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A labour of love: The new Poetica wines from Niagara’s Southbrook Vineyards

Ontario organic wine

By Rick VanSickle

Anyway you spell it, you are going to  l o v e  the new vintage of Poetica Chardonnay from Southbrook Vineyards.

Visual artist Barry P. Nichol (bpNichol), left, who was also a lyrical and sound poet from Vancouver before he passed away in 1988 shortly before his 44th birthday, provides the graphic poetry for the 2013 Poetica Chardonnay label; an expression of love, up, down, backwards, vertical, inverse and chaotic … just like love can be (ahem).

Southbrook’s tradition of providing Canadian poetry to match its highest end, limited-edition family of wines — namely, the Poetica Chardonnay and Poetica Red — was inspired by a love story. “A love of wine, the dream of one couple to build a beautiful vineyard and winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the manifestation of the best possible version of that dream by becoming Canada’s first certified biodynamic winery,” according to the winery.

Southbrook wanted the top wines’ presentation to be special, to represent what they feel is Southbrook’s primary philosophy — a vision of “connectedness — that great wine is made through careful respect for the vine and the earth in which it is grown; through an artisanal winemaking process that allows the wine to express itself, and by encouraging the wine lover to embrace all their senses in order to enjoy the best possible wine experience.”

Southbrook Poetica wines

Southbrook could think of no better way to launch their limited edition wine collection than with an artist series — a familiar practice in the wine world. The team chose poetry as their vehicle and has showcased Canadian poets since the inception of the label.

“The Poetica series has become a great way to present words and ideas and artists that people might not have access to or know how to look for, and since many of us like to spend time studying and appreciating wine labels, it’s actually a gorgeous way to slow down and enjoy this little encounter with a poem,” the winery says.

Best Ontario Chardonnay

The Poetica collection consists of an array of accomplished poets from different times, some now deceased but most living, from all across Canada. Charles G.D. Roberts, whose words of 150 years ago are still eerily relevant; the incredible and feisty P.K. Page; the 1960s pioneers Gwendolyn MacEwen and bpNichol, whose innovative work inspired and informed so many poets after them … all the way forward to present … with the poetry activist Wendy Morton who wants ordinary people to experience the joy and beauty of poetry in their everyday lives; Griffin Poetry Prize winner Karen Solie, aboriginal Chief Dan George and several of Southbrook’s favourite contemporary Canadian songwriters and musicians, including Jim Cuddy, Sarah Slean and Martin Tielli.

Nicol’s visual poem love adorns Poetica Chardonay 2013 label, while P.K. Page’s poem Planet Earth provides the inspiration for the Poetica Red 2013 label. The poem is as follows:

It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens,
the way she moves her hands
caressing the fine muslins
knowing their warp and woof,
like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising.
It has to be loved as if it were embroidered with flowers and birds and two joined hearts upon it.
It has to be stretched and stroked.
It has to be celebrated.
O this great beloved world and all the creatures in it.
It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet.

I tasted both Poetica wines with winemaker Ann Sperling recently along with a good chunk of the winery’s new releases from the Triomphe tier.

Fans of Southbrook will be pleased to learn that Sperling, while continuing to nurture one of Niagara’s most complete portfolios, has two new projects in the works — a single-orchard, six-apple organic hard cider sourced from Avalon Orchard in Innisfil, just south of Barrie, and a 100% natural (zero sulphur added) organic/biodynamic sparkling wine made in the ancestral method (primary fermentation in the bottle).

Oh, and I also got to taste Sperling’s first Pinot Noir from Southbrook. This isn’t her first rodeo with Pinot, at her Okanagan family winery, Sperling Vineyard, she makes lovely Pinot, but for Southbrook, this is a first.

“Growing it here (at Southbrook) didn’t make sense for us. We had to find the right vineyard and work with it,” Sperling says. That vineyard is the Laundry Vineyard in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub appellation tended by Heather Laundry and certified organic, following the principals of Southbrook’s philosophy.

Here’s what I liked from the tasting with Sperling.

Cool Chardonnay

Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2013 ($50, spring release, 93 points) — The pedigree of this top-notch wine is indisputable, it is simply part of Niagara Chardonnay royalty. The sub-app is Four Mile Creek, fruit is farmed organically and biodynamically and French oak aging is in 70% new barrels (17% a year old, the rest neutral) for 11 months. Simply gorgeous, a terroir-driven nose of profound flinty minerality, ripe pear, apple skin, lemon and fine integrated oak nuances. Pure elegance on the palate, a lithe and impeccably balanced Chardonnay that brings a range of pear, apple and citrus together with hazelnut, lovely spice notes and minerals. There is freshness on the long finish and an overwhelming sense of grace with each sip. Well done.

Ontario biodynamic wine

Southbrook Poetica Red 2013 ($55, spring release, 89 points) — A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cab Franc and 3% Petit Verdot that’s all wild fermented separately and sent to oak barrels for months before blending. Only course filtration before bottling and no fining. The wine benefits from some of the warmest temperatures in Niagara wine country, and they needed every degree of warmth they could get in the cooler 2013 vintage. It has a pretty nose of bright raspberry and cherry with touches of blackberry and anise and a balanced approach to the spice. It’s a leaner style on the palate, well structured with fine tannins and spice to go with a range of red and dark fruits that is propped up by freshening acidity. Can cellar 5+ years.

Ontario orange wine

Ontario natural wine

Southbrook Small Lot Natural Wine Orange Wine 2015/2016 ($30, 89 points for 2015, 90 points for the 2016, March release for 2016) — Half of the production of the 2016 Orange wine will be held back by Southbrook in the hope that this category of wine will soon have its own VQA category in Ontario (see story here). A change in VQA rules to allow these so-called Orange wines (skin-fermented white wines) is awaiting a signature from a minister of the Ontario government, and after (if?) that happens, Sperling wants to be first in line to get her ground-breaking orange wine VQA’d. Afterall, it was Sperling who pushed for the regulatory change in Ontario to create a VQA category for skin-fermented white wines. Her first Orange wine, made from 2014 vintage Vidal, was a hit and was followed up by the 2015 Small Lot Natural Orange Wine, a dry but expressive Vidal with zesty tangerine/marmalade and subtle tannins. The 2016 version, released next month, is the best one yet. The nose shows orangy-tangerine and citrus notes, but the true beauty is on the palate, a zesty, tangy citrus bomb with orange peel on a textured frame. The tannins are more evident in this version, providing structure and dimension that all leads to a long, lingering finish. Strange and beautiful.

Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay 2015 ($23, winery now, 90 points) — Such a nice wine at a delicious price point, look for a nose of bright apple, creamy pear and a smidge of peach, smoky/leesy notes and integrated oak spice. Shows elegance on the palate with creamy orchard fruits, seamless spice and a juicy, finessed finish.

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Allier Chardonnay 2013 ($40, winery this spring, 92 points) — Sperling conducted a fascinating experiment with small parcels of her estate’s organic and biodynamic Chardonnay, vinifying and aging the same fruit in various French oak treatments. I tasted the range over a year ago when they weren’t finished wines, but was struck by the myriad flavours oak imparts. The range of this curious small lot experiment is being released this spring. This wine is aged 11 months in a combination of new and older oak from the Allier forest in the centre of France, or the “bois de centre.” The oak there is thought to be tighter grained than other forests, but not the tightest grain available in France. I’m struck by the flinty minerality on the nose and the gorgeous spice notes that are well integrated with creamy pear and baked apple aromas. It is rich and elegant on the palate with gorgeous texture, minerals and baked-spice notes. There is citrus freshness on the finish. Will age quite well, but irresistible right now.

Southbrook Triomphe Pinot Noir 2015 ($30, winery, 92 points) — As mentioned above, Sperling works with vineyard owner Heather Laundry for this organically-grown Pinot Noir, the first Pinot from Southbrook. It’s a fabulous debut and a nice addition to Southbrook’s growing portfolio. It’s a pure and expressive Pinot with a nose of violets, bright red berries and integrated spice notes that enhance the profile rather than dominate. It’s polished and vibrant on the palate with a lovely mélange of cherry and raspberry with a touch of earth and spice all leading to a textured, nuanced finish that’s lively and fresh.

Southbrook Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2015 ($22, winery, 88 points) — Sourced from Laundry’s Beamsville Bench Vineyard, it shows aromatics of black currants, cherries, sweet herbs, cedar and spice. This is serious Franc on the palate with evident tannins that will need time to integrate. The red fruits are joined by small, concentrated dark berries, herbs and savoury spice notes.

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Petit Verdot 2013 ($40, release date TBA, 89 points) — Organic/bio estate fruit and aged in French oak for 18 months before bottling with no fining and only course filtering. The nose shows highly aromatic red fruits, loam, currants and baking spices. It’s firm and highly structured on the palate with bold fruits, black licorice, smoky spices and evident tannins that will show better with time in the cellar.

Southbrook Estate Grown Small Lot Witness Block Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc 2013 ($40, winery, 91 points) — OK, a lot going on here with this unique wine. It’s from a block within the estate vineyard that was planted in 2008. “The concept was a terroir-driven block with a mix of clones. The theory was that the vines all become more like each other,” says Sperling. Like all estate fruit it’s organic/bio farmed, wild fermentation and low amounts of sulphur added. The blend is 60% Cab Sauv, 37% Cab Franc and the rest Merlot with 18 months of oak aging in French barriques. Simply gorgeous nose of black cherries, plums, red currants, earth and well-integrated, complementary spices. It’s a well-crafted wine on the palate with ample red fruit, touches of currants, cassis, defined tannins and toasted spice notes on a structured frame. Can age 5+ years.