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Winemaker Dan Sullivan’s ‘Quixotic fantasy’ to make Tempranillo in PEC becomes reality, plus wine reviews for Huff Estates

By Rick VanSickle

Even ever-optimistic winemaker Dan Sullivan doubted the viability of Tempranillo in the “inhospitable” terrain of Prince Edward County. But that didn’t stop him. Hell, it was a challenge.

He saw his opening with the slow and painful death of a parcel of Ehrenfelser on his Hungry Point Vineyard north block, so he put it out of its misery and planted the County’s first Tempranillo, the Spanish wonder grape, in what appeared to be the unlikeliest of places.

Note: New release reviews for Huff Estate in Prince Edward County also in this report

Ontario wine

Dan (above) and Lynn Sullivan are co-founders and co-owners of Rosehall Run, which was founded in 2000. The 150-acre farm was selected due to its proximity to Lake Ontario (1-2 km on three sides) and the remarkable clay soil scattered with rock and shale fragments on a calcareous limestone base. It was one of the earliest Prince Edward County wineries established in the west central region known as the Hillier Ward. Planting began in 2001 with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Today there are 25 acres of vinifera including Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and the aforementioned Tempranillo.

Rosehall Run is one of the premiere wineries in The County and Dan Sullivan is one its biggest boosters and finest winemakers.

He is known to be a risk-taker and speaks his mind on any given topic about wine.

The portfolio at Rosehall Run is one of the deepest in The County, and it runs the gamut of top-notch County Pinots, Chards and Rieslings (among others) as well as well-sourced fruit from key vineyards in Niagara.

At a tasting last summer with Sullivan at the winery, my wife and I were treated to a wide-array of Rosehall wines on the back porch — a tasting that out-lasted winery hours and stretched into early evening. It was one of the most enjoyable tastings I have ever experienced with a winemaker (and there have been many).

Prince Edward County wine

One of the wines he poured was the recently bottled Tempranillo (above). The labels weren’t even made but Sullivan was excited to pour it. I now realize that the wine wasn’t ready for reviewing, so I was happy that he re-submitted the wine, along with three other wines, to try after it had a bit of bottle age. The change was dramatic and exciting; even a few Niagara wine industry professionals I shared it with were impressed.

I have re-reviewed the now-released wine, along with three other wines from Sullivan.

But first, because Sullivan is such a damn good writer, here are his thoughts word for word about growing Tempranillo in Prince Edward County.

“What was I thinking? Quixotic fantasy … a fool’s errand planting Iberian nobility-Tempranillo in the inhospitable, hard scrabble limestone on Lake Ontario’s north shore? At Hungry Point (above photo) no less. On the hungriest rocky plot in our north block. But I did it anyway. After many years of admiring from afar, it was time. The Ehrenfelser we originally planted there proved no match and after 12 years of suffering it was time to take it off the cross, or more appropriately, trellis wires.

“I read a lot about Tempranillo: how it loved limestone and clay, how it craved cold night air and how viticulturists were chasing up hills and mountains, north to find ever colder sites to express its true elegance. How they, like I, suspect the terroir was baked out of it on valley floors in the Spanish sun. And of course, how in my 30+ year love of wine may have drunk a barrel (or more) of it and been enthralled by the likes of Alejandro Fernández, Vina Tondonia and Marques de Murrieta. I selected ENTAV (for the clone), the early one, ripening ahead of Cabernet Franc, according to the world’s nursery bible, so I thought we had a shot.”

Rosehall Run Small Lots Tempranillo 2017 ($35, winery now and online, 91 points) — This is the first Tempranillo made in The County and it’s a beauty. It wasn’t a perfect vintage in 2017 and Sullivan had to thin the vines to one cluster per shoot and pulled most of the leaves around the fruit. It was slow ripening all season and the fruit wasn’t harvested until after the first hard frost on Nov. 7. Just over 2 tonnes at 21.5 Brix were harvested. Not big like Rioja, but more like a County take on this varietal with a perfumed, floral nose with red berries, plums, cherries and light spice notes. Since first reviewed, the tannins have softened but have not affected the structure of the wine, just made it more approachable. It has beautiful texture with red berries, a certain savouriness and controlled spice flavours that last through a long and finessed finish. I sense it will continue to get better as it ages up to five years and beyond, like most Rioja-style wines. Very nice juice.

Rosehall Run JRC Rosehall Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($40, 93 points) — A lighter hue in the glass, as PEC Pinots often are, but a flashy nose of brambly/savoury red fruits, nutmeg/vanilla spice and river-rock minerality. Such verve and finesse on the palate with rich and savoury black cherries, brambly raspberries, anise, bright acidity, elegant spice notes, polished tannins and length through the finish.

Rosehall Run JRC Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($35, released this spring, 92 points) — This single-vineyard estate-grown Chardonnay was racked to barrel for fermentation and elevage for 16 months in 500L tight-grained French oak puncheons (50% new with the balance in second fill French and Russian wood). Such personality on the nose with lemon, green apple, tangerine, beautiful limestone minerality and integrated spice notes. It lights up on the palate with wonderful stone fruits and lemon-lime tang all shrouded in a veil of the rich and flinty minerality so prevalent in The County. It finishes fresh and lively with just a hint of oak spice on the tail end.

Rosehall Run The Finisher 2018 ($18 for 375 mL, winery and online, 89 points) — This is the first “Finisher” since the 2013 vintage. It’s a blend of 85% Nedelko Vineyard Gewurztraminer from the Twenty Mile Bench in Niagara and the rest from estate-grown Muscat Ottonel that’s finished with 36.5 g/l of residual sugar. This is Rosehall’s version of a semi-sweet wine with a nose of exotic tropical fruits, marmalade, grapefruit, lime cordial and lychee/ginger notes. It’s ticklish sweet on the palate, but somewhat balanced by the acidity and shows lovely honey notes, tropical fruits, candied citrus rinds, lychee, ginger and a long finish. Tasty sweetie.

Huff Estates Winery

Huff Estates, located in Bloomfield, Prince Edward County, was founded in 2002 and officially opened its doors in 2004. It conducts business from a contemporary state-of-the-art facility and offers a unique destination for consumers looking for top wines, fine art and luxurious accommodation all on the same property.

Wines are crafted by Frédéric Picard (below) who was born in Burgundy and destined to be a winemaker. Picard has done vintages in various regions throughout the world including France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, California and Niagara before being lured to Prince Edward County.

Owners Lanny and Catharine Huff have always had a passion for fine wine and Prince Edward County. Both were born and raised in the County, coming from families with deep county roots, so when vineyards started to pop up in 2001 in The County they thought this would be an ideal opportunity to harmonize these passions and have since grown Huff Estates into a unique county destination.

Grapes grown at the estate include: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, PInot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Vidal on two principal estate vineyards.

South Bay Vineyard

Located on a small peninsula in the southeastern corner of the county, the 23-acre South Bay vineyard was first planted in 2001. The soil is composed of clay loam, shale loam and limestone. The temperate climate generated by the two large bodies of water creates a perfect location to grow vines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot noir as well as Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

62 & 1 Vineyard

This 15-acre plot surrounds the winery, the inn and Oeno gallery. The vines, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Vidal are planted on a gentle slope, which allows for good sun exposure and optimal ripening. The soil is a composed of Ameliasburg clay loam and limestone which helps develop a good acidity and mineral character in the wines.

Here’s what I can recommend from a recent tasting on new wines.

Huff Estates Cuvée Peter F. Huff 2016, Prince Edward County ($40, 92 points) — A 100% blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) sparkler that’s traditionally made with 24 months on the lees and a 9.2 dosage. Such beautiful and flinty PEC minerality and salinity on the nose with citrus, green apple, smoke, brioche and toasty notes. On the palate look for a gentle, persistent mousse with lovely leesy/bready notes then grapefruit, flint, apple, touch of honey and an electric, finessed finish. Can age this a few years to soften the racy acidity or enjoy now for a tingly fresh example of minerally-driven bubbles.

Huff Estates Cuvée Janine Sparkling Rosé 2016, Prince Edward County ($30, 91 points) — The bubbles program at Huff is on point. This blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay from estate grapes spends 20 months on the lees and gets a 22 g/L dosage. It has a vigorous mousse with persistent bubbles and an attractive nose of fresh red berries, brioche, minerals and touch of citrus. It pops on the palate with lovely cherries, raspberries and rhubarb flavours to go with biscuit, minerals and leesy/baked bread notes on a crisp, balanced finish.

Huff Estates South Bay Vineyard Chardonnay 2017, Prince Edward County ($30, 92 points) — This County Chard spends 14 months in French oak, 15% of it new wood. Beautiful freshness and saline minerality on the nose with underlying green apple, pear, lemon and well-integrated spice notes. It’s crisp and elegant on the palate with more pear/apple/quince, lemon notes and hazelnuts joined to profound flinty minerality, a deft touch with the oak spice and mouth-watering acidity on the finessed finish. A beauty.

Huff Estates Rosé 2018, Ontario ($20, 88 points) — A 100% Cabernet Franc rosé sourced from Ontario made in a dry style. Inviting nose of fresh-crushed red berries, watermelon and subtle herbs. Nice and dry on the palate with raspberries, strawberry patch and underlying herbs through the fresh, crisp finish.

Huff Estates All Day Rosé 2017, Ontario ($18, 89 points) — This is the debut of this Ontario-sourced, 100% Cabernet Franc rosé that’s made with slightly more residual sugar than the above rosé. Lovely red berries on the nose with underlying bramble and herbs. Slightly off-dry on the palate, but nicely balanced, with ripe raspberries and strawberries and good pop on the finish. Very nice back-porch sipper.

Huff Estates Pinot Noir Reserve 2017, Prince Edward County ($40, 93 points) — The Pinot spends 12 months in French oak, 10% of which is new wood. It has a highly perfumed nose of cran-cherry, minerals, touch of cassis, plums, and raspberry bramble with just a hint of elegant spice. It is a lean and taut PEC Pinot but reveals expressive cherry and raspberry bramble fruits, minerals, silky tannins, lovely texture, measured oak spices, juicy acidity and length through the finish. A beautifully balanced and nuanced Pinot Noir.