Niagara Pinot Noir

By Rick VanSickle

Pinot Noir can be a powerful paramour; once it has you under its amorous spell it can turn mere mortals into slobbering wrecks with just one taste from the right bottle.

For many, it becomes an obsession; something they chase wherever it may be regardless of the obstacles standing in your way. It messes with your mind and your palete; it can take control of your senses and send you into euphoric spasms of joy. But it’s always that chase, that endless chase for good Pinot.

Note: Recommendations for Niagara wines at Vintages Saturday are included at the bottom of this post.

Top Niagara Pinot

Is there anyone out there who can’t remember their first taste of life-altering Pinot Noir? Mine was in the early 1990s, while attending the Ottawa Food and Wine Festival. All the top agencies poured wines there and the floor was always jammed with nattily dressed and hyper-invested wine lovers trying to find something new and great to taste and add to their wish list.

Wandering around the floor I spotted one of my favourite booths from previous years, Halpern. Pretty sure it was Todd Halpern working the booth on that day, and what he was pouring caught my eye right away: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the Grand Cru (yes, that’s me above at the holy grail of Pinot Noir in Burgundy). The price for a one-ounce sample was 80 coupons (at 50 cents a pop, so $40).

In many ways, it was a mistake to try it. It was mind-blowing Burgundy, so intense, complex and teeming in aromatics, yet delicate and finessed on the palate. I just could not believe a wine so seemingly demure in the glass could impart such aromas and flavours.

Adam Lowy (very top photo and below) knows all about that.

Niagara wine

For 20 years he has been tasting wine — some of the best in the world — professionally all the while falling deeper and deeper in love with the heart-break grape.

It’s that life-long quest for top Pinot Noir that has led Lowy to this non-descript winery on Victoria Avenue, just south of Old Highway 8, across from Moyer Road. It is unmarked and unremarkable, a working winery that will later this year house a bare-bones retail store where consumers will be able to purchase his beloved Pinot Noir and Chardonnays from what he considers top terroirs on the Twenty Bench in Niagara under the Cloudsley Cellars label. Expect good wine, not bells and whistles, when Lowy opens the doors to his winery, possibly this spring, and likely by appointment only.

‘I’m a Burgundy nut’

Lowy spent 17 years working for Lifford Wine and Spirits, one of Toronto’s premier purveyors of the world’s finest booze. In 2014, he left to chase his dream of crafting the best expression of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays he could.

He represented the wines of Thomas Bachelder at Lifford and quickly fell in love with the style of Pinots and Chards he was making from different terroirs in Niagara.

“What I saw happening with Pinot and Chardonnay in Niagara really impressed me,” Lowy tells me. “I’m a Burgundy nut so I wanted something that suited my palate.”

He purchased eight barrels of 2013 Pinot Noir for his first go at making wine in Niagara. The wines were finished at a Niagara winery and sold to restaurants, friends and family to pretty decent reviews, at least good enough to inspire Lowy to “get serious” by 2016. So he acquired the best fruit he could get his hands on from the Twenty Mile Bench, leased a building that he’s turned into a winery and thus was born Cloudsley, a premium garagiste wine operation dedicated to only Pinot and Chardonnay.

Lowy “guides the style” for the wines he wants to put in bottle but calls his operation “collective winemaking — I’m not sure I’ve earned the right to the winemaker term,” he says.

He employs well-known winemaking consultant Peter Gamble to help with the wines and, as of 2017, has hired a young assistant winemaker, Matt Smith.

While Pinot Noir is Lowy’s true love, he has added Chardonnays to the portfolio as of the 2017 vintage.

He will produce both Chards and Pinots at three levels — regional, village and single vineyards. By the 2016 vintage, all fruit will be from the Twenty Mile Bench.

“I want to keep it simple,” he says. “There’s a focus and simplicity to it. We’ve done everything with a wine-first approach. I’m a wine geek, that’s where I come from.”

While Lowy says “I don’t need a fancy chateau,” he has spent a lot of money on new stainless steel fermenters and a cross-section of new and used French oak barrels, all barriques. His modest facility is already jammed tight with barrels and tanks. He recently bottled the 2015 vintage (now for sale) and will bottle his first Chards in mid-2018.

The Cloudsley Collection

Here’s what I liked from our tasting recently at Cloudsley (by the way, Cloudsley is Lowy’s mother’s maiden name … she is the end of the line for the name, so Lowy wanted to honour that).

You can arrange to purchase these wines here while waiting for the retail store to open.

Cloudsley Pinot Noir 2014 ($25, restaurants only, 88 points) — This was the second vintage of the Pinot and shows lovely crushed red berries, loam, spice, beetroot and savoury notes on the nose. It’s silky, yet displays some structure on the palate with a range of red fruits, charred oak spice notes, herbs and all delivered on a bed of smooth tannins. 220 cases made.

Cloudsley Pinot Noir 2015 ($35, 90 points) — This “village” Pinot (as Lowy describes it) is a blend of Lowy’s top vineyards he sources from the Wismer Vineyards holdings on the Twenty Bench — Homestead Vineyard and Glen Elgin Vineyard — plus one other vineyard from the sub-appellation. A really gorgeous nose of perfumed and bright cherry fruit, raspberry bramble, subtle and integrated spice with underlying minerality. It’s bright and finessed on the palate with impeccable balance, evident tannins and pretty red fruits all carried on a long finish.

Cloudsley Glen Elgin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($50, 91 points) — Only 70 cases each are made of the two single-vineyard Pinots. The Glen Elgin Vineyard from Wismer on the Twenty Mile Bench shows a fleshy, ripe nose with red berries, underlying bramble and savoury notes with elegant spice and complexity through the finish. It’s nervy on the palate with playful tension between the red fruits and the highly complex array of minerals and spice. Textbook acidity keeps all these Pinots fresh and finessed through the finish. Really lovely, personable Pinot.

Cloudsley Homestead Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($50, 92+ points) — Now, here is a Pinot that sneaks up on you and then surprises for its depth and complexity. Slightly closed/muted on opening but it slowly reveals a mélange of crushed red berries, mineral, wet earth, forest mushrooms and subtle spice. Such gorgeous mouth-feel as it opens up with precision, silky tannins and electric acidity that lights up the bright red berries, subtle cassis notes, elegant spice and deep mineral notes that are all delivered on a juicy and long finish. This is a youthful wine that I fully expect to show better (and hence the 92+ rating) if you leave it in the cellar for a year or two.

Niagara recommendations
at Vintages Saturday

Here’s what we can recommend from the Niagara wines being released at Vintages on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Tawse Sketches of Niagara Riesling 2015 ($19, 90 points) — Zingy lime, orange blossom, citrus rind and ginger notes on the nose. It’s a polished Riesling with good balance and a playful tug of sweet-tart citrus and tangerine fruit on the palate with hints of ginger and minerals. Very nice Riesling.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Baco Noir 2016 ($25, 91 points) — A nice warm vintage brings out the best in Baco with a concentrated nose of plums, blackberries, bacon fat, herbs and smoky/spicy notes. The fruit turns to cherries and raspberry on the palate with a supporting role from plums, blackberries tasted oak spice, savoury herbs and good acidity through the finish.

Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013 ($30 for 200 mL, 92 points) — An expressive note of black cherry, strawberry and blueberry pie. It’s sweet and rich on the palate with strawberry/raspberry jam and subtle herbs that provide a lavish and textured icewine with good balance from freshening acidity through the finish.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Fielding Estate Bottled Riesling 2016 ($20)
• Redstone Chardonnay 2013 ($26)
• 13th Street Gamay Noir 2016 ($20)
• Creekside Queenston Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($25)
• Malivoire Gamay 2016 ($18)
• Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 2015 ($50 for 375 mL)