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Still life with Paul Pender (and new wine reviews from Tawse)

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By Rick VanSickle

Climbing the stairs to the top of the six-level, gravity-flow winery at Tawse, winemaker Paul Pender, above, reveals his latest project — an elaborate labyrinth of copper, stainless steel, gauges, columns and the centrepiece of it all, a top-of-the-line Italian copper pot still.

From this giant metallic jungle gym of columns and tubes will flow a range of new taste sensations that will fit into an already pretty complete menu of tipples being cranked out at the Twenty Mile Bench winery in Niagara wine country.

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Samples of grappa-style distillates are lined up to taste.
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Paul Pender smells the aromas on a sample of his grappa.

Think grappa, a fragrant, grape-based pomace brandy of Italian origin. Think calvados, apple or pear brandy that originated in the Normandy region. Think vodka, gin (there is a gin basket for local botanicals to be added to the spirit), whisky and even vermouth. It’s not only possible but actually happening with Pender and his team experimenting with their new toy and perfecting the distilling process, which is controlled by an elaborate computer that shows the process from start to finish on double-wide computer screens. The target date for revealing the first commercial elixirs off the still is the May long weekend.

The idea for the still came during a trip to Burgundy while Pender and Moray Tawse (owner) were visiting a few years back. In Burgundy, portable distilling trucks wind their way through the vineyards and villages of Burgundy after harvest to distill the residual skins and seeds left behind after pressing grapes. The distilled clear liquid is called Eau-de-Vie de Marc de Bourgogne (often simply called Marc de Bourgogne) and comes from one of 30 appellations for French Eaux-de-Vie. Most wineries will age the distillate in small oak barrels and either keep it for personal use or sell it to consumers as Marc de Bourgogne.

For Tawse, a family-owned organic and biodynamic winery with geo-thermal system and a wetland bio-filter, finding a use for the pomace from the harvest fit in perfectly with the nose-to-tail, environment-friendly philosophy of the winery.

“We wanted to be able to used the grape skins,” Pender explains. “And we didn’t want to do just do one thing.”

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So the idea of a large pot still with two columns opened up an entire vault of distilling possibilities that went beyond just grappa.

But grappa (which won’t be called that, of course) was the most obvious use for the grape skins and Pender plans on making several styles including Cherry Avenue single-vineyard Pinot Noir grappa, Gewurztraminer (from Quarry Road), Chardonnay and Viognier, sold in 375 and 200 mL bottles with proprietary names.

I tried samples of the grappa, or at least the essence of the grappa, made from both Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer. It was amazing how vivid the aromas out of the glass were and changed as the alcohol on the distillates were dialled back.

“Where the art comes from,” says Pender, “is in knowing where that sweet spot is.”

The still can be operated from this duo-screen computer at Tawse.

As for calvados, making an apple brandy was a given for Tawse because of the growing cider production at the winery, the spent apple skins can be distilled into a pure distillate and then aged in barrel for a minimum of a year.

I also tasted some raw versions of the calvados and really liked the essence of baked apple pie notes and can only imagine how it will taste with barrel aging and the spice that will bring.

Pender says production on whisky, which will spend years in barrels before release, begins in December with large oak vats used to turn grains (rye or wheat) or corn) added to warm water to produce the wort, or base, for the whisky.

For the May long weekend release of distillates, Pender hopes to have four different Tawse grappas, a gin, a vodka and maybe a vermouth for consumers to taste and buy.

“This makes so much sense in Niagara,” says Pender, “to have all of this.”

Here are some new releases from Tawse tasted recently:

The Bubbles

Tawse Pét-Nat 2017 ($25, winery now, 90 points) — This first pét-nat from Tawse is a single-vineyard, 100% certified organic and biodynamic Chardonnay that’s undisgorged (fermented in the bottle), unfiltered and essentially a natural, spritzy Pétillant Naturel made using the méthode ancestral that pre-dates Champagne. It shows a golden yellow colour in the glass with a mellow bubble and aromas of flint and white flowers followed by a melange of citrus, bin apple and subtle pineapple. It’s soft and mellow on the palate with a gentle bead that yields tropical fruits, citrus and a rich vein of minerality through a brisk finish. Nothing too fussy here, just good, honest, spritzed up Chardonnay with a bit of funk.

Tawse Quarry Road Pinot Noir Sparkling Rosé 2016 ($30, winery now, 91 points) — Traditionally made sparkler from single-vineyard Pinot Noir that spends 12 months on the lees. It shows a vibrant pink/amber hue in the glass with a modest but persistent bead. The nose displays delicate red berries, touch of peach and citrus with pretty red flowers. It’s vigorous and perky with red fruits dancing on the palate and stays lively through the finish. Fresh and delicious style.

Tawse Laundry Vineyard Blanc de Noir Sparkling 2014 ($30, winery now, 92 points) — Another single-vineyard sparkler from Tawse that sources this 100% Pinot Noir from the sustainably farmed Laundry Vineyard. It shows a vibrant and fresh nose of strawberries, lemon, grapefruit, biscuit, lovely minerality/salinity and creamy notes from three years of lees aging. It has a firm acidic spine that keeps the citrus, green apple, yellow pear and grapefruit lively and fresh through the finish. There is a vein of flinty minerality that shines on the mid-palate.

A Chardonnay

Tawse South Bay Chardonnay 2015, Prince Edward County ($35, winery now, 93 points) — This second edition of Chardonnay is sourced from Huff Estate’s South Bay parcel in Prince Edward County and sees 12 months of French oak. It’s a nice addition to the estate’s single-vineyard, terroir-driven Chardonnay program that produces some of this country’s finest examples of this versatile grape. There is such a rich flintly/stony elegance on the nose with notes of apple, pear and integrated oak spice. It’s mouth-filling and vibrant on the palate with pure apple, poached pear, elegant spice and profound minerality notes all perfectly balanced and finessed through the finish. This is fresh and lively from start to end with layers of complexity and pleasure. Nice job.

The reds

Tawse Grower’s Blend Pinot Noir 2016 ($26, Essentials listing at LCBO and 2016 vintage will emerge when 2015 vintage sells out, 89 points) — This is a blend of select Niagara Vineyards with the Pinot Noir aged in French oak barrels for 14 months. It’s highly aromatic with a nose of red currants, raspberry bramble, cherry tart and spice. That spice really shines on the palate and melds nicely with the savoury red fruits, cassis and medium+ tannins and acidity. Good little Pinot here for the money.

Tawse Redfoot Vineyard Gamay 2016 ($29, winery now, Vintages in 2019, 91 points) — Tawse does Gamay a little different than most in Niagara. Pender likes a richer, deeper style with a bit of spice (8 months in French oak) in the background, which he achieves with this single vineyard version. So, on the nose, plums, black cherry, blackberries, earth, raspberry bramble and spice notes. It’s soft and personable on the palate with juicy dark fruits, touch of raspberry, integrated spice and all delivered on a bed of smooth tannins.

Tawse David’s Block Merlot 2013 ($50, winery, 93 points) — After a horrible winter in 2014, this is the last vintage ever of the David’s Block Merlot and it’s going out with a bang. Despite a cooler vintage in 2013, Pender has given this Merlot a proper send off. It has a gorgeous, irresistible nose of black currants, sweet tobacco, and array of elegant spice notes, earth, kirsch, ripe blackberries and earthy/brambly notes. It’s thick and juicy on the palate and shows a range of currants, black pipe licorice, graphite, earth, meaty notes and layers of complexity and spice. This is a highly structured Merlot with a firm tannic backbone and will continue to improve in bottle for five+ years.

Tawse Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017 ($36 for 200 mL, winery now, Vintages in 2019, 92 points) — A knockout nose of brilliant raspberry, thick cherry and integrated herbs and bramble notes. It’s unctuous on the palate but not cloying due to relatively high acidity. It shows a range of sweet red fruits that are rich and luxurious on the finish. Decadent red icewine for those special occasions.

Photo of the writer and winemaker (distiller) Paul Pender. Photo courtesy of Tawse.

Note: A selection of new wine reviews from sister winery Redstone Winery coming soon.