Niagara winemaking

By Rick VanSickle

When the husband and wife team of Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling come calling with wine, you drop whatever it is you have going and get right down to the “business” at hand.

The CVs for these two gifted Canadian wine industry stalwarts run deep, but briefly: Sperling is the winemaker at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara and at her family’s Sperling Vineyards in the Okanagan. Gamble is an accomplished wine consultant with deep roots and achievements in the Canadian wine industry (including founding Executive Director of VQA) and presently consults for Benjamin Bridge Vineyards and Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards in Nova Scotia, Ravine Vineyard in Niagara and several others in Ontario and beyond.

Together they are co-proprietors of their Argentine project they named Versado in Mendoza wine country, making exciting and nuanced Malbecs from a vineyard and villa near the old town of Chacras de Coria that they purchased in 2007 with some Canadian partners.

Niagara wine

On this day, they have come with bags full of both Sperling and Versado wines to taste.

It’s timely, especially for the Versado wines — the top Malbec cuvee is being released at Ontario Vintages stores on Saturday.

Note: Niagara wine recommendations for the Saturday Vintages release are included in this report as well as Fielding Estate’s new Niagara cider and two versions of Chateau des Charmes traditionally made NV sparkling wine).

First, the Versado wines.

For Gamble and Sperling, the dream was to “make great wine from a smaller property,” in Mendoza, a region that was attractive to the couple.

After purchasing what they called Villa Viamonte, the next task, the tougher job, was locating the perfect vineyard for what Gamble and Sperling wanted to do — make world-class Malbecs from old vines on a property that could be (and has been) converted to organic farming.

In 2008, they purchased an ancient vineyard that fit their requirements on the legendary Cobos Road and named it Versado, a Spanish word that translates to ‘well-versed’ (expert or accomplished) and has the same poetic echo (relating to ‘verse’) that it does in English.

Ontario wine

Photo by Steve Elphick

The three-hectare property, with Malbec plantings dating back to 1920, is located in a cool-air corridor with pristine water winding its way to the vineyard from the mountains.

They elected to sell the 2008 harvest, and sections of the 2009, to another winery, where the fruit ended up as a major component in their top wine — at $120 per bottle. The first vintage of Versado was a limited release from the top vines in 2009.

The small-lot wines from Versado — made in three tiers from the regular Malbec to Reserva to the Old Vine bottlings — are extraordinary wines quite unlike most everyday Malbecs from Argentina you find at the LCBO.

Canada wine

Photo by Steve Elphick

They are complex and concentrated yet maintain a certain freshness that makes them perfect companions for the dinner table.

Here’s what I liked from the most recent tasting, including the wine that will be hitting Vintages stores Saturday and one that is already on the shelves.

Versado Reserva Ancient Malbec 2013 ($60, Vintages Saturday, 94 points) — All the wines now grown at the estate are organic and wild fermented in 100% concrete fermenters. This is such a thrilling and gorgeous wine that has the potential to get even better in the cellar (even though it is released in a very nice place already). If you want to taste Malbec at its peak of performance, this is the wine for you. The nose is just beautiful with ripe black currants, plums, summer flowers, blackberries, savoury and vanilla spices with just a hint of eucalypt and pencil shavings. In the mouth it is pure pleasure with deep, rich dark fruits, melt-in-your-mouth tannins, elegant spice notes, hints of cocoa and plenty of acidity to keep this popping through the finish. It’s a contemplative and wonderfully full-bodied red wine that will reward now right out of the bottle or deliver pleasure 5+ years down the road (maybe more).

Versado Reserva Ancient Malbec 2014 ($60, not released yet, 93 points) — The 2014 version of the Ancient old-vine Malbec follows closely in line with the 2013 vintage. A wow nose of rich, deep currants, plums, anise with elegant spice notes, minerals and swirling earthy/savoury accents. It still needs a bit of time to integrate all those moving parts in the mouth, but shows depth of fruit, concentration and plenty of spicy/savoury goodness through a finessed finish.

Versado Malbec 2014 ($23, Vintages stores and widely available now, 90 points) — The same attention to detail and winemaking goes into the Versado entry-level wine as the top one, so this little beauty offers a snap shot of Malbec at its best. Very nice aromas of blackberries, plums, brambly raspberries, savoury spices and a certain earthiness. It’s quite thick and juicy on the palate with a fine balance between rich and savoury dark fruits, spice, tannins and balancing acidity on the finish.

Versado Malbec 2015 ($23, 91 points) — In the 2015 version, look for more red fruits, dried herbs, anise/licorice and spice notes. On the palate, the red fruits are joined by plums, blackberries and herbal/spicy notes with enough juicy acidity to propel it through the finish.

In Ontario Versado wines are represented by Cru Wine Merchants.

Sperling Vineyards

Winemaker Ann Sperling is all about organically and biodynamically farmed fruit and minimal intervention in the winery. It is her mantra at Southbrook in Niagara and certainly at her family’s namesake winery in Kelowna.

She is a believer in the holistic approach to winemaking, that good things come from an eco-system that isn’t constantly bombarded with unneeded chemicals to control all manner of pest and pestilence.

Sperling Vineyards, established in 1925, has become a vinous reality producing elegant wines of character through the vision and partnership of Ann and Susan Sperling, along with their husbands, Peter Gamble and Paul Richardson.

The high elevation slopes and mineral rich soils on the east benches of Kelowna come to life via old vines and carefully crafted wines.

Note: Sperling is fully organic certified as of the 2017 crop.

Here is a selection of Sperling Vineyards wines tasted with the winemaker and Gamble at Chez VanSickle. Note Sperling wines are also represented in Ontario by Cru Wine Merchants.

Sperling Vineyards Sper … itz Organic 2017 ($22, 88 points) — Made from the oldest vinifera variety grown on the farm — Perle of Csaba — a Muscat variety that was first planted in 1929, with a bit of Bacchus and Muscat blended in. The nose is all about the fresh citrus, orange blossoms and apple notes on the nose with spritz-y vigour in the glass and on the palate. It’s a moscato style wine with under 10% abv and presents itself on the palate with perky citrus, peach and apple notes that are crisp, fresh and pleasurable to the last drop.

Sperling Vineyards Market White 2017 ($18, 88 points) — A blend of Pinot Blanc, Bacchus and Pinot Gris that’s as fresh on the nose as it is on the palate. A delightful, low alcohol refresher with some big aromas of pear, tangerine, apple and mineral. It’s juicy and fairly robust on the palate, revealing well-defined pear and apple flavours with citrus accents and mouth-watering acidity.

Sperling Vineyards Market Red 2017 ($20, 87 points) — An interesting red blend of old-vine (planted in the 1960s) Maréchal Foch and Pinot Noir, the nose show fresh and fragrant aromas of cherries, currants and raspberries with a hint of herbs and bramble. It’s beautifully rustic on the palate with red fruits, savouriness and pepper notes all backed up by firm acidity.

Sperling Vineyards Sparkling Brut 2011 ($45, 91 points) — A traditionally made sparkler made with a non-traditional variety, Pinot Blanc (though it is a permitted grape in Champagne), that spends five years on the lees before disgorgement. A 6.5 g/l  dosage of residual sugar is back added to tame the highly electric acidity into check a bit. The nose is fresh and floral with lovely aromatics of green apple, citrus, tangerine and toasted notes. It’s all about the freshness on the palate with a range of citrus, pear and toasty apple flavours with sizzling acidity to keep it finesses and popping through the finish.

Sparkling Vineyards Chardonnay 2016 ($30, fall release, 93 points) — From the estate’s “Vision Series” that may consist of:

• Limited edition wines
• Younger vines, experimental styles, winemaker’s playground, small lots, individual & vintage expression
• Added expression due to fermentation techniques, cellar influences such as barrels (new wood, different sized barrels) wild ferments, classic method sparkling, extended lees contact
• Winemaker driven, technique driven to explore the vineyard & varieties
• Looking to the future

This thrilling Chardonnay is wild fermented in oak puncheons and from the first wave of aromas you are hooked, intrigued and simply want to dive right in. Such a range of elegant spice notes on top of pear, ripe apple, wet stone and toasted oak. It has depth on the palate with integrated orchard fruits and spice with a beautiful stony/flinty minerality through a long finish that you don’t always get with Okanagan Chardonnays. One of the top Chardonnays tasted from Canada this year.

Sperling Vineyards Pinot Noir 2016 ($30, 91 points) — This, too, is aged in larger format French oak barrels and possesses a lovely savoury cherry, raspberry, anise and spicy/earthy nose. It’s quite smooth on the palate with persistent red fruits, a hint of darker fruits, herbaceous notes and spice accents with a finessed finish.

Sperling Vineyards Amber Pinot Gris 2017 ($29, 92 points) — Another wine from Sperling’s wandering eye Vision Series and perhaps its most talked about. This is an “orange” or “amber” natural wine made from 50% whole cluster pressed juice from hand-picked estate Gris. Natural yeast and malolactic fermented, nothing has been added and nothing taken away (no sulphites, or other additives, and no fining or filtration) from the wine. I’m sensing the maturity of natural orange wines in Canada, and this is among the leaders. It’s is the second one tasted this year that has started to shed some of that severe reductiveness that often gets in the way of the category. It’s wild, no doubt, with a cloudy and illuminated amber colour and aromas of bulk peach, tangerine, melon, mineral, pulpy citrus/grapefruit and some subtle berry notes, but not over the top crazy. And on the palate, wow, what a gorgeous wine, certainly cleaner than any other Canadian amber wine tasted in 2018 with a lovely melange of stone-fruit and citrus flavours with minerals and subtle reductive notes on the dry finish. So refreshing and thought-provoking but not in that confused fashion of some others I’ve tasted.

Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling 2014 ($34, 94 points) — This Old Vines Riesling is the jewel in a very fine portfolio of wines from this family producer. It’s not released until two years in the bottle has passed. All the fruit is hand-harvested cool in late-fall, then bunch sorted and destemmed with a 4-6 hour cold soak before gentle pressing. Slightly settled juice is fermented cool with non-aromatic and wild yeast in stainless steel to desired dryness when fermentation is halted. It is a stunningly gorgeous Riesling, among the top three tasted from Canada thus far this year. A gorgeous and inviting nose of lemon, lime, lanolin, gunflint minerality, bin apple, honeysuckle and subtle sweet petrol notes emerging. It has depth on the palate with layers of citrus, apple, flinty minerality, hints of honey sweetness and electric acidity to keep it fresh and balanced through a finish that lingers for minutes on the back of the palate. A truly wondrous Riesling.

Niagara wines at Vintages Aug. 18

Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2015 ($19, 91 points) — Riesling was one of the first varieties planted at the St. David’s estate by Paul Bosc in 1978 and the original block is still producing excellent fruit. This wine is made from the older, more mature vines in the original vineyard. Such a lovely rendition of Riesling with a nose of Meyer lemon, lime, grapefruit, flinty minerality and just a hint of white peach. There is some honey sweetness on the palate, but it’s brilliantly balanced by racy acidity. Look for lemon, flint, lime and a touch of ginger that’s ready to drink now or hold a few years for further development and see where it goes. Classic Niagara Riesling.

Organized Crime Chardonnay 2016 ($19, 90 points) — Fermented and aged in 20% new puncheons with the rest in neutral oak, this has a generous nose of rich orchard fruits, minerals, baked apple and oak spices. This shows some freshness on the palate despite the warmth of the vintage and big flavours of apple pie, toast, minerality and citrus on the edges with a vibrant finish. Wonderful Bench Chardonnay for near-term drinking.

Other Niagara wines released but not reviewed:

• Lakeview Cellars Morgan Vineyard Kerner 2017 ($18)
• Riverview Cellars Angelina’s Reserve Chardonnay 2015 ($19)
• Foreign Affair The Embrace 2017 ($17)

Fielding Cider

Fielding Craft Cider 2017 ($18 for 4-pack of 473 mL bottles, 90 points) — Wine is the core (see what I did there?) business at this Beamsville Bench winery, but cider under the cool Muskoka chair branding of this energetic family-run business seems like a perfect fit. Winemaker/cider maker Richie Roberts uses only Niagara apples (northern spy, empire and mutsu), presses while fresh and the well-settled juice ferments in a combination of stainless steel at cool temperatures and in neutral oak barrels. So, only one batch is available this summer (likely nearly gone) and is available only at the winery. I love this every day cider with its pale yellow colour, light carbonation and tingly acidity on the palate that shows off ripe, bright apple, squirt of lemon and hint of toast. It’s clean, crisp and expressive on the palate with refreshing apple, touch of sweetness balanced by citrus acidity and broad texture through the finish. Everything done right here in this first effort.

Chateau des Charmes bubbly

Chateau des Charmes Brut Sparkling Wine NV ($26 for 750 mL, $16 for the 375 mL bottle, Vintages Essential, 90 points) — The fruit for both wines was hand picked specifically for sparkling production. Both are made in the traditional method and were recently disgorged by hand just before release and have spent a minimum 18 months on the lees. The larger format has slightly more RS (8.6% vs. 7 g/l). Only miniscule differences between the two bottles I sampled, so this will suffice as a review for both. Lots of energy in the glass with a persistent bubble leading to a nose of lemon, green apple and biscuit. This is such a lovely quintessential Niagara sparkler with poise and balance between the bright, fresh, zesty citrus and apple, toasty/bready notes and firm acidity that keeps it all popping through the finish. Good bubbly for $26? Yes, please!