Niagara Wine Reviews

Winemaker takes control of her destiny

WHAT: Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery
WHERE: 3210 Staff Ave., St Catharines.
TASTINGS: 3210 Staff Ave., St Catharines.
WINEMAKER: Sue-Ann Staff
OWNER: Sue-Ann Staff
SPECIALITIES: Riesling will be the strength of this winery.
MUST TRY: The wine program is just ramping up with a Riesling, Baco Noir and Pinto Grigio the only wines to try at the moment. Look for Riesling Icewine and Cabernet Franc Icewine in mid-November and a Robert’s Block Riesling in mid- December.
AVAILABILITY: Winery only.

By Rick VanSickle

Sun-Ann Staff just might be the busiest winemaker in Niagara. 
 Staff went from producing wines at the troubled 20 Bees, a co-operative style winery between 19 grape growers that was forced into receivership and is now owned by Diamond Estate Wines, to quickly being hired to make wines at 
 Megalomaniac, the quirky cult brand launched by John Howard, former owner of Vineland Estates Winery.

And now the 38-year-old Staff has launched her own brand from the grape-growing property her family has farmed for 200 years. 
 Staff still finds the time to make frequent visits to Bordeaux, France, to learn how the Bordelais make wines at Chateau Haut Pontet (a winery which Howard has a stake in), a prestigious St. Emilion winery that makes the much sought-after Chateau La Confession.

Not bad for a Niagara gal who grew up in Niagara and studied winemaking at the University of Adelaide in Australia before working at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Pillitteri Estates Winery and Simon Gilbert Wines in Australia’s Hunter Valley. 
 Staff finds it quite satisfying to start up her own winery from the family vineyards that have for years been sold to other wineries. The Staff vineyards are located on the brow of the Niagara Escarpment and fall into two coveted sub-appellations — the Twenty Mile Bench and Vinemount Ridge, home of some of Niagara’s finest Riesling vineyards.

Staff says the clay soils with escarpment rock not far beneath contribute to the production of small berry single-vineyard premium wines with hallmark minerality, intensity and longevity. 
 Though the winery is new, with a grand opening recently for only two of her wines, the goal is to have a standalone winery on the 200-year-old property with a production of 6,000 cases and then reassess to either go with a larger production or make even higher-quality wines. 
 “It’s very exciting,” Staff says from her kitchen that acts as the winery’s tasting room. “I’ve always wanted to take control of my own destiny.”

Staff says the “star of the show” will be her Rieslings which she’ll make three ways — a regular bottling, a single-vineyard Robert’s Block Riesling named after the original Staff land owner and from the oldest vineyards surrounding Staff’s farm house and a Riesling icewine. 
 Staff’s Rieslings are a departure from the tall, slender bottle traditionally used for this grape. Instead, it will be bottled like the other wines being made at the winery — in a Bordeauxstyle vessel.

Staff says she doesn’t want consumers to immediately “jump to the conclusion that it’s a sweet wine.” She wants people to try the wine before forming an opinion. 
 Three wines are now available — the 2008 Semi-Dry Riesling, the 2008 Baco Noir and the 2008 Pinot Grigio. The Riesling icewine and Cabernet Franc icewine will be available in mid-November with the Robert’s Block Riesling 2008 available in mid-December.

Here’s a review of the Riesling:

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Semi-Dry Riesling 2008 ($16, winery only, 4 stars) — Wonderful citrus, apple and fresh zesty fruit on the nose with a firm bead of minerality. It’s quite fruity on the palate with citrus and Mandarin orange flavours that linger on the palate. Very tasty first effort.

A couple of other new release Niagara whites worth trying:

Reif Estate Kerner 2008 ($15, winery only, 3.5 stars) — One of the things I love about Niagara is the diversity. Kerner is a rare varietal only grown in a few vineyards in Ontario. It has a lime-floral nose in a honey-sweet style. On the palate it’s a sweet apple-peach-pear puree fruit bomb with medium acidity. Quite different.

Reif Estate Chenin Blanc 2008 ($19, winery only) — Another unusual offering from Reif. A nose of melon and tropical fruit. It’s juicy and vibrant on the palate showing an array of ripe fruits in a completely dry style. Think delicate white fish to go with this wonderful wine.