There is the glitz and glamour of some of the larger wineries in Niagara, with big showy tasting rooms and grand facades that welcome a steady stream of visitors.
Then there are the farm-to-table wineries, the smaller family-run outfits where you find the owners more often than not working the fields or in the winery actually making the wines.
This is where authenticity is born. Where wines are grown rather than made. Where you can taste the passion of the farmer and the vineyard in every sip.
On a glorious spring Niagara day I drive up the laneway to Featherstone Estate Winery in Vineland. It smells of farm, that sweet aroma of earth and country, of fresh-turned dirt and new spring foliage.
This is the home and farm belonging to David Johnson and Louise Engel. It is where they live and where they farm. It is here that the couple craft their wines with a sense of place, wines that have personality and style. Real wines.
I gaze out at the early spring vines that cover the 23 acres of rolling hills on the upper Twenty Mile Bench along the Niagara Escarpment. They sway gently in the breeze. Down a valley a pen with Berkshire pigs can be seen from farmhouse that contains the small Featherstone tasting room.
Soon chickens will be roaming the property and, yes, the famous black sheep that Johnson and Engel use as lawnmowers to trim the low-hanging leaves on the vines will be arriving on July 7 for their six-week job assignment. The fattened sheep then find their way on high-end restaurant menus, and, my, do they taste good (sorry, but it’s true).
Johnson and Engel have quietly built their business into a popular brand that has found amazing success at Ontario’s only booze retailer, the LCBO. In five years they have over half their production being sold on the shelves of Vintages.
Their small production is crafted from the grapes grown in their estate vineyard, the rich clay soils from higher elevations that create a mesoclimate perfect for the kind of wines made at Featherstone.
The winery farms naturally, without the use of insecticides since 1999, growing wine in a way that is healthy and completely unique. Johnson believes this individuality translates into our wines.
Featherstone’s portfolio touches on all the varietals that do well in Niagara and, in particular, on the Twenty Bench: Riesling, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Merlot, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines have always been well made and priced right, with the bulk of the production is $20 and under.
I tasted some of the new releases with Johnson recently. Here is what I liked:
Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2012 ($17, Vintages, winery, 89 points) — Always a favourite Riesling of mine, the Black Sheep shows bright apple, lemon-lime, peach and mineral notes on the nose. It’s made in an off-dry style (22 g/l) but the bright core of acidity still gives a nice sweet-tart ying and yang on the palate. It’s light and refreshing in the mouth with persistent fruits and a subtle vein of minerality that should build in intensity as it ages.
Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2011 ($22, Vintages in November, winery now, 90 points) — The oak comes from trees planted along the Grand River in Brantford, Ont. and the staves are shipped to California for the completion of the barrels. Johnson likes Canadian oak in his Chardonnay, which he says fits somewhere between French and American oak in terms of spice flavouring. The Chard sees one year in 100% new oak and is fermented with wild yeast. The nose shows toasted vanilla, apple-pear, and creamy notes. It has lovely texture on the palate with poached pear, vanilla wood spices, brioche and apple butter notes through a smooth finish. Interesting and different style of Chard.
Featherstone Rose 2012 ($15, Vintages, winery, 88 points) — A refreshing 50-50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Gamay that is big on the cherry-raspberry-strawberry fruits on the nose with just a touch of violets. All those lovely red fruits carry to the palate in a dry, refreshing style.
Featherstone Red Tail Merlot 2011 ($20, Vintages in November, winery now, 88 points) — The nose on this 100% French-oak aged Merlot displays bright raspberry-cherry fruit and soft red plums, currants and spice. This is a mellow Merlot with lovely red fruit flavours and sweet oak notes.
Featherstone Cabernet Franc 2011 ($17, Vintages, winery, 88 points) — Johnson has a real love affair with this variety. He believes his 2010 version “was the best wine I’ve ever made.” It was a beauty and hard to live up to especially in an uneven vintage like 2011. This is made with 100% new American oak. It shows sweet cherry, dried herbs, raspberry and spice on the nose. It’s a pleasurable Cab Franc, perhaps lacking the depth of 2010, but still some nice red fruits, smoky notes, licorice, herbs and evident tannins.
Featherstone Onyx 2010 ($30, winery only, 91 points) — This red blend is culled from the best 10% of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc barrels and is aged in 100% American oak for 24 months. It is a delight. A bold nose of plums, currants, tobacco leaf, nutmeg, mocha and rich red fruits that are lifted by a nice herb note in the background. It’s stylish on the palate with integrated red fruits and spice with fine tannins and mid-weight through the finish. Drinking great right now or can cellar a few years.