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Farm wines, honest Niagara wines from Featherstone Estate Winery in Vineland

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By Rick VanSickle

It’s a pretty simple farming life for David Johnson and Louise Engel at their tiny, but spectacularly pretty winery on the Twenty Mile Bench.

Featherstone Estate Winery consists of 23 acres of rolling hills, vineyards, gorgeous gardens, a winery, small tasting room and a cosy veranda where, starting this year from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday to Sunday and holiday Mondays, guests can order up delicious thin crust pizzas baked in a wood-fired pizza oven that Johnson crafted from scratch.

Johnson makes the wine, and Engel, his wife, is the marketing/retail guru behind the wines. And aside from farm workers to help with pruning and picking of the grapes, retail staff and the famous black sheep which arrive June 28 to trim the bottom of the vines during growing season, it’s pretty much a self-sufficient operation.

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Featherstone grows everything it makes on the estate. They farm naturally and without the use of insecticides, growing wine in a way that is healthy and unique. The result is a bright and complete portfolio of small-lot wines crafted to express the singular nature of site on the Twenty Mile Bench appellation. They produce about 7,000 cases of wine annually, a number they are both happy with and do not plan to increase.

There is nothing fancy here, just honest to goodness wines that are soulful and consistent year to year.

Johnson and Engel don’t feel the need to stay open year-round, so they close the doors in early December and open them again in April and start all over with a new portfolio of wines to sell. Wines, by the way, they have no problem selling.

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Their time off usually involves an interesting trip somewhere in the world. Last year it was to South Africa where Johnson worked a harvest in Stellenbosch and Engel followed later to tour the country.

Featherstone has become a darling at the LCBO and many of their wines circle through the shelves of the government monopoly. What the LCBO doesn’t take, the couple happily sell at the cellar door.

Featherstone is just one of those touchstone wineries in Niagara that has the artistry of making wines that people love to drink at a price that is accessible to most. It is why I return every vintage to taste through the portfolio with either Johnson or Engel.

Here’s what I can recommend from a recent tasting of the new releases.

Featherstone Cuveé Joy Sparkling 2012 ($35, winery, Vintages in Oct., 91 points) — This is 100% Chardonnay that spends 30 months on lees and another two years in bottle and made in the traditional method. The nose shows toasty biroche notes with citrus, biscuit and apple. It’s deliciously dry on the palate with an energetic mousse and citrus/apple flavours with lovely toasted notes through the finish. A highly pleasurable sparkler.

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Featherstone Cuveé Joy Rosé Sparkling ($30, winery, Vintages in March, 90 points) — This 100% Pinot Noir sparkler was kept on the lees in bottle for 12 months and disgorged in the fall of 2016. It, too, was traditionally made. Another perky mousse with notes of cherry, raspberry, cranberry and light toasted notes. The cran-cherry flavours are boosted by good vibrancy on the palate and a subtly sweet note on the finish.

Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($18, 89 points) — When winemaker Johnson was in South Africa last year he fell in love with the Chenin Blancs made in that country and wanted to employ some of the barrel techniques they use there with his own Sauvignon Blanc to add weight and complexity. This is the first example of that with 20% of the fruit barrel fermented and the rest fermented in stainless steel tanks. It has an interesting nose of grapefruit, white pepper, jasmine, white flowers, citrus zest and a pinch of spice. It has great texture on the palate with a range of citrus and floral/herbal notes that are nicely balanced with the spice notes.

Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2016 ($17, winery, Vintages now, 90 points) — This wine is “our bread and butter,” Engel says, and their most popular. Six black sheep, the inspiration for the wine’s name, arrive from Penny and Andrew Oliver of Willow Haven Farm in nearby St. Ann’s on June 28 “to begin their summer job” of trimming the lower leaves on the estate’s grape vines. The Riesling is pretty consistent year to year with a nose of lime, grapefruit, peach and minerality. It feels dry on the palate despite some RS, with bright lemon-lime, apple and river-rock minerals that carry through the refreshing finish.

Featherstone Phoenix 2016 ($19, winery only, 88 points) — Yes, back from the dead … the Gewurztraminer has risen from certain death. It was the winters of 2014/2015 and the polar vortex rolled through Ontario with an icy grip that laid waste to more than a few delicate grape varieties. At Featherstone, two were particularly hit hard — Gewurztraminer and Merlot. The Gew was seemingly gone forever and the couple ignored it after 2015. The thinking at the time was to pull it out and replant something else the following year. But lo and behold, in 2016 a crop appeared in the vineyard and “Phoenix was born.” That was convenient for Engel, as selling a wine with the word “Gewurztraminer” on it was always presented a challenge as consumers have trouble even saying the word correctly and tend to avoid it. “The word Gewurztraminer causes people stress,” she says, so Phoenix it was. The nose shows notes of honeydew melon, grapefruit, lychee, ginger and clove. It’s a touch off-dry with lovely texture and rich, ripe exotic fruits. It’s quite delicious, from a nearly extinct variety.

Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2015 ($22, 90 points) — This Chard was fermented wild yeast strains in Canadian (from Brantford) oak barrels and further aged in Canadian oak for one year. Engel makes no bones about it — “if you’re going to oak Chardonnay, oak it!” This has a big buttery nose of poached pear, ripe baked apple, caramel, toasted vanilla and a range of baking spices. It’s a big, full-on Chard with orchard fruits and then butterscotch, vanilla, caramel and toasted oak flavours that benefit from just a squirt of citrus on the finish. If you like your Chardonnays bold and spicy, this is for you.

Featherstone Rosé 2016 ($16, 87 points) — The blend is Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir with a highly perfumed nose of cherries, strawberries and watermelon. It’s relatively dry on the palate with ripe red berries all lifted by good acidity. This is not a shy Rosé, but that’s the style Featherstone likes.

Featherstone Pinot Noir 2013 ($25, 90 points) — Well, this is going to missed. It is the last of Pinot Noir that will be made into a still wine at the estate. Going forward, all the Pinot is all destined for the growing sparkling program. It has a delicate nose of pretty raspberry and cherry with well-integrated spice notes. It’s juicy on the palate with cherry/raspberry fruit and a finessed feel through the finish. It’s about the balance and a deft approach to the oak. Good-bye Pinot, you have had a good run.

Featherstone Cabernet Franc 2015 ($20, winery later this summer, Vintages Essential, 88 points) — It shows bright cherry, cassis and savoury spice and herbs on the nose. The flavours range from red fruits to beetroot with plush tannins and savoury spices on the finish.

Featherstone Select Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2016 ($25 for 375 mL, winery, 91 points) — As no Icewine is made at Featherstone, call this “Icewine light.” It’s a late harvest Gew, picked just before Christmas from that miracle harvest in 2016. The nose shows pronounced apricot, canned peaches and super-ripe grapefruit and citrus. It’s quite ripe and delicious on the palate with exotic tropical fruits, especially apricot, and wild honey that finds some balance from the acidity.