By Rick VanSickle

In July 2015 Niagara veteran winemaker Derek Barnett, fresh out of work after refusing to sign back on with the new owners of his beloved Lailey Vineyards after it was sold, predicted a brand under his own wine label would rise from the ashes.

“If one door closes, another door opens, I’m a big believer in that,” he told me after the winery he had a stake in decided to sell it to the highest bidder. For the first time in 15 years, Barnett found himself without a job.

But he wasn’t throwing in the towel on a long and illustrious career making wine in Niagara — not only at Lailey but also as the first winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards in 1991 where he was named “Winemaker of the Year” in 2000. He had no idea what the next chapter was going to be, but after “a little down time” he set his sights on the next adventure, which, he mused at the time, could “possibly” include a virtual winery under his own label.

Barnett’s first job after Lailey was (and still is) winemaker at the Prince Edward County winery Karlo Estates, after the tragic passing of Richard Karlo in November of 2014.

But the idea of a virtual project, wines made his way on his terms, percolated until Barnett finally unveiled his Meldville Wines label last year.

He explains his inspiration for the project, and the cool label design, this way:

“This story begins with my childhood home in Swinford, England, affectionately named Meldville. Always encouraged to be true to my nature growing up, I’ve adopted the same philosophy in winemaking. Wines are crafted in a time honoured way with little intervention, a key to open the narrative and allow the vines to tell their own story.”

He turned to Paul Lizak at Legends Estate Winery in Beamsville, who he has enjoyed a long relationship with since his days selling produce grown at the Lizak farm at the Southbrook farmers market in Richmond Hill, to provide the space his “virtual” label’s winemaking process.

Derek Barnett, right, with Legends’ Serge Papineau and Paul Lizak during a tasting of both Legends and Meldville wines.

Meldville Wines specialize in small batch, limited edition wines created by Barnett. He focuses on premium vinifera varietals that grow best in Niagara’s vineyards — Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and, coming soon, Pinot Noir. Of course, Barnett uses some Canadian oak aging in the wines, a trademark from his Lailey days, where he was the first to use Canadian oak barrels. He favours low-tech methods in the winemaking process and relies heavily on his highly-trained palate.

Here’s what I can recommend from a tasting recently at Legends with Barnett (wines are available at popular restaurants or via retail at Legends, go here for more info on how to buy:

Meldville Chardonnay 2015 ($20, 91 points) — The 2015 vintage was changeable with a wet June followed by a dryer than normal July, but a blessing after two punishing vintages in Ontario. August and September were almost perfect with beautiful warm conditions, producing fruit with wonderful balance and flavours. This Chardonnay was aged in French and Canadian barriques for seven months with lees stirring for three months of develop texture and balance in the wine. The nose shows poached pear, peach, baked apple, creamy, buttery notes with lovely integrated spice and touch of lemon. It’s clean and fresh on the palate with a mélange of orchard fruit and a balanced approach to the spice.

Winemaker’s serving suggestions:

  • Rich creamy pastas and butter based fish or fowl.
  • Serve only slightly chilled, cellar temperature, to allow all the intense and opulent aromas and flavours in the wine to emerge.

Meldville Cabernet Franc 2015 ($24, 90 points) — This is the second vintage of this Ontario staple, Cabernet Franc, and will be released once the 2013 runs out (or you can get a taste at Backhouse Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake now). I like the 2015 vintage better than 2013. It delivered a style with more depth of flavour showcasing raspberry, cherry, violets and light spice notes. On the palate it’s a red fruit bomb with dried herbs, savoury spice and freshness through the finish.

Winemaker’s serving suggestions:

  • Will match perfectly with fresh Ontario lamb or Muscovy duck dressed with a local berry based compote. Also a great wine to enjoy after a meal with aged cheddars or creamy blues.

Melville Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($20, 89 points) — “This is the style I like drink,” says Barnett, which is fresh but has some weight due to extended time (3.5 months) on its lees and lees stirring. The nose shows ripe and creamy apple, peach, talc minerality, leesy and pretty floral notes. It has some weight on the palate with apple, citrus, melon and pear fruit and touches of herbs and cream on the finish. Fleshy with freshness.

Winemaker’s serving suggestions:

  • A great aperitif, paired with soft cheese, especially those made from goat’s milk. Fresh fish such as sea bass, or lightly sautéed scallops. Simply grilled chicken or pork.