It’s not comfortable writing about Pearl Morissette. Not comfortable at all. Of all the wineries in Niagara, heck, Ontario and maybe even Canada, Jordan’s Pearl Morissette is a such a polarizing subject that it would be much easier to just let them do what they do forever in obscurity. But, of course, that would be wrong.
Every post, whether a review or full-blown story, brings out the worst in people. The aftermath is always a mishmash of snide comments, eye-brow-raising skepticism and perhaps a certain amount of jealously that one winery gets so much attention from self-generated controversies and so much attention beyond our own borders.
The truth is, winemaker and winery partner François Morissette doesn’t really care what his critics think, no, not one bit. Niagara wasn’t his first choice to make his style of wines but he found a partner, Toronto developer Mel Pearl, who agreed unconditionally to his one defining demand: “No compromises.” And for Morissette, that means wines made his way and his way only whatever the popular opinion on those wines may be.
Once that was out of the way, there was no turning back.
He’s been a pain in the ass for VQA, viewed as a snake oil salesman by many veteran Niagara winemakers and an out-spoken cheerleader for the style of wines he wants to make. In short: He comes across as arrogant and aloof, especially if you don’t know him at all or don’t take the time to understand his point of view for what he is trying to do.
Niagara, for Morissette, is just a place in the world to make wines for the world. In his mind, his wines have no borders and he’s just as thrilled to sell a couple of cases to some obscure wine shop in Germany as he is getting listings at the LCBO and SAQ, perhaps more so.
He loves the fact that his wines are sought out almost exclusively by geeks, collectors, and somms, either here or in far-flung places where his wines are, shall we say, more appreciated.
I have had more people tell me they dislike his wines then I have heard from fans. Which, to him, is totally cool; he doesn’t make wine for the masses, only to a niche audience that appreciates the nuances and the pure, minimal-interventionist, low sulphur and reductive style of winemaking he employs. It’s not for everyone.
“I’m not making wine for Ontario, I’m making wine for the world,” Morissette tells me on a recent visit.
He is without peer in Ontario for crafting avant-garde wines. You won’t find Morissette at the neighbourhood winemakers’ barbecue exchanging thoughts and ideas on how to craft great wines.
François Morissette is an island onto himself. A lone wolf with some crazy ideas that manifest themselves in the wines that he makes.
You either dig them, or you don’t. And a lot don’t.
Some things you should know about Morissette:
• In his early 20s, Morissette spent a year working in Saint-Romain, Burgundy at Domaine Alain Gras. Discovering the traditional vigneron trade was a turning point for him.
• In Canada he moved forward as a sommelier and developed some of Quebec and Ontario’s most progressive wine programs.
• In 2000, his passion for wine and the desire to cultivate led him back to France.
• He spent seven vintages of full-time grape growing in the Côte D’Or, Burgundy.
• From Frédéric Mugnier in Chambolle Musigny, Christian Gouges of Domaine Henri Gouges in Nuits-Saint-Georges and Domaine Roulot in Meursault he learned traditional approaches in viticulture and winemaking on exceptional Grand Cru terroirs.
• Since 2007, Morissette has been committed to honouring the Niagara environment. Faithful to the traditional methods at Pearl Morissette, he crafts his wines from vine to bottle, according to his website.
• Morissette and partner Pearl have two new wine projects on the go; one on the Sonoma Coast in California and the other on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley.
Pearl Morissette Estate Winery, located in the town of Jordan, is a partnership born in 2007 between Pearl and Burgundy-trained vigneron, Morissette.
They share the same uncompromising vision that values a traditional and hands-off approach to wine growing in order to deliver premium quality wines.
The winery farms their 19th Street Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench. It consists of 16.5 acres planted to Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, in 1999 and 2000.
The home vineyard is located on Jordan Road, next to the winery, and belongs to the Creek Shores appellation. It is 12 acres planted to Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir between the years of 2010 and 2012.
All the grapes are picked entirely on the basis of skin maturity, as this element of ripeness, according to Morissette, contributes greatly to the flavours and textures of the wines.
It is texture that defines his wines, texture achieved through oxidative winemaking, the catalyst for skepticism over his wines.
Morissette is an experimental winemaker, pushing wild ferments to the limit, pushing the boundaries of what VQA deems acceptable and teasing consumers’ palates.
“From Day One we have not introduced anything to the wines but a little bit of sulphur,” he says as we tour a Petri dish of experimentation inside the winery. So, most of his wines are exposed to oxygen, very little filtration and fining (if any) takes place and sulphur is used only if he thinks a wine needs it. His ferments take place naturally in large neutral oak foudres, concrete eggs and increasingly in clay amphorae.
In Morissette’s words, “you can have some VA (volatile acidity), you can have some brett (brettanomyces) but it can’t take over, it can’t be a justification for being lazy.”
The Pearl Morissette portfolio consists mainly of Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, a new Cab Franc/Pinot Noir blend in the works and a series of off-the-wall crazy wines: An “orange” wine made from Riesling and Viognier aging in amphora, a “fino” style Chardonnay and a “solara” style white.
He is always experimenting and pushing himself to make better wines through natural processes.
His favourite grape to work with in Niagara is Cabernet Franc. “I think Cab Franc is our Grade A grape in Niagara. I think we can do it better than the Loire Valley. We certainly have the potential.”
On the flip side, Niagara Pinot Noir, though he makes a good one, is his least favourite wine in the arsenal.
“(Niagara) Pinot isn’t my thing. There’s a reason they call it the heart-break grape,” he says. “With Cab Franc we’re there with the best in the world. Why would we would we make Pinot? Why? But I’m not giving up.”
The Morissette farm is in a bit of disarray as we tour the grounds, past the duck pond and out to the pig pen where fat Berkshire pigs are doing what they do best: Pigging out and wallowing in mud hollows.
With the septic system now in place, Morissette plans to get the farm into some kind of shape while keeping the grounds as natural as possible.
He also has a small herd of Galloway cattle, a neglected orchard that needs a little work and a grand guesthouse with pool and estate chef.
The winery is relatively small but a new adjacent building is almost finished, which Morissette plans to use for storage of his wines, special events and office space.
Pearl Morissette isn’t going anywhere, despite his many critics. If some think he’s arrogant, they just haven’t met the man or spent any time with him. From my experience he is confident, not arrogant, passionate about winemaking, not reckless, and caring about the environment in which we live. And he’s a super-nice guy. His wines? You will have to be the judge.
Here’s what I liked from the tasting recently, most of which will be released in the coming months.
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc Cuvée Madeleine 2012 ($35, 93 points) — Morissette may be exaggerating a touch when he says this vintage of his head-turning Cab Franc has the potential to age for 40 years, but he may not be far off. What a beauty! Pretty notes of black cherry, crunchy raspberry, cassis and subtle, ingrained barrel spice. It is seductive, enthralling, in fact, on the palate, with a richness that is hard to describe. Such depth to the cherry, anise and smoky spices with a firm bed of tannins and luxurious feel through the long, silky finish.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme Chardonnay 2014 ($35, still in fourdre, no score) — While not the final blend, you get a glimpse of the future. The shows attractive apple, citrus, and mineral notes with a reductive/brioche note. It’s striking in the mouth with rich and layered orchard fruits, integrated spice and perky acidity.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme Chardonnay 2013 ($35, not yet bottled, no score) — A completely different expression of Chardonnay from Mosissette. Noticeable reduction with citrus, nougat and sweet subtle spices on the nose. The texture is gorgeous with spicy vanilla, pear and a tangy vein of citrus through the finish.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme Chardonnay 2012 ($35, 93 points) – Still closed on the nose but beginning to show the future with citrus, apple-pear, grilled pineapple, lemon chiffon, lanolin and spice aromas with an interesting reductive note. It’s generous and lush on the palate and builds as it opens up with a range of fruit flavours and a nutty note on the finish.
Pearl Morissette Viognier 2014 (price n/a, no score) — A Vio to watch for with a nose of apricot, pear and juicy tropical fruits. The flavours are broad on the palate with lovely richness and depth but not waxy or oily. There is freshness there.
Pearl Morissette Gamay Cuvée Mon Unique 2014 ($30, 91 points) — This Gamay is whole cluster pressed, fermented in concrete eggs, sees no oak and, unlike the 2013 Gamay, sees a bit of added sulphur. The nose shows a rich array of cassis, blueberry, raspberry, underbrush and mulled plums. It fills the mouth with rich and earthy dark fruits with soft tannins and rousing acidity.
Pearl Morissette Cuvée Mon Unique Gamay 2013 ($29, 91 points) — This is wild-yeast fermented in open wood fermenters and is made with zero added sulphur. Can’t really call it “natural” under the strict definition of vin nature, as it’s not made with organic-bio grapes, but close enough. It shows savoury cherry, boysenberry, blueberry and bramble fruit on the nose. It’s so fresh and alive on the palate with a range of purple fruits and cherries in a juicy, yet vibrant, style.
Pearl Morissette Le Spectateur Cabernet Franc 2012 ($33, Vintages, previously reviewed, 92 points) — Francois Morissette used a healthy dose of French oak, 50% new barrels, and has left the wine unfiltered and unfined. It is so gorgeous on the nose with scented blackberry, cassis and anise fruit that is bolstered by sweet oak spices. The tannins are smooth and silky on the palate with a thick layer of ripe dark fruits and a touch of cherry with integrated oak spice.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Black Ball Riesling 2014 ($32, tasted before it was bottled, no score) — I won’t get into the whole naming of this “Black Ball” Riesling but feel free to get caught up with this post. The 2014 version of this Riesling will likely be released before the tighter 2013 vintage. It’s the first of his Rieslings fermented in concrete egg. The nose shows vivid lime, grapefruit, white flowers, lanolin, ginger and a reductive note. It’s intense and structured on the palate with lemon curd, lime and racy acidity that elevates the silky texture of the wine.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Black Ball Riesling 2013 ($32, second batch not yet released, 90 points) — A funky, lemony nose with pulpy grapefruit and river-rock minerality. The wine is electric on the palate with grapefruit, lime and jarring mineral notes with a long finish. This is a Riesling that won’t appeal to everyone, but should be tried to show that this variety isn’t always cut from the same mould.
Pearl Morissette Cuvee Black Ball Riesling 2012 ($25, previously reviewed and retasted, 92 points) — A jarring nose of grapefruit, lime, apple skin, ginger and powerful mineral notes prevalent on the 20 Mile Bench (fruit is from the estate’s 19th Street Vineyard). It is bone, bone dry on the palate, with lovely texture and ferocious energy that balances citrus, apple, mineral and acid. There is no mistaking this wine for Riesling, in fact some of the great Rieslings of the world are built this way, but it is stunningly different from the bulk of Niagara wines made in the market place right now. This is built to age, to soften and integrate with time.
Pearl Morissette Pinot Noir 2014 and 2013 ($25, not scored) — These were both unfinished wines but tasted with Morissette for perspective. The 2014 shows heavy scented lavender, cherry, cassis and light toasted spice. It’s built in a more masculine style with meaty cherry and blueberry fruit with an earthy finish. The 2013 will be bottled soon and shows rich cassis, bramble, blueberry pie and raspberry bush on the nose. It rides on a lovely beam of firm tannins with uplifting acidity.
Pearl Morissette Pinot Noir 2012 ($25, Vintages November Classics, 90 points) — This is a much more integrated, more red-fruit dominant Pinot on the nose with cherry, crunchy raspberry, spice, mineral notes and subtle currants. It’s broad and rich on the palate with striking texture with cherry, blueberry pie and raspberry notes to go with integrated spice and ripe tannins.
Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc/Pinot Noir Metis 2013 ($27, 88 points) — Can’t say as I’ve ever tried this particular blend of grapes. Morissette calls it his “Tuesday night wine.” The nose shows interesting herbs, cherry fruit and savoury spices. It’s all about the red fruits — cherry and raspberry — with touches of cassis and herbs on the palate. Not too spicy.