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Malivoire steps out with its wildest wine to date (but keeps focus on a strong core of rosés, Gamays and Chardonnays)

By Rick VanSickle

It’s not that often that winemaker Shiraz Mottiar gets all wild and crazy with his wines, so to taste a skin fermented Malivoire Chardonnay was a bit of a shock to the system.

“I’ve never been a fan of funky, Brett and weird,” says Mottiar, above in a moment of levity, and below, as we taste through his new and upcoming wines at the Beamsville Bench winery along with marketing manager Stephen Gash. “Some things, OK, but not oxidative or reductive,” he adds.

He doesn’t mind a bit of “match-stick” in Chardonnay, but not all the foofaraw associated with the natural wine movement. He’s a clean winemaker, a purist, and stepping into the skin-fermented realm is a big leap for Mottiar.

The wine is being released as part of a three-bottle Chardonnay showcase series under the “Cat on the Bench” label that features three different versions of this versatile grape — unoaked, oaked and the aforementioned skin fermented. It should be noted, this is not a “natural” wine per se, more of a skin-fermented white made under the VQA qualifying rules for this new category.

It’s a bit of a departure for Malivoire, a winery that prides itself as a leader in producing a range of spectacular rosés and Gamays along with other core wines such as Pinot Gris, Foch, Pinot Noir, bubbles, Cabernet Franc and Stouck Vineyard (Dan Stouck is an assistant winemaker who farms his family’s grapes) Bordeaux-variety reds.

Mottiar uses myriad vessels for fermenting and aging his wines including oak barrels (always in moderation), custom-made concrete vats, ceramic orbs and stainless steel vessels imported from Rieger in Germany.

What Malivoire produces is what owner Martin Malivoire, Mottiar and the team at the winery feel grows best at their site and is a reflection of the home-site terroir and that of the grapes they source from trusted growers (including Stouck and Mottiar’s own vineyard on the Beamsville Bench).

Here’s what we enjoyed from a tasting recently at the winery.

The Rosés

Malivoire has a lengthy and successful track record with rosé. When Ladybug Rosé was launched over 20 years ago in 1998, the intention was to demonstrate that Niagara’s climate and soils are ideal for producing fine rosé. The winery’s family of rosés has grown to now also include Moira Rosé, Vivant Rosé and Bisous Sparkling Rosé. In a lot of ways, rosé, along with various Gamays in the portfolio, have come to define Malivoire. The Ladybug, the darkest of the three rosés made from Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir, has become the No. 1 Vintages Essential wine at LCBO stores. Almost the entire production of 7,000 cases goes to Vintages. The two lighter, prettier rosés, are both made from 100% Pinot Noir and are two of the finest wines of this style in Niagara.

Malivoire Rosé Moira 2018 ($25, 93 points) — This single-vineyard Pinot rosé is purposely grown for the style of wine Mottiar wants aspires to every vintage. It’s picked earlier than the regular Pinot Noir, and picked in the coolness of morning, with a gentle press to preserve freshness. It’s the lightest colour of three rosés with such a pretty nose of fresh raspberries, melon, strawberry and herbs. Gorgeous texture on the palate highlights a range of fresh red berries, subtle herbaceousness and electric acidity in a perfectly dry style. A beauty.

Malivoire Vivant Rosé 2018 ($20, 1,000 cases coming to Vintages, 91 points) — This is a blend of Pinot from estate vineyards and Mottiar Vineyard made in a similar way to the wine above. It’s a slighter darker hue of pale salmon and has “more colour than I expected,” says Mottiar. The 2018 vintage has a bit less colour than previous vintages across the board for Niagara reds. This is a bit bolder on the nose, but still pretty, with more cherry, raspberry and cranberry aromas and underlying citrus and herbs. It’s juicier and bolder on the palate with a range of red berries and a similar dry, refreshing finish.

Malivoire Ladybug Rosé 2018 ($17, Vintages, 89 points) — Happy 20th rosé-versary to the venerable Ladybug, the one that started it all for rosés in Ontario. Mottiar says he’s trying to move this to a lighter colour than the brilliant pink it has been in the past, and drier. He picked a good vintage to start as colour was a bit of a challenge in 2018. The blend of Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir offers a bolder nose of crushed red berries and raspberry bramble that’s more upfront than the other two rosés. It’s a mouthful of pure pleasure that’s rich and robust and bursting with red fruits with just a hint of sweetness and a perky, zesty finish. Every day rosé.

The Whites

Malivoire Pinot Gris 2018 ($22, available in July, 89 points) — Note the new-look label above. “We’re centralizing the look of the brand,” explains Gash. The graphic is a stylized sketch of the entry to the winery and will appear through the portfolio. It shows bright apple and citrus on the nose with subtle melon and peach. It has lovely texture from some skin contact with a range of orchard fruit and all nicely balanced and fresh on the finish.

Malivoire Small Lot Chardonnay 2017 ($20, 92 points) — That’s a lot of points for a $20 Chardonnay, so consider this lovely Chardonny, a blend of Moira and Mottiar vineyards, a super bargain and fill up your cellar. It sees only four months of oak. Such an inviting nose of creamy pear, bright green apple, flinty minerality and integrated spice notes. It’s quite elegant on the palate with a deft touch on the oak that highlights pure fruit flavours, flint and light spice notes on a vibrant finish.

Cat on the Bench Series

The Cat on the Bench Series, with a different take on the new stylized labels, represents something that really stands out from the estate vineyards in any given vintage. For 2017 it was the Moira Vineyard Chardonnay and Mottiar decided to serve it up three different ways — raised in stainless steel, raised in oak and skin fermented. All will be released in July.

Malivoire Moira Cat on the Bench Chardonny Steel 2017 ($50, 92 points) — All three of these Chards are culled from the best rows in the vineyard and represents just 25 cases of each expression. This was from the first pick of the vineyard and then fermented and aged in 286-litre stainless steel “barrels” and left on the lees. No malolactic fermentation took place. So as pure as pure can be. The most minerally of the three expressions with such gorgeous and clean notes of apple, pear and lemon on the nose. There is a certain creaminess to this all-steel Chardonnay, presumably from the lees aging, with a range of bright orchard fruits, Meyer lemon zest, flinty minerality and electrifying acidity on the finish.

Malivoire Moira Cat on the Bench Stave 2017 ($50, 92 points) — This is exactly the same fruit, but picked a week later and aged in older French oak barriques. A more overt nose with ripe stone fruits, mineral and underlying spice notes. Lovely texture with cream, spice, Bosc pear and bin apple with subtle citrus and minerality through a balanced and finessed finish.

Malivoire Cat on the Bench Moira Chardonnay 2017 ($50, 91 points) — So, as explained above, a skin-fermented Chardonnay from the same fruit as the other Cat on the Bench wines, but this one is fermented on the skins for five months in a 400-litre ceramic orb. It has a darker golden colour in the glass with an interesting nose of pineapple, guava, orange peel and green tea leaf. It’s pithy on the palate from a range of citrus rind then tangerine, tropical fruit salad, minerals and puckering tannins that’s all carried through the finish with bright acidity and finesse. There is a faint hint of reduction on the palate, but it doesn’t get in the way of the fruit, and certainly adds a note of intrigue.

The Gamays

Malivoire Small Lot Gamay 2018 ($22, June release, 89 points) — The Small Lot Gamay is aged one-third in stainless steel and the rest in older oak barrels. Thirty per cent of the fruit is whole-cluster pressed. An enticing nose of plums, bright red berries, iron and earthy/brambly notes with just a hint of spice. It has wonderful verve and vibrancy on the palate with plums, raspberries and cherries in a juicy style that’s highly gulpable, as this wonderful grape can be.

Malivoire Courtney Gamay 2017 ($30, June release, 92 points) — Whole cluster pressed and 100% fermented in concrete vats specifically built for Gamay and then aged in oak, 20% new, for one year. Always one of the most impressive Gamays in Niagara. Such lovely and inviting aromatics with blue plums, brambly raspberries, dark cherries, spice and stony minerality. It has gorgeous mouth feel and big flavours of plums, cassis, ripe red berries, earth and spice with depth and finesse through the finish. An age-worthy Gamay.

The Other Reds

Malivoire Cabernet Franc 2017 ($27, August release, 89 points) — Sourced from the Wismer vineyards on the Twenty Mile Bench, a personable nose of brambly red fruits, some herbs, red currants and savoury spice notes. It’s made in a fresh style that showcases the range of red fruits, garden herbs and savoury underbelly that’s all kept popping on the palate from the racy acidity.

Malivoire Stouck Vineyard Meritage 2015 ($25, available now, 91 points) — The blend is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon from Dan Stouck’s vineyard. 30% of the fruit is aged in new oak, the rest older barrels, a combination of 75% French oak and the rest American. Such a beautiful nose black currants, blackberries, dark cherries, anise and elegant spices. It has firm tannic structure, lovely mouth feel, a range of ripe dark fruits, savoury spice notes and all lifted by racy acidity through the finish. Can age 5+ years to smooth the sharp edges. I also had a preview of the 2016 Meritage, release to be determined. It was tight and closed at this juncture, but awash in dark fruits and black cherries once it opens up. It’s bold and ripe with elegant spices, evident tannins and length on the finish. One to watch for.