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Ontario Wine Wire: Featherstone’s peaceful, easy feeling; plus winemaker changes in Ontario, Vintages Niagara highlights

By Rick VanSickle

I can’t help but hum the words to that old Eagles hit every time I visit the Featherstone farm in Vineland to taste their wines.

‘Cause I got a peaceful easy feelin’
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standin’
On the ground

It’s that kind of place: peaceful, pastoral, friendly and they will never let you down. The wines made here are reliable, consistent and perfectly in tune with what Niagara does best — Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Chardonnay — and what they themselves like to drink: Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Merlot, sparkling and rosé. It’s a complete portfolio, affordably priced, and one that the owner/couple of David Johnson and Louise Engel (top photo and below) have made only modest tweaks and additions to over the 20 years since they started the business in Vineland on the Twenty Mile Bench.

Ontario wine

There has always been a thread of consistency since they began their quest to farm and use the grapes that grow best on their special property. And while there have been disappointments — losing the Gewurztraminer and most of the Merlot during the bad winters of 2014/15 among them — they have found a dedicated core of fans who flock to the winery or the LCBO, where they are well represented, to purchase the wines or enjoy wood-fired pizza on the wrap-around veranda on warm summer’s day.

‘Cause I’m already standin’
I’m already standin’
Yes, I’m already standin’
On the ground

Peaceful Easy Feeling from Mark Ash- Petta on Vimeo.

All that hard work for the couple was recognized this year when Johnson was named Winemaker of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards — a title he happily added to his resume of winemaker/grape grower/owner/tractor driver extraordinaire/dog treat baker (see below of Johnson making treats at the Muddy Paws Festival), and, as I arrive on this day to taste through the portfolio with Engel, plumber. And you thought winemaking was glamorous!

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The Winemaker of the Year comes 16 years after Johnson was named The 2003 Grape King, and Featherstone was designated Vineyard of the Year. As far as anyone knows, he is the only person in Ontario to achieve both accolades.

I sat down and tasted with Engel, who handles marketing, the tasting room and hundreds of other tasks — including the training and care of Amadeus, the Harris’s hawk which watches carefully over the vineyard and gives grape-eating birds a great deal to think about when searching for food over the Featherstone farm. Here’s what we tasted and what I can recommend (all at the winery and many at LCBO outlets).

Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($18, 89 points) — A combination of estate fruit and Jordan Valley Vineyard fruit with 50% of the juice barrel fermented in neutral Canadian oak barriques. This always straddles the two extremes of austere/grassy and ripe tropical fruits. The heat of 2018 brought out the tropical fruits on the nose with added citrus, subtle herbs/grass, grapefruit and kiwi. It’s bright and expressive on the palate with tropical fruits, citrus and underlying herbaceous notes along a bright, vibrant finish.

Featherstone Four Feathers 2018 ($15, 87 points) — This is a blend of the four grapes Featherstone grows at the estate — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Lots going on here with a nose of lime, apple, peach, subtle lychee and spice. It’s bright and lively with the full range of orchard fruits, touch of ginger, lychee, grapefruit, lime and honey notes. A fun, everyday porch sipper.

Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2017 ($22, 90 points) — When Engel says wild fermented, she means WILD fermented. “We squeeze the grapes, throw them in a barrel, put them in the sun and see what happens,” she says. You can’t get any more local than this Chardonnay. “It’s our wood, our yeast and our grapes,” Engel says. Featherstone is one of the very few wineries in Ontario to use oak from a cooperage near Brantford, Ont., making this truly an all-Ontario oaked Chardonnay. An expressive nose reveals creamy pear, baked apple, some citrus accents, toasted almonds, vanilla bean and lavish spice notes. It has lovely mouth-feel on the palate with rich pear, apple pie, butter, cream and layers of spice all perked up by mouth-watering acidity.

Featherstone Phoenix 2018 ($20, 88 points) — So, as the story goes, the brutal winters of 2014/2015 laid waste to more than a few delicate grape varieties. At Featherstone, two were hit particularly 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 always presented a challenge as consumers have trouble even pronouncing the word correctly and tend to avoid it. “The word Gewurztraminer causes people stress,” she told me at the time, so Phoenix it was. It shows lovely Gew spice on the nose with nutmeg and ginger notes to go with rich pear, perfumed rose petals and grapefruit. There is some viscosity on the palate and a touch of honey to go with grapefruit, lychee, ginger and pear fruit with decent acidity through the finish.

Featherstone Rosé 2018 ($16, 88 points) — Engel makes no bones about — “we’re looking for robust in our rosé.” So, they rely heavily on Cabernet Franc and add Gamay, Merlot and a dab of Pinot Noir to achieve the style of rosé they like to drink at chez Featherstone. The nose shows an eclectic range of plums, strawberries, cherries and cranberries with just a bit of underlying earthy/savoury notes. There is a smidge of sweetness on the palate with gobs of red fruits, plums, savoury herbs and a bright, refreshing finish.

Featherstone Cabernet Franc 2017 ($20, 91 points) — In a lot of ways, this consistently delicious Cabernet Franc is the defining wine from Featherstone. They make a lot of it (over 2,200 cases) as it finds a permanent home at the LCBO as an essentials listing at 200+ locations. They don’t have enough acreage to use only estate grapes so they source from several vineyards to keep up with demand and somehow keep it consistent year after year. It’s classic CF with a nose of wild raspberries, cherries, herbs, cedar and anise. The palate reveals savoury red fruits, forest berries, herbs, licorice/anise and spice with a vibrant feel in the finish.

Featherstone Red-tail Merlot 2017 ($20, 90 points) — Named after the majestic red-tail hawks that soar high over the Featherstone Vineyard, this is a fruity, highly enjoyable Merlot with overt red berries, herbs, ripe cherries, some plummy notes and integrated spice notes. It has a plush feel on the palate with polished tannins and moderate structure to go with all those ripe red berries, plums, bramble and spice. Ready to drink now, but can cellar 3+ years.

Winemaker ch-ch-ch-changes

And … just in time for harvest, a few Niagara winemakers are moving up and otherwise moving on.

Rockway Vineyards

Nuance Winery Supplies Inc. announced in a news release that Rockway Vineyards winemaker David Stasiuk will join the team in September.

As a graduate of winemaking and viticulture at Niagara College, Stasiuk exudes a passion for cool-climate winemaking, the news release said. He has gained extensive knowledge while working in different regions, both within Canada and around the globe. Stasiuk has worked for renowned wineries such as Le Clos Jordanne, Cedar Creek, Moet Chandon Australia and Villa Maria New Zealand. Most recently he helped to build an award-winning portfolio at Rockway Vineyards on Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench. He also was part of a group that initiated an industry-wide Niagara golf tournament called the Big Bottle Invitational that raised money for the Niagara Migrant Workers Association this August.

“After 13 straight vintages, Stasiuk is excited to join Nuance and will play a key role in supporting our business throughout Eastern Canada,” the news release said, as the winemaker/technical sales for Eastern Canada.

Stasiuk “will help us explain, adapt and implement some of the best winemaking products and technologies from Italy and France.”

One of his first challenges will be to get the best of our new mobile thermo — flash detente unit to open a whole new field of possibilities for wineries of any size.

“David’s passion for wine, innovation and people is hard to disguise,” the release said. “He looks forward to supporting our company and the industry in all capacities.”

Stasiuk told Wines In Niagara: “I still get to work deep within the Niagara wine community while being part of leading/breakthrough technology and innovation.”

He also plans on starting his own small batch virtual wine label when he finds the right spot to do it.

Replacing Stasiuk at Rockway is Ben Minaker, who has already started as head winemaker at the winery. Minaker was formerly the head winemaker at Ravine Vineyard.

Chateau des Charmes

Chris Robinson is joining the winemaking team at Chateau des Charmes as assistant winemaker to wife Amelie Boury (both above in photo), vice-president of winemaking at the St. David’s winery.

Robinson was born and raised in Guelph and completed the Winery & Viticulture program at Niagara College. With 12 harvests and 10 wineries on his resume, Chris has been exposed to a wide range of winemaking styles and methods. He has travelled to France, the United States, South Africa and across Canada to gain a deeper knowledge of wine, food and culture.

“In addition to being very passionate and exceptionally qualified, Chris also happens to be my husband,” said Boury.

Chateau des Charmes has always been a family business, she pointed out. Not only is the winery owned and operated by the Bosc family, there are also familial ties amongst many of our staff members – siblings, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and husbands and wives. “We look forward to continuing that tradition and using it to strengthen our production team and take our wines to the next level.”

Burning Kiln

Mike McArthur, one of the partners at Norfolk County winery Burning kiln, told Wines In Niagara that Nik Antunovich is taking over the reins as winemaker at the flagship winery in the emerging wine region. He replaces Lydia Tomek, who became the head winemaker at Ravine Vineyard.

Antunovich has been a winemaking consultant since 2013 and his resume includes stints at Tawse Winery, Hidden Bench and Rhone producer Domaine Pierre Gaillard.

Niagara wines released at
Vintages stores Aug. 17

We pore through the new Niagara wine releases at Vintages this Saturday and make our picks (plus, we missed the release two weeks ago and play a little catch up).

Vineland Estate Game Changer “The Memory” Rosé 2018 ($15, 90 points) — A nice tribute to winemaker Brian Schmidt’s dad, Lloyd Schmidt, whose memory lives on in this wine (and many other things). This blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc shows a pretty pale salmon colour in the glass with a nose of strawberry patch, cranberries and subtle citrus accents. On the palate it bursts with red summer berries with a hint of lemon zest. Perfect summer porch-sipper that pairs perfectly with every day life. Cheers, Lloyd.

Creekside Laura’s Red 2016 ($25, 90 points) — This classic from Creekside, into its 20th vintage, uses the typical Bordeaux varietals and adds Syrah to the mix. With the hot 2016 vintage, winemaker Rob Power uses a bit more Merlot and Syrah to keep the tannins in check and smooth out the rough edges. It’s a beauty and quite a bargain at $22. Look for dark cherries, brambly raspberries, currants, cedar, savoury notes and barrel spices. This is nicely structured on the palate and built to improve in your cellar with firm tannins and enough red and dark fruits to keep it humming for five+ years. A bloody good wine from an outstanding vintage at a great price.

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed:

• 13th Street White Palette 2018 ($16)
• Chateau des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2015 ($19, review coming)
• Kew Marsanne 2016 ($20)
• Lakeview Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($19)
• Leaning Post Wismer-Foxcroft Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($25)
• Lundy Manor Chardonnay 2016 ($26)
• EastDell Pinot Noir 2017 ($16)
• Wildass Red 2016 ($20)

Niagara wines released at
Vintages stores Aug. 3

Malivoire Ladybug Rosé 2018 ($17, 89 points) — Happy 20th rosé-versary to the venerable Ladybug, the one that started it all for rosés in Ontario. Winemaker Shiraz 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. Everyday rosé.

Malivoire Vivant Rose 2018 ($20, 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.

The Foreign Affair Amarosé 2018 ($19, 88 points) — The appassimento part of this rosé comes from just 5% of the 25% Chardonnay added to 75% fresh Pinot Noir. The colour is a bright and vibrant salmon with a bold nose of strawberry, cherry, intermingling cassis, cotton candy and rhubarb pie. It’s full flavoured and has more weight than typical Niagara rosés and is loaded with red fruits and just a hint of citrus zest on the finish. “It’s so versatile,” says winemaker Barclay Robinson, “it will pair with everything from seafood to burgers.”

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed:

• Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2017 ($25)
• Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($30)
• Creekside Backyard Block Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($20)
• Organized Crime Riesling 2017 ($21)
• Malivoire Gamay ($20, no vintage specified)
• Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Red 2017 ($25)
• Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2015 ($54)