niagara wine

By Rick VanSickle

Toronto Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner tweeted out a photo a couple of weeks ago with this caption: “Is this the most delicious wine ever grown in Niagara?”

The MS linked his tweet to his IG account @MasterSomm and sent it to his devoted and engaged followers. It was a photo of a wine label that was pretty much indecipherable with its black-on-black printing and the word RAW only readable in certain light.

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Insiders know that RAW is the label used by Niagara’s Big Head winery for its series of wines created from concrete and aged/fermented in 2,000 litre, red diamond tanks.

The wines are all wild fermented, unfiltered and employ a less is more, minimalist intervention approach to winemaking from winemaker Andre Lipinski (below). The white wines, released a year ago and sporting a white-on-white label and the cork sealed with white wax, caused a bit of excitement at the winery when released.

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The white RAW wines featured Pinot Gris, Savagnin and Chenin Blanc and were sold out quickly at the winery even though they weren’t displayed in the retail shop and you had to ask for them.

Fans of the series had to wait a year for the reds to arrive — Syrah, Petite Verdot and Pinot Noir (with a Malbec coming) — in similar packaging (black-on-black label, black wax) and similar buzz.

The wine Wallner was geeking out over was the RAW Syrah 2017, released to consumers Dec. 1. I do agree, it’s a heck of a Syrah … but one of the other reds in the series stole the show for me. I tasted all three on the release date with Lindsay Schwenker (full disclosure, Lindsay occasionally writes for Wines In Niagara, but also works at Big Head). Here is what I liked:

Big Head RAW Pinot Noir 2017 ($55, 91 points) — Grapes were sourced from the Knotty Vines Vineyard on Mountain Road on the St. David’s Bench. As with all the RAW wines, it was wild fermented and aged in concrete, grapes were whole cluster pressed with carbonic maceration, and bottled unfiltered. The nose has penetrating aromas of wild raspberry bush, strawberries and red currants that are incredibly fresh and perfumed. It has a silky feel on the palate, well integrated red berries, light tannins and bright acidity that keeps it fresh and lively all the way through the  finish.

Big Head RAW Syrah 2017 ($65, 92 points) — Only free-run juice is used in this Syrah sourced from the Smith Vineyard in the Niagara Lakeshore appellation. It’s raised in concrete, wild fermented and pretty much left on its own until being bottled unfiltered. It has a sassy, meaty nose with pepper, bright red fruits, earth and a subtle barnyard-y/metallic note/brett that gives it some funk on the back end. It’s tangy and bright on the palate, with a raw, angular, and earthy feel to go with wild, flamboyant red fruits, savory/meaty notes white pepper and plush tannins and ++ acidity that keeps it bright and lively on the palate. Quite something. Note: Big Head was also selling 3-litre, glass etched versions of the Syrah, when I was there (photo above).

Big Head RAW Petit Verdot 2017 ($65, 93 points) — Not a lot of single-varietal Petit Verdot being made in Niagara and, I would hazard a guess, no other one being made like this: raised in concrete, wild fermented, whole cluster pressed with carbonic maceration, and bottled unfiltered. The appellation for the grapes is Four Mile Creek. The nose is an exciting melange of heavily scented red berries, plums, wild blueberries, herbs and chamomile tea. It is lively on the palate with bright and tangy red berries, cassis and plums with added underlying mintiness, plush tannins and depth through the finessed finished. Quite a wine and not like any other Petit Verdot I have tasted.

New Redstone wine releases

Redstone Winery, named for its red clay soil and large stones, is a 38-acre Lincoln Lakeshore property purchased in 2009 by Moray Tawse and is home to a spectacular hospitality centre and a locally-inspired restaurant.

Wines In Niagara’s Michael Lowe recently tasted through some new releases. Here is what he liked:

Redstone Viognier 2017 ($20, 89 points) — A fragrant nose of honey, orange blossoms and lemon. On the palate there are flavours of lemon-lime, honeyed apricot and fresh fennel supported by lively acidity and a clean, mineral finish. (ML)

Redstone Limestone Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($24, 87 points) — As the vineyard name suggests, there is a taut, mineral-driven core to this wine. It’s somewhat restrained giving up light, grassy, citrus notes on the nose. The palate shows delicate citrus and passion fruit, a dominant mineral seam and racy acidity. (ML)

Redstone Pinot Noir Sparkling Rose 2016 ($30, 90 points) — The fine mousse lifts aromas of cherry, red apples, fresh herbs and wet limestone to the nose. A palate of vibrant fruit shows tart red apple, ripe cherry, and strawberry/cranberry with replays of fruit on the finish. It’s dry with refreshing acidity and an underpinning of mineral notes. (ML)

Redstone Meritage 2012 ($46, 90 points) — This complex, bold blend exhibits a melange of dark berries, oak and vanilla on the nose. Likewise, the palate is laden with dark fruit – blackberry, blueberry and plum – along with clove/cinnamon spice notes. Excellent structure and tannins are still quite firm so you may want to decant for a couple of hours. (ML)

Redstone Estate Cabernet Merlot 2015 ($29, 89 points) — The nose offers juicy blackberry and cherry with some leafy notes and hints of eucalyptus, mocha and new leather. Those fruit notes are still integrating, but the palate shows ripe blackberry with some leather and earthy notes framed by drying tannins. Cellar for another year or so or decant for a few hours. (ML)