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Driving for success at Rockway Vineyards in Niagara: Some vineyards being sold, portfolio trimmed to concentrate on what does best on Twenty Mile Bench

dogI had no idea that Niagara’s Rockway Vineyards has such a colourful history.

As the only fully functional winery and golf course (and wine museum!) in Canada, Rockway was a dream-come-true for the Strongman family who were able to combine two passions into one — golf and wine — on the Twenty Mile Bench of the Niagara Escarpment.

The Strongmans, who built Color Your World Paint stores into a national brand with stores in every city across Canada before selling the business just ahead of the big-box boom, and later did the same thing with Nevada Bob golf stores in Eastern Canada, again selling before Golf Town emerged to dominate the marketplace, bought the Rockway property out of receivership.

vineyardsAlong with the deal for Rockway, there were vineyards surrounding part of the course, but with only a mix of hybrid varietals including the ubiquitous Niagara table grapes.

Anyone who tried those wines in the early years at the “19th hole” is well aware that wine wasn’t the strong suit at Rockway.

stas“In 2009 the lights went on,” says Rockway winemaker David Stasiuk. A series of events occurred, including the hiring of consultant Peter Gamble to assess the vineyard situation, and Natalie Reynolds to make the wine.

More vineyards were planted to vinifera grapes and attention paid to the winemaking. That began “a huge turn of events,” Stasiuk says.

overviewThe winery was farming over 120 acres of vines by the time Stasiuk became head winemaker at the end of 2009 and a giant-sized portfolio of wine was being bottled, including nearly every varietal, blend, sparkling wine and icewine that can be made in Niagara.

Not that Stasiuk has found his stride and established Rockway as a quality winery making some serious juice, the owners have decided to trim the portfolio, sell 90 acres of vines and concentrate on what grows best on the property.

postStasiuk says that will be Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Franc as well as the fun Patio 9 wines that are so popular in the club house.

“I have a firm belief in those varieties,” the winemaker says. “The Twenty Mile Bench is a high potential site. I’m a firm believer that soil is everything.”

I tasted through a range of new releases with Stasiuk, his assistant winemaker, Joanna Woolnough, and with Stasiuk’s faithful English springer spaniel Guinness keeping a watchful eye for anything amiss.

Here’s what I can recommend from what we tasted:

rieslingsRockway Small Lot Block 150-183 Riesling 2013 ($20, 90 points) — There is no question winemaker Stasiuk likes his Rieslings on the taut and racy side; even in an acid-rich vintage such as 2013 he’ll add a little extra to give them a razor-sharp finish. I’m not entirely convinced Niagara Rieslings need the extra “help” but it’s a style this winemaker prefers, and that is his prerogative. The Small Lot is a little less severe than the Jenkins Riesling below with a mass of citrus fruit and minerals on the nose. “This tastes like the property to me,” says Stasiuk. The palate reveals peach, lemon, confectionery fruit and mineral notes in a rounder, plusher style with just a touch of sweetness.

Rockway Fergie Jenkins Series Riesling 2013 ($16, 87 points) — The nose on this racy Riesling shows lemon, lime and grapefruit notes with river-rock minerality. It’s made in a drier style than the Small Lot and shows it’s acidic backbone on the palate.

rockway wild chardonnay500Rockway Small Lot Block 12-110 Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2013 ($23, 89 points) — Aged in 100% French oak, 20% of which is new, with lees stirring and fermented with wild yeasts. The nose show poached pear, cream, nougat, apple and toasted vanilla spice. It has lovely texture, rich spices, upfront fruit and shows some weight through the finish. Comfort Chardonnay.

Rockway Small Lot Block Blend Merlot 2012 ($22, 89 points) — If you are a fan of Merlot, you may want to stock on this vintage and the 2013 when it comes out. That’s all that will be made at Rockway — ever — because of the polar vortex that wiped out the Merlot vines and won’t be replanted. This shows thick and rich black currants and blueberries, plus, black cherry and oak spices on the nose. It has tannic structure on the palate with an expressive array of fruits, earth and spice. May want to cellar five or more years.

wildredRockway Small Lot Wild Ferment Red 2012 ($30, 91 points) — An interesting blend of 25% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot, which is all independently wild fermented and brought together for the final blend. The nose shows black fruits, cherry, bramble, crunchy spices and a subtle floral note. It’s meaty on the palate with savoury fruit flavours, integrated spices, good structure and well-balanced. Drinking fine right now but can cellar for 3-5 years.

syrahuseRockway Small Lot Block 12-140 Syrah 2012 ($28, 91 points) — Syrah has emerged as one of Rockway’s superstars, so with 30-35% loss of the vineyard in 2014, it will all be replanted to keep this part of the portfolio propped up. The nose is lovely with notes of boysenberry, raspberry, white pepper, earth, bramble and violets. The palate shows personable earthy fruit, raspberry-cherry notes and peppery-savoury spices with plenty of verve and energy through the finish.

cab fr icewineRockway Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013 ($40 375 mL, 92 points) — Deep ruby in colour, the nose on this sweetie shows an array of ripe raspberry, cherry and a subtle forest floor note. Thick and unctuous on the palate, but not over-bearing, the lush red fruits and earthy notes find some balance with fairly decent acidity.

Rockway Riesling Icewine 2013 ($30 for 200 mL, 93 points) — A gorgeous icewine that is as balanced between sweet and cloying as you can get with this frozen-fruit elixir. An interesting nose of lime, kiwi, peach compote and layers of wild honey. It’s jam-packed with citrus and orchard fruits with meringue and honeycomb adding to the pleasure. Good verve through the finish.

Rockway Vidal Icewine 2013 ($30 for 375 mL, 92 points) — A nose of tropical fruit, honey, blood orange and pear compote. It’s intensely flavoured on the palate with orchard fruits, wild honey and Mandarin orange to with good acidity through the finish.