Niagara Wine Reviews

Winemaker McDonald takes the reins at Hillebrand

Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald in the vineyard.

When it was announced this summer that the tandem winemaking team of Craig McDonald and Rob Power from Creekside were splitting up it came as a shock to everyone.

Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald in the vineyard.
Hillebrand winemaker Craig McDonald in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of the St. Catharines Standard

After all, the tight duo had consistently racked up awards for their winemaking skills at competition after competition. Together they raised the bar in Niagara for quality, well-made wines that showed off the skill of the winemakers and offered up some needed irreverence and innovation in the process.

“I was content to stay at Creekside,” said McDonald over a wonderful lunch at his new gig at Hillebrand and essentially the entire family of Peller wines in Niagara. “This came out of left field. I just couldn’t say no.”

For McDonald, heading up the winemaking operations and vineyard management at Hillebrand and overseeing the winemaking operations at Thirty Bench, Peller Estates, Trius and even the blended wine program, was a game changer.

He instantly became one of the most powerful winemakers in Niagara, responsible for more than 25% of all the grapes grown in the Peninsula.

Winemaker Craig McDonald with the freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc
Winemaker Craig McDonald with the freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc

And he’s got some big boots to fill. Former senior winemaker at Hillebrand, Darryl Brooker, who took a job at CedarCreek Estate Winery in the Okanagan Valley this summer, left his mark on Niagara and the Peller family of wines with a skilled touch in the winery. Both Trius and the more vineyard-focused Showcase series improved immensely under his watch.

While McDonald has nothing but praise for Brooker, he has ideas of his own and will draw on that energy and creativity that made Creekside such a great brand.

That means a lot of new techniques to “push the limits” of some of the brands — especially the Showcase tier.

McDonald’s ideas run the gamut from working with more wild yeasts, to oak-aged Sauvignon Blancs (a specialty of his), to multi-variety fermentation, to introducing a small-batch program of interesting lots from any given vintage, to new plantings and creative experimentation.

Grapes waiting to be picked at Hillebrand
Grapes waiting to be picked at Hillebrand. Photo courtesy of the St. Catharines Standard

He’s already planting Viognier with an eye toward a stronger Shiraz (another grape McDonald loves to work with) program at Hillebrand. And just recently McDonald picked a super-ripe (25 brix) Gamay from 2010 that he wants to bottle.

It’s within the Showcase line where McDonald’s creativity will really shine. “I want to give it a nudge, take it a little left of centre,” he said. “It’s my playground.”

McDonald hasn’t had a lot of time to think about his new job. Brooker left for his job in May and McDonald started in July. His first job was visiting the hundreds of vineyards Peller either owns or has grower contracts with. He still hasn’t visited them all.

And then there’s the early and very exciting 2010 harvest that snuck up on everyone.

McDonald hasn’t stopped since the day he started and with grapes coming in by the truck load, he’s working, along with his winemaking team, from 6 a.m. to midnight to get the harvest in and crushed.

As we ate lunch at the Hillebrand Winery Restaurant, McDonald was constantly asked to make snap decisions on the tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc grapes that were coming in for harvest. The trucks were lined up and the winemaking team was sorting through the bins and deciding which grapes would go into which brand.

It’s a precise dance of timing and decision-making that will determine the quality of the 2010 wines through all the tiers. McDonald kept a cool head while directing traffic and answering questions from a reporter.

Craig McDonald checks a tank sample of Hillebrand wine.
Craig McDonald checks a tank sample of Hillebrand wine.

An early harvest is showing off the best of the McDonald’s new wine team. Hillebrand had already been picking for two weeks in early September and the bulk of the pickers hadn’t even arrived for the harvest.

“Everyone is pitching in and making it work. It’s a team approach, we’re all equal here.”

McDonald has been “dealt a great hand with this vintage,” one of the best anyone can remember. But it came quickly with everything ripening at once.
“You need to shoot from the hip,” he said. “It’s exciting, we’re running on adrenalin.”

Here’s what we enjoyed at the Hillebrand Winery Restaurant, served with a tasty Lake Huron char filet with sweet pea and mascarpone ravioli, Chardonnay Blue Bay mussels, VanKempen bok choi and fresh-cut garden cilantro pesto crafted by Chef Frank Dodd:

Trius Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($14, 3.5 stars) — A nice summer Sauvignon Blanc with lemon-lime, grapefruit and some fresh-cut grass notes. With juicy acidity, it’s perfect with summer salads and light dishes on the patio.

Trius White 2009 ($20, 4 stars) — Trius has always been about the art of the blend and Brooker made this as a counterpart to the popular Trius Red. It’s a blend of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, some of it barrel fermented. Gorgeous aromas of apple and tropical fruits to start. It has some grip on the palate to go with rich apple-melon flavours. Perfect with the fresh-caught char.

Hillebrand Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2009 ($25, 4.5 stars) — What a nice Riesling, and an unexpected pleasure from Niagara-on-the-Lake (not usually noted for its minerality in Riesling). It’s made in a German Mosel style with only 7% alcohol and nice honey-dipped sweetness. The fresh lemon-lime-mineral profile is driven by firm acidity and perfect balance. The honey notes are derived from a touch of botrytised fruit in the vineyard.