Today that vineyard, now 55 years old, is the oldest planting of Chardonnay in Canada.
The Lenkos are essentially a grape grower family, supplying some of the best grapes in Niagara to various wineries until Daniel, a third generation of the family, founded the winery in 1999 and has been making wine and tending to the vineyard ever since.
Lenko’s late father was a pioneer in the Ontario vinifera wine movement. He added Merlot vines in 1974 and Viognier in 1990. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc have also been planted over the years on the property.
The focus and determination has not changed at Lenko since the tasting room doors opened in 2000. “The best grapes make the best wines,” Lenko is fond of saying. “We don’t buy any grapes, we grow them ourselves. With cropping levels of 2 tons per acre our wines have the varietal intensity and body that appeals to the true oenophile.”
While Lenko’s interests are fast cars, cooking and restoring antique machinery, his day-to-day life is consumed by the farm, working with staff in all areas of the winery and farm business. By working together with employees, living onsite, and with the winery being his only occupation, Lenko creates a unique workplace culture and a very different experience for wine lovers who find their way into the homey tasting room on the farm.
Lenko’s wines are old school, made with old-vine grapes and built for long-term drinking. He doesn’t have a Plan A and a Plan B, all his wines are top-tier and made only from estate fruit. When the fruit isn’t up to Lenko standards, he just doesn’t make it.
In recent years, Lenko has been taking a pass on entire vintages and releasing his wines strategically to make sure there is always something new on his shelves.
He skipped the 2011 vintage (selling all the fruit but a bit of Merlot to make a White Merlot wine), made a full complement of 2012 wines (minus his oak-aged Chardonnay), which he has just released, and has decided not to make any wine from the 2014 vintage.
It’s all about economics, says Lenko. He watches his inventory carefully and skips what he thinks are weaker vintages in Niagara for the style of wines he wants to make.
With a full line-up of wines just released of his wonderful 2012s and a basement full of back vintages, one the most impressive lists you will find in Niagara for older vintage wines, see here, he doesn’t need to make wine each and every vintage.
Here’s what I liked from Lenko’s just-released 2012 (and some older vintage) wines.
Daniel Lenko Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 ($20, 89 points) — Lenko only made an unoaked Chard this vintage, mainly because of the economics of purchasing new oak barrels and his commitment to this wine and the identical twin, the “Chardonngay” he bottles under the rainbow colours that has a big following at the LCBO. This has a pure, fresh nose of apple, sweet tropical fruit and hints of pear. Lenko stirs the lees a bit to give the wine a creamy feel on the palate to go with all that orchard fruit. Good length through the finish.
Daniel Lenko Gewurztraminer 2012 ($25, 90 points) — Lenko says “you have to use kid gloves when making aromatic white wines.” For the Gew, he whole-bunch pressed the fruit. The nose shows lychee, grapefruit, musk oil, cinnamon, all-spice and a lovely floral note. It has weight and viscosity on the palate with grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar, exotic spice and all nicely balanced.
Daniel Lenko White Cabernet 2012 ($23, 88 points) — This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon “white” wine is whole bunch pressed with no skin contact and made with about 7 g/l of residual sugar. It’s a fruit bomb on the nose with poached pear and melon notes, almost Pinot Gris-like. It’s a gentle quaffing wine with good weight, packed with juicy fruit and decent length through the finish. Something a little bit different. Lenko also makes a white Merlot, with the 2011 vintage just released. It shows more red fruits and is made a touch sweeter ($20).
Daniel Lenko Riesling Reserve 2012 ($20, 91 points) — This is made from the estate’s 35-year-old Riesling vines, all planted to Clone 21b. The nose shows a heavy vein of minerality, lemon curd, lime, lanolin and grapefruit. This is a dynamic Riesling on the palate with layers of citrus fruit, profound mineral notes, an almost earthy feel and just a hint of petrol emerging on the finish. A wine to lay down for a few years and watch as it develops further.
Daniel Lenko Viognier 2012 ($50, 92 points) — The Lenkos planted this Vio in 1990 after it was requested by winemaker Jim Warren at Stoney Ridge, which no longer purchases the grapes. Lenko says Viognier is extremely hard to grow in Niagara but he likes the end result and continues to make it a staple in the portfolio. The fruit is whole-bunch pressed and stirred on the lees for eight months. It’s highly aromatic with white flowers, pineapple, mango, creamy peach and apricot notes. It is simply delicious on the palate with a mélange of rich tropical fruits, poached pear and peach on a textured frame that maintains freshness through the finish.
Daniel Lenko Merlot-Cabernet 2012 ($40, 90 points) — A blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, the nose displays blueberries, black currants, cherries and toasted vanilla spices. The tannins are firm on the palate with chalky minerality, cherry-blackberry fruits and an array of oak spices. Age this for five or more years.
Daniel Lenko Meritage 2010 ($60, 92 points) — A late-release red blend that shows off the Lenko style brilliantly — a big, bold and long-lasting red that needs time to settle down to merge all the moving parts. This is well on its way with a beautiful nose of earthy black currants, cassis and blackberry fruits that show concentration and smothered in lavish oak spices and campfire smoke. The flavours on the palate range from cassis and currants to licorice, anise and vanilla oak. This is built on a solid foundation of tannins and needs to time to rectify all the moving parts. Hold or serve with grilled red meat.
Daniel Lenko Meritage 2010 ($60, 93 points, review from Dec., 2012) — This is Lenko’s signature wine made with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and only produced in top vintages such as 2010. Make no mistake about it, this is one of Niagara’s top meritage blends and you have to be patient to experience the best this wine will give. Like other top Niagara Bordeaux blends from great vintages (think 2007 and 2002), they need time for the tannins, oak and fruit to integrate and soften. But, this wine has it all. The cassis, cherry-raspberry, blue plums, bramble bush, mocha, nutmeg, firm oak and spice stylings, vanilla toast and scorched earth notes all play a part on the nose. The fruits are bold and ripe on the palate with earth, roasted Espresso bean, nutmeg and vanilla all chiming in against a bed of firm tannins. This is a big wine that will need time with a huge reward in five or 10 years. Buy, hold and enjoy!
Daniel Lenko Syrah 2009 ($60, 91 points) — Another late-vintage release and the poster boy for old school reds from the Lenko portfolio. Bury yourself in this nose of savoury fruits, roasted meats, currants, smoke and wet loam. It is thick, rich and loaded with savoury goodness on the palate, a gorgeous mélange of fruit, spice and the earth from where it was grown. It’s a pure geek wine, a bold statement from Lenko that will draw comparisons to the gritty Syrahs from the Northern Rhone. Lots of life left is this highly structured wine.
Daniel Lenko Syrah 2009 ($60, 90 points, review from Dec. 2012) — A remarkable effort here, considering the unkind vintage. Only two barrels are made from low yielding estate vineyards with wine aged in French oak for 18 months. The nose is all about wild red and dark fruits, boysenberry, plum, pomegranate, roasted meats, forest floor, cigar leaf, white pepper and savoury spices. It is smooth on the palate with the tannins just beginning to round out, and a nice mix of fruit and Rhone-style funk and savage. Cellar for five or more years.
#OldNiagara No. IX and
Lenko’s Old Vines Merlot
I brought an old bottle of Niagara Merlot for Lenko to try after we had tasted through his portfolio. It was a Stoney Ridge Cellars Lenko Vineyards Merlot Reserve 1989 made by Jim Warren with the fruit sourced from the Lenko farm. It is part of an on-going series we’re doing here at Wines In Niagara called #OldNiagara (see older posts on the site).
In 1989 Lenko’s Merlot already had 15 years of growth and I wanted to see how it was holding up to get a clue on how Lenko’s Old Vines Merlot age.
There wasn’t a whole lot of fruit left but it still showed aromas of raspberry, cherry and light spice. “It tastes youthful for its age,” Lenko said.
What was surprising was the finesse of the Merlot after all these years. There was quite a bit of acidity still evident to go with some tannic structure remaining in the wine. It was impressive that the structure, tannins and acidic backbone were outliving the fruit of this oldie.
In 1989, Lenko was cropping his Merlot to five tonnes an acre compared to two tonnes an acre now.
He decided to pop open a Lenko Old Vines Merlot 2002 (still available at the winery for $80). The ’02, 13 years younger than the ’89, was a much richer wine with beautiful depth of fruit, firm structure and tannins and nicely integrated. It is a wine that’s just coming into harmony, a wonderful expression of old-vine Merlot from Niagara.
Daniel Lenko Old Vines Merlot 2010 ($40, 93 points) — What a beauty! The first aromas are those of smoky cherry fruit, earth, currants, spice, pure vanilla extract and cedar-tobacco notes. It is very young at this stage with structured tannins taking centre-stage on the palate, but dig deeper and you will taste rich cherry fruit, the earth and loam, the cassis and a full range of oak-derived spices. This promises to be a blockbuster Merlot if you show the patience to hang on to it for five or 10 years. It is the Lenko style.
Daniel Lenko Old Vines Merlot 2010 ($40, 90 points) — I first reviewed this wine on Dec. 12, 2012. As you can see, with the added age, I have upgraded my rating and review. This is what I originally wrote. Lenko’s Old Vines Beamsville Bench Merlot spends 18 months in a mix of new and older French and American oak barrels. It starts with black cherry, blueberry and kirsch notes with added licorice, field raspberry, bramble, earth and toasted vanilla and spices. It is but a pup on the palate with the tautness of youth, tight tannic structure and ripe red and dark fruits just beginning to open up. There are a lot of moving parts here but the ingredients are all there to come into wonderful harmony with time in the cellar.