By Rick VanSickle
When last we chatted, winemaker David Sheppard was adjusting to new owners at Coyote’s Run Winery and was excited about the challenges ahead at the St. David’s winery.
That was then … and this is now.
Sitting in the glass-encased rotunda tower at Flat Rock Cellars, Sheppard’s smile, top photo, is as wide as the view from this perch overlooking the estate vineyards on the Twenty Mile Bench.
The respected and veteran Niagara winemaker has been a steady employee wherever he’s worked and doesn’t particularly enjoy the musical chair routine. But when Flat Rock owner Ed Madronich (above) came calling, there was no hesitation whatsoever.
At Cuveé last January I was surprised that Sheppard had settled in so well with the new Coyote’s Run owners. He said he was pleased with the direction of the winery under the new owners and we made a promise to taste the wines soon.
But things began to unravel for Sheppard. All wasn’t quite as it appeared to be in the early days of the sale. He was being asked to do things he did not feel comfortable doing, things that did not meet his rigid principals.
If you don’t know Sheppard, suffice to say he is an honourable man and that’s the way he conducts himself in life and in work. If he comes to an arrangement, he honours it, and that’s the end of it. You don’t mess with that kind of integrity.
Enter Madronich, who as it happened, was looking for a new winemaker to replace Jay Johnston who had just accepted the head winemaking job at Hidden Bench.
Madronich, who has seen some of Canada’s top winemakers come and go through the doors at Flat Rock, was looking for stability and experience to carry the winery through its next phase. Sheppard and Madronich found a mutual bond and sealed the deal.
“I wanted to go somewhere where they do things the right way,” Sheppard said. “It was good timing.”
Said Madronich: “We are so excited to have Dave at Flat Rock Cellars. We always strive to up our game each vintage and Dave bringing his 37 years experience in making fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling to Flat Rock Cellars will certainly do that.”
Sheppard got his start in the Mittelrhein region of Germany in 1980 when he worked for a small family-run winery. After that he worked for 21 years at Inniskillin in Niagara-on-the-Lake under the tutelage of wine pioneer Karl Kaiser. During that time Sheppard had the good fortune of working in Burgundy at Clos de Epeneaux in Pommard and Maison Louis Latour in Aloxe-Corton. These opportunities helped Sheppard expand his winemaking knowledge with a focus on two of Ontario’s key grape varieties — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 2003 Dave joined Coyote’s Run as founding winemaker where he gained a reputation for the wines he made there.
Madronich and Sheppard spent several years together working at Inniskillin, so they both know what they are going to get from each other.
“I am really excited to have joined Flat Rock Cellars, it seems a natural evolution in my career and I cannot wait to get started making wine as I have some pretty fabulous vineyards to work with,” said Sheppard. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to craft some of the best wines in Ontario.”
Added Madronich: “Now I’ve got a winemaker with 37 years experience. He’s seen it all and he’ll bring a calmness to it. He gets to work with these mature vineyards. For me it’s exciting.”
When I tasted with Madronich and Sheppard it was on the eve of harvest. Flat Rock farms 80 acres of vineyards on the Twenty Mile Bench and makes the wine from an architecturally unique, five-level gravity flow winery.
Madronich has always concentrated on the three grapes he feels are best suited for Niagara — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. His grapes are all nice and comfortable in the winery long before most wineries are still in the vineyards waiting on the late-ripening varieties to ripen. The crew at Flat Rock take some pleasure in that.
Here’s what I can recommend from the tasting:
Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2010 ($30, Vintages, winery, 92 points) — This is a traditionally made 100% Chardonnay sparkler that is aged on the lees for 5+ years in bottle before disgorging last spring. It’s fermented and aged in neutral oak barrels prior to blending and tirage in the spring of 2011 with a dosage of 12 g/l is added for balance. All that and finished with a cool crown cap for easy access. Not a lot of wineries are going to all this trouble for a well-made sparkling wine, but we have started to see a lot more of them as the category gains traction with consumers. It possesses a lovely nose of brioche, yeasty-toasty notes, soft lemon, creamy apple and mineral notes with a mousse that starts vigorously then mellows into a gentle bead. It is fresh, lively and complex on the palate with pear and apple flavours, bright and zesty citrus and electric acidity driving the back end.
Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir 2016 ($21, release TBA, no score) — This was only bottled a few days before I tasted it, so did not score it. As a preview, it shows cherry, raspberry, soft vanilla and spice on the nose. It’s pure and delicate on the palate with a range of red fruits and a silky, smooth delivery.
Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir 2015 ($21, 89 points) — Sourced from seven different blocks of Pinot at the estate with judicious use of oak aging. It has a lovely, fresh nose of red fruits, earth, violets, subtle spice and a savoury/floral note. It’s silky on the palate with rich and ripe cherry/raspberry fruits, beetroot, earth, and integrated spice and.
Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2013 ($35, Vintages, 92 points) — Designed as a pure expression of the Twenty Mile Bench terroir and made from the “best of the best” of the vineyard and the cellar. Gravity is always consistent and this is no different with a nose of bright red fruits, some dark berry elements, then elegant oak stylings and savoury notes that turn prettier as you let it breathe. It has beautiful texture and flavours on the palate and finely balanced with oak and earthy undertones that all lead to a silky finish. Those were my notes a full year ago and can say that after trying it again recently, it has become more harmonious, more expressive and smoother on the finish. A beautiful thing that still has room to improve in the cellar.
Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2016 ($35, not released yet, not scored) — A sneak peak at the 2016 Gravity shows a beautiful nose of rich black cherry, fine oak spice and earthy/savoury notes that show off the minerality and terroir of the estate’s Pinot vineyards. There is tannic structure on the palate, but still rather smooth, with bold red fruits, cassis, spice and driving acidity. Time will tame this Pinot and bring it into harmony.
Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2015 ($18, Vintages, 88 points) — Flat Rock does up to four picks of the estate’s Chardonnay grapes to achieve optimum ripeness and consistency in this lightly oaked wine that is aged in stainless steel and 10-year-old oak barrels. It’s a pure expression of Twenty Mile Bench Chardonnay with lovely apple, creamy pear and citrus on the nose. It’s balanced and fresh on the palate with orchard fruits and minerality.
Colleague Michael Lowe originally reviewed this wine last March here on Wines In Niagara. This is his impression.
Flat Rock Unplugged Chardonnay 2015 (88 points) — This straightforward, clean expression of chard is delightful. Nice green apple, pear and lemony accents and a fresh acid backbone that is held in check by some time on the lees, adding softness and weight on the palate. I paired it with smoked salmon, black garlic mascarpone cream, capers and fresh dill — it just works! (ML)
Flat Rock Cellars Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2013 ($27, Vintages, 92 points) — Rusty Shed represents an expression of the best parcels of Chardonnay from the best barrels made from estate fruit. The fruit is whole bunch pressed to yield only the purest juice then gently moved to oak barrels for fermentation, which took up to three months to complete. It underwent secondary malolactic fermentation and was racked off the lees and blended in the summer of 2014 and bottled in the fall. This is robust and generous on the nose with beautiful aromas of pear, flint, citrus and toasted vanilla and spice. Such gorgeous texture and verve on the palate to better express the creamy baked apple and pear fruit with finishing citrus and spice accents. Such depth and complexity with balancing acidity.
Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2015 ($25, Vintages, 93 points) —Nadja’s Vineyard is situated at the highest point of the Flat Rock estate vineyards planted in 2001 to a select clone from Mosel, Germany, on top of a solid bed of limestone. This is always one of the Niagara’s top Rieslings. This vintage is a beauty with a vibrant, expressive nose of lime and lemon zest, river-rock minerality, honeysuckle and a subtle ginger note. Such mouth-watering acidity on the palate with layered citrus fruit, wild honey notes, lanoline and minerals all carried on a racy, tingling and fresh finish. One to lay down for 10+ years, if you dare.
Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2015 ($18, Vintages, 88 points) — Made from estate fruit primarily from a single block planted in 2004. The nose shows zippy lime, grapefruit and peach with subtle minerality. It’s mouth filling with river-rock minerality to go with rich apple, citrus, lime and grapefruit notes through the fresh and lively finish.