Niagara wine

By Rick VanSickle

He casually drops the little bomb like it’s no big deal, just another cog in the unstoppable machine that is Niagara’s Big Head Wines.

But it is BIG news. The BIGGEST, in fact.

From humble beginnings in Niagara, starting in 1989 when he immigrated to Canada from Poland where he worked in construction as well as picking grapes to making other people’s wines, to virtual winery, to full-fledged winery, to vineyard owner and now Andrzej (Andre) Lipinski, above, and his family are opening a new chapter of their amazing journey: A second as-yet-unnamed winery, this one on the Twenty Mile Bench.

Lipinski tells me he has plans for a 9,000-square-foot below ground cellar with 6,000-square feet up top for the tasting room, retail outlet and seasonal food at Cherry Road and King Street (Old Highway 8 in Vineland).

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Three Lipinskis running the winery on daily basis: Jakub, Andrzej (Andre) and Kaja

All that needs to be decided is the name of the new winery, which will be separate from the main Big Head brand. Lipinski and his son Jakub, who handles operations and marketing for the winery, need to have a name for the new winery decided by January, but already they have decided to focus on concrete and amphora fermented and aged wines, the next frontier in the continuing quest by this team to stay one step ahead of the curve.

Big Head has clearly established itself as a winery capable of making full-bodied red and white wines, many of which use kiln-dried fruit to concentrate and add complexity to a wide variety of styles, most notably in the Big, Bigger, Biggest and new Black labels.

But, look closer at what’s happening at the Hunter Road winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake and you will see concrete tanks taking over the floor space, displacing the oak that once ruled the roost.

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“We’re moving toward less oak,” Jakub, above, tells me. “The oak is almost in the way. We seem to use more oak in the lesser wines now,” he adds.

In the winery now are eight new, ruby-red, 2,000 litre diamond-shaped concrete tanks to go with two 5,000-litre Ontario made concrete tanks. An army of amphora is on its way — and could be destined for the new winery.

The beneficiary of all this new concrete is the exciting new RAW label being made by Andre Lipinski.

These are all concrete fermented and aged wines with absolutely no oak, wild fermented, whole cluster pressed and unfiltered.

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Available now (if you ask for it, it’s not on the shelves) are three whites — a botrytised affected Chenin Blanc, Savagnin and Pinot Gris — with four reds coming, including a Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah and red blend.

Another area that is getting the full attention of the Lipinskis is the sparkling program.

Four new ones are being added to the portfolio including Big Bang Black (a blanc de noirs), Big Bang Gold (a blanc de blancs) and the Big Blanc Gris (tasted and reviewed below).

Niagara appassimento

Andre Lipinski (previously with Foreign Affair, Organized Crime, Vineland Estate, Burning Kiln, and others, and currently still making the wine at Colaneri) and his son, Jakub, with his marketing background and charismatic charm in the tasting room, have teamed up to take Big Head to heights not previously imagined. And while the temptation could well have been to make big, bigger and biggest Niagara wines, as the name might suggest, I’m impressed that the opposite can also find room at the winery with a renewed focus on texture, varietal flavour and less oaked wines with the use of concrete and the coming wave of amphora on the way.

I got a preview of the new RAW wines on a recent visit, but father and son Lipinski kept pouring wines for me and my daughter Tabria, who tagged along for a day of tasting while on a break from university. Here’s what I can recommend.

The RAW series

These are new wines at Big Head, created from concrete aging and fermentation in 2,000 litre diamond tanks. The wines are all wild fermented and employ a less is more, minimalist intervention approach to winemaking. Three white wines are now available (only if you ask) with four more on the way (Pinot Noir, Malbac, Syrah and a red blend). The label shows a subtle milky white theme with the varietal name on a printed strip at the top of the bottle with the top finished in white wax.

Big Head RAW Pinot Gris 2016 ($35, 89 points) — This Gris is picked late and bottled unfiltered. It has a vivid, expressive nose of peach cobbler, cantaloupe and lovely baked apple notes. It has lovely texture in the mouth with full, lush fruit that sings through the finish.

Big Head RAW Savagnin 2016 ($40, 91 points) — Savagnin (not Sauvignon Blanc) is a varietal that often goes by the name Traminer, a tamer, less spicy version of Gewurztraminer. In Niagara, it’s quite uncommon. Chateau des Charmes grows it, but it’s only made into white blends, and Megalomaniac makes a nice one called Eccentric. At Big Head, Lipinski whole cluster presses this Savagnin that he sources from the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation and kiln-dries the fruit for two weeks. The result is this stunning wine that shows a bold nose of baked apple, fuzzy peach, mineral and ginger notes. Such wonderful texture on the palate that supports a bold array of peach, smoke, slate, apple, subtle lychee and ginger that’s deep and expressive. Highly stylistic and unique.

Big Head RAW Chenin Blanc 2016 ($45, 92 points) — This one shocked me. The bottle had been open for a week and was still rocking. The botrytised affected Chenin, photo above, took nearly 10 months to begin fermenting naturally in concrete and a year to complete the journey. The fruit was picked at 24.6 Brix and finished at 3 grams/litre of residual sugar. The nose, as mentioned, teems with poached pear, rich orchard fruits, honeycomb, ginger, jasmine and toasted almonds. It has depth and power on the palate with layered pear notes, mango, ginger, Mandarin orange and citrus rind that is altogether ripe yet nearly perfectly dry and fresh on the finish. A wondrous, thought provoking wine.

The Sparklers

Big Head loves its sparkling wines and is adding four new traditionally made bubbles to the portfolio in the coming months. The first of the new ones is the Big Bang Pinot Gris.

Big Bang Pinot Gris 2015 ($25, 88 points) — Traditionally made bubble that spends a year on the lees and has a recioto dried grape style Pinot Gris dosage. A smoky/bready nose of pear and other orchard fruits with a fresh and zesty profile. Dry, vigorous and fruit aplenty on the palate with a crisp and clean finish.

Big Bang Black NV ($55, released before Christmas, 90 points) — So, a blanc de noirs, 100% Pinot Noir from St. David’s Bench from a blend of vintages in a couple of different barrel treatments and various lees aging with a Chardonnay recioto style dosage. It pours with an energetic mousse that reveals a range of lemon, biscuit, brioche, mineral and marmalade. Such verve on the palate in a dry, crisp style that shows toasted/bready notes, citrus, baked apple and lovely minerality through a finish that pops to the last sip.

The Core Wines

We tasted the full range of Big Head wines in a limited amount of time during our visit. Jakub and Andre just kept pulling wines and putting them in front of us. So we tasted, speed-dating style. My notes are sketchy on more than a few of the wines we tasted, so limited my reviews to the following.

Big Head Stainless Chardonnay 2016 ($27, 91 points) — This unoaked Chard is sourced from 34-year-old vines, and, truth be told, does not need oak, this shines all on its own. A ripe nose of pear, apple and creamy notes (presumably from lees stirring/aging). It shows a rich broth of ripe orchard fruits with underlying creamy notes all propped up by freshening acidity. Lovely, pure Chardonnay with a long finish that shows just a hint of sweetness.

Big Head Savagnin 2016 ($30, 90 points) — This unusual varietal, at least in Niagara, was hand-picked with 50% of the fruit kiln-dried for two weeks and finished in stainless steel. It’s tightly wound at this point but starting to show a range of pear, herbs, lychee, apple and a floral thing going on. It opens up on the palate with bright, slightly sweet notes of creamy pear, apple skin, subtle citrus and grassy/herb notes that’s held together with racy acidity.

Big Head Pinot Noir Select 2015 ($42, 91 points) — Sourced from Vinemount Ridge, 20% of the fruit was kiln-dried for two weeks and the fruit spent 21 months in 2nd fill Moldovan and cigar barrels. It’s a “Pinot Noir for Pinot Noir drinkers,” says Jakub Lipinski. A nose that is more masculine and deeper rather than pretty and fruity with notes of beetroot, savoury red fruits, full-on barrel spices and earthy/brambly notes. It’s rich and savoury on the palate, with an array of red fruits, cran-cherry, licorice, loam, jacked-up spice and fine tannins propping up a smooth delivery through the finish.

Big Head Bigger Red Select 2015 ($55, 92 points) — Believe it or not, this still isn’t the biggest of the big Big Head wines, but make no mistake, it’s big. It’s made from 100% appassimento style Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes that spends 17 months in French and Moldovan oak barrels, 20% of which is new oak. Deep, dark colour in the glass with a ripper of a nose that shows concentrated blackberries, plums, graphite, cassis, earth and a rich broth of spice notes. It’s highly structured on the palate with formidable tannins that will need taming with time but thick dark fruits are peeking out from the shadows and a rousing range of barrel spice notes. It’s a big wine that will need time in the cellar. Your patience will be rewarded big time. (Is that enough big for you?)

Big Head Riesling Icewine 2014 ($108 for 375 mL, 94 points) — Nothing fancy here in terms of winemaking other than wild fermentation that took 12 months to complete and reached 217 g/l of residual sugar, but, wow, what a gorgeous icewine. A nose of compoted apricot, candied lemon/lime, grilled pineapple, marmalade and crème brulée. Such a beautiful and textured icewine with a velvety, luxurious and unctuous feel on the palate and a range of sweet, yet surprisingly not cloying, tropical fruits, honeycomb and candied citrus rind that explodes in the mouth. One of the best sweet wines I’ve tasted to date this year.

About Andrzej (Andre) Lipinski

  • Born and raised in Poland.
  • In 1989, he immigrated to Canada where he worked in construction as well as picked grapes. He did some renovation work for John Howard who in 1992 purchased shares in Vineland Estates Winery after the carriage house on the property was destroyed in a fire.
  • In 1993, Andrzej began working in the cellar of Vineland Estates and it was then that he was introduced to the wine industry.
  • In 1996, Lipinski became the assistant winemaker and in 1998 he was asked to make his own wine. He chose to make a Chardonnay for the 1998 vintage that was later chosen to be a reserve. This wine was submitted to Vinitaly 1999 and won a gold medal.
  • Left Vineland in 2002 he has gone on to win awards for wineries such as Legends, DeSousa, Fielding, Megalomaniac, Foreign Affair and Organized Crime.
  • He now makes wine for Colarneri and his own label, Big Head Wines.