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One of Ontario’s greatest wine treasures: Niagara College Teaching Winery

By Rick VanSickle

Opening the doors at the Niagara College Teaching Winery retail store shows you pretty much everything you need to know about how vitally important the college is to the wine and viticulture landscape in the region (and beyond).

Smiling and engaged students are pouring an array of wines made from grapes picked from the college’s vineyard only steps outside the back window and produced in the college’s working winery only a few more steps away. More students are replenishing shelves as supplies dwindle from a steady flow of consumers streaming through the doors tasting, browsing and buying. All around, students and skilled staff work as one to teach, learn and provide everything needed for the only fully licensed, fully self-sufficient teaching winery in the country.

Niagara wine
Photo courtesy of Niagara College

It is a true marvel, a hub of learning that teaches students by doing everything from start to finish from growing the grapes, to making the wine, appreciating the wine, selling the wine, marketing the wine and even all aspects of the business side of wine. Wineries in Canada and beyond are staffed by hundreds of graduates from Niagara College who take their knowledge into the world of wine with a sound and practical background in their chosen field. So many of Ontario’s top winemakers came through the ranks of Niagara College that there are too many to name.

We are so lucky in Niagara to have both Niagara College and Brock’s CCOVI programs in our backyard. Neither educational facility works as an island and depends on the help of the industry to make it all work at a high level. And it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that moves the quality of Ontario’s ever-expanding wine industry forward.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College established the Winery and Viticulture Technician program in 2000. It’s located amid 38 acres of college-owned vineyards, which allows students to have immediate access to a hands-on experience in a real-time working environment to produce exceptional wines. Since that time, the college has added cider making, brewing and most recently, artisanal distilling with an in-depth understanding of the scientific, technological and business aspects of distilling and fermentation and the production cycle of distilled spirits.

Ontario wine
College winemaker Gavin Robertson with general manager of learning enterprises Steve Gill.

The 2,500 square-foot teaching distillery is directly adjacent to the college’s unique Wine Visitor + Education Centre, and is based on the college’s successful teaching winery and teaching brewery. The fully operational distillery houses five stills, four mash tuns and 10 fermenters that allow for on-site production of a wide variety of distilled products, including vodka, gin, whisky, brandy, rum and more.

Less than three months after releasing its first student-made spirit, the distillery released its first vodka at the end of March. The School Spirits Small Batch Vodka debuted on March 28 and took the first class of 16 artisan-distilling students over a month to make.

Steve Gill, general manager of learning enterprises, said the vodka was highly anticipated after the Eau-de-vie de Fruits, Fruit Spirit flew off the shelves.

Photo courtesy of Niagara College

Moving forward, staying relevant and riding the latest trends is something Niagara College is very good at.

Students made a really cool orange wine this year that marked the debut of the new Underground Series of wines.vIt’s a pretty funky wine, not for everyone, but a style that is getting a lot of attention from sommeliers around the world.

The 2017 Underground Series Sauvignon Blanc is the college’s first venture into Orange wine – a term that refers to wine made from white grapes fermented on their skins, as is typically done with reds. It uses an ancient practice, which dates back thousands of years, of burying the grapes underground for natural temperature control, with very little intervention.

The result is a natural wine free of sugar, preservatives or additives, boasting flavours unexpected in a Sauvignon Blanc.

Photo courtesy of Niagara College

The wine was made from 1.5 tons of 2017 Sauvignon Blanc grapes and was de-stemmed, and bucketed by hand into underground tanks, then sealed and buried six feet underground in the campus vineyards in September 2017. It was underground for seven months through the winter to ferment spontaneously with the wild yeast in the vineyard. Winemaker Gavin Robertson said the wine was still fermenting when dug up.

It’s an all-natural wine with no sulphur added and no filtering or fining.

It’s reductive on the nose with lemon pith, asparagus, grapefruit and ginger notes. While perfectly dry on the palate with mouth-watering acidity, it also becomes a little less severe and shows more apply/citrus/herb notes with a controlled reductiveness.

Gavin Robertson, winemaker

Robertson, above, who is also the vineyard co-ordinator, instructor and a graduate of the college’s winery and viticulture technician program, said that the unique wine will appeal to enthusiasts of the local food movement and naturally fermented foods, as well as oenophiles seeking the atypical. However, its beauty is more than grape-skin-deep — it’s about expanding student exposure to unconventional wines and winemaking methods.

“Creating this natural, experimental wine was an opportunity to open our students up educationally to ancient, low-tech winemaking methods,” said Robertson

I sat down with Gill and Robertson and tasted through some new and upcoming wines from the extensive portfolio of college wines. This is what I can recommend.

The Bubbles

Steve Gill and Gavin Roberson, photo courtesy Niagara College

In another first for Niagara College Teaching Winery this year, the team created and released its first Blanc de Blanc. The 2014 vintage, labelled as Balance Blanc de Blanc Brut, marks the winery’s first venture into the style of sparkling made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. It also marks the first product made 100% from grapes grown at the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus vineyards.

Said Gill of the accomplishment that involved wine students every step of the way: “Niagara is a great sparkling region, and sparkling wine in Ontario is world class. To showcase what our students are learning and to showcase world class wine at Niagara College’s Teaching Winery makes us all proud.”

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Blanc de Blanc 2014 ($27, 91 points) — A 100% Chardonnay traditionally made sparkler from estate grapes that spent 36 months on the lees before disgorging. Highly perfumed on the nose with notes of pear, green apple, grapefruit and toasty vanilla notes. It’s vibrant with a vigorous mousse and lovely texture that shines a light on the apple/citrus and pear fruits with well-integrated biscuit and vanilla accents. Such a racy and zesty finish. Delicious!

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Brut NV ($25, 88 points) — A blend of 60% Chardonnay and the rest Pinot Noir made in the traditional method. This is a fresh take on fizz with a bright and inviting nose of lemon, citrus and apple with a lovely, perky mousse. It’s vibrant and zesty on the palate with crisp fruit and a clean finish. Nice bubbles for $25.

The Whites

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Viognier 2017 ($19, 90 points) — A nifty and exotic take on Viognier that had some skin contact, was aged in neutral oak barrels and sat on the lees for 16 months. Vivid aromas of apricot, spiced pear and grapefruit. It has some weight and lovely texture on the palate with rich exotic tropical fruits, poached pear and citrus accents that is propped up by mouth-watering acidity.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Semi-Dry Riesling 2017 ($15, 88 points) — Nice minerally nose of lime, grapefruit, citrus and ginger. The high acidity keeps on the palate provides a mouth-watering entry to the palate in a not-too-sweet style with juicy citrus, green apple and lingering citrus zest.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Les Marmitons Gastronomy Chardonnay 2017 ($20, 89 points) — This estate-grown, barrel-fermented Chardonnay spent 11 months sur lie in French barriques (second-, third- and fourth-year fill) and underwent malolactic fermentation with monthly lees stirring. A nose of attractive Bosc pear, baked apple, citrus and elegant oak spice notes that are completely integrated. It’s layered with a creamy texture to go with harmonious orchard fruits, citrus and spice accents with decent acidity to keep it fresh and vibrant through the finish.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Les Marmitons Gastronomy Fumé Blanc 2017 ($23, 90 points) — This Sauvignon Blanc was gently pressed and then sent straight to 1,000-litre, older puncheons for aging. It’s made from the same grapes as the Underground Series Skin Fermented White described in the intro. A nice smoky nose with gooseberry, grapefruit, kiwi and herbs and spice accents. Some tropical fruits on the palate with underlying citrus, smoke, spice, wet grass and a round texture.

The Reds

Niagara College Teaching Winery Les Marmitons Gastronomy Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2017 ($23, 91 points) — The fruit for this wine was sourced from the Westcott Vineyard on Vinemount Ridge, a blend of the Burgundy clones 777 and 667. The juice was wild fermented and aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, then bottled by hand with no fining or filtration. I like this Pinot a lot with its nose of savoury cherry, brambly raspberry, red currants, dried herbs and spice notes. There’s a range of red berries on the palate with touches of anise/cassis, integrated spice, beautiful texture, polished tannins and finesse through the finish. Can age 5+ years for further integration but pretty nice right now.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Cabernet Franc 2017 ($19, 88 points) — A classic cool-climate Cab Franc with a savoury nose of crushed red berries, bramble, herbs, spice and a floral note. It’s smooth on the palate with lovely raspberries, cherries, herbs and light spice on a vibrant, finessed finish.

Niagara College Teaching Winery Balance Syrah 2017 ($25, 89 points) — A meaty/smoky nose with black currants, plums, violets, pepper and spice. Enticing red fruits on the palate with notes of black peppercorns, smoke, charcuterie and plums on a structured frame with decent tannins and a lively finish.