fruit do the talking.

His 2010 Wismer Chardonnay (Niagara) received the highest score I have ever given a white table wine in Niagara (94 points) and the 2011 wines, both the Pinots and Chardonnays, are going to knock the socks off a lot of wine lovers when they start arriving in stores this fall.

Bachelder has arrived and he has quickly established himself at the top end of winemaking in Ontario and beyond.

The motivation behind Thomas Bachelder wines from Thomas Bachelder:

“I am motivated to make terroir-based wines that reflect their regions; their vineyards and the season in which they were made. The grape type comes in afterwards — first, we have a duty to make wines that sing of the soil from which they were born.

I use the same Burgundian techniques (which are revelatory of terroir and not of the winemakers’ whim) to make wines that taste of Niagara; of Burgundy; or Oregon, whether they come from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

I travel about three weeks a year to make wine in Burgundy, another three in Oregon, then 1 and a half in each to bottle, and, in between, a week in the summer to check on vines and contracts for the upcoming season.

The rest of the time I am in Niagara worrying about Niagara and receiving samples and emails from the other regions.

It is a life that lets us sew together our pasts and our present and our future: we were a young couple in Burgundy; the girls were born in Oregon; and have completed primary and are now in francophone high school in Niagara!”

Try this:

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Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Niagara ($45, 92 points)

Bachelder sourced the fruit for his first Niagara Pinot from the Lowrey vineyard’s original five rows in St. Davids. This is a pretty Pinot with violets, black cherry, cassis and earthy-spicy notes on the nose. It’s ripe yet silky on the palate with gorgeous cherry-raspberry fruit that’s persistent through a lengthy finish. Such finesse and verve and balanced already.

Where to get them:

Bachelder’s wines are available through the LCBO/Vintages in Ontario and SAQ in Quebec as well as private stores in other provinces and at fine restaurants.

Website here

Rennie Estate Winery

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Graham and Christine Rennie turned their dream of owning a vineyard into reality when they purchased one of the oldest vineyards on the Beamsville Bench in 1997.

Now called the Heron Pond Vineyard, it is the source of some of the top wines in Constellation Brands’ Niagara portfolio.

Rennie is a highly successful businessman and could have bought his dream vineyard anywhere he wanted but chose Niagara because he saw the potential in the region to make wines that can rival any region in the world.

The couple now take a small portion of their own grapes and make, using the Malivoire production facility, about 700 cases of super-premium Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a dried-grape style of wine.

His approach is to make small-lot artisanal wines, using the Italian appassimento method of drying grapes as well as a Ripasso style of wine to go with a top-notch Pinot and Chardonnay. A new temperature-controlled drying facility is being developed and partially funded by Rennie in a partnership with the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

What I like about Rennie Estate Winery:

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Graham Rennie is driven by his competitive spirit to be the best at whatever he does and that extends to his wines.

His passion is to make appassimento-style wines from the top-notch Bordeaux varietals he grows in his vineyard. His signature Gaia is a stunning example of where the dried-grape style of winemaking can go in Niagara. He takes no shortcuts and replicates the drying process used in Veneto to get maximum concentration and complexity in his wines.

Not to be overlooked are both the Chardonnay and Pinot he makes from Heron Pond fruit. Both are wonderfully made examples of terroir-driven Bench wines at the top end of the quality spectrum.

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The motivation behind Rennie Estate Winery’s Graham Rennie:

“What motivates me to risk my hard earned $$$ and personal reputational capital to make the highest quality, structured, complex, full-bodied red wine in Niagara is a function of my highly competitive nature and the love of a good challenge!

I am a highly achievement-oriented individual and have never given up trying to be the best at anything I set my mind to — the possibility of winning motivates me.

Given my drive to succeed and love of a good challenge it was predictable that I would attempt to produce a “Super Niagara” Bordeaux varietal wine (notwithstanding Ontario’s cool climate viticultural location and the commonly held belief by most wine consumers in Ontario that it is impossible to consistently make amazing red wine in Niagara).

Producing small lot, red wine that would “blow consumers away” seemed like a very worthwhile and demanding challenge. The thought of achieving this goal was very motivational for me.

l understood that if I was to succeed in meeting the challenge of making “amazing” wine, my first challenge would be to have access to a “Grand Cru” Beamsville Bench vineyard site which could produce ultra premium fruit.

So, to meet the first challenge, I purchased one of the oldest vineyard sites on the Bench in 1997 and made significant investments in the vineyard, in human capital (ie: consultants), in viticultural experts (local and from France) and in premium vines imported from Bordeaux and Burgundy. This has resulted in our ability to produce ultra premium fruit, which is the starting point for making ultra premium wine.

The exceptional quality of fruit that we can grow on our vineyard and the unique terroir of Heron Pond Benchland Vineyard motivated me to transition from wine grower to artisanal wine producer.

Having won a number of important awards for excellence, and having very favorable reviews from consumers and wine writers a like, I am now motivated to expand my distribution channels so that my small lot wines  can be enjoyed by a wider group of wine lovers — especially for those consumers who love big, rich wines that are food wines.

Accordingly, I have begun the process of increasing my brand awareness and have created a number of partnerships with local micro vintners and larger wineries that still produce small lot artisanal wines  and global hospitality organizations to increase access to some of the finest small lot  wines produced in Niagara.”

Try this:

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Rennie Estate Pinot Noir Paradox 2011 Niagara ($40, 92 points)

Graham Rennie shows he can go from his full-blown in-your-face style of red wine to this elegant Pinot Noir. The nose displays fragrant cherry, raspberry, violets and spicy nutmeg and cinnamon with just a touch of earth. It’s perfectly spiced on the palate with beetroot, savoury cherry, strawberry and a touch of licorice that travels on a silky bed of medium tannins.

Where to get them:

The wines are made at Malivoire and sold through the Malivoire tasting room or are available online here