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New On Seven winery in pursuit of classic Pinots and Chards in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake; plus Vintages highlights

By Rick VanSickle

It’s not just anyone who would consider a small, boutique Pinot Noir/Chardonnay project in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But for consultant Peter Gamble and Vittorio De Stefano, co-founder of the region’s newest estate winery, it was a calculated risk worth taking. The first wine, a Chardonnay from On Seven Estate Winery, is bottled, labeled and now available to purchase after a long and calculated plan that began in the fall of 2009.

De Stefano, a Toronto resident who works in finance, and his wife Sula, acquired an abandoned farm on seven acres on Line 3 Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The name of the winery is derived from the acreage, though there are now only five acres planted on the property to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with another eight adjoining acres purchased and getting prepped for planting.

Niagara wine

Gamble (with Vittorio De Stefano above, a veteran consultant in Niagara and beyond, including Stratus and Ravine wineries in Niagara, Benjamin Bridge and Lightfoot & Wolfville in Nova Scotia, and the founding of Versado (with winemaker wife Ann Sperling), an Argentine Malbec project, was hired from the beginning to lend his expertise for On Seven and to be the founding winemaker.

It was a daunting task. The original vineyard was essentially abandoned and was completely reimagined with an eye to producing classically styled Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the ground up.

“It would have been a lot easier to do a California, New World style here,” says Gamble as we sit among the vines in the home vineyard on a warm end-of-summer day. “It’s not classic territory for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.”

That’s not to say there aren’t some wonderful Chards and Pinots made in Niagara-on-the-Lake because there are, but most growers prefer to take advantage of the warmer climate to build more robust red and white wines.

From the very beginning, organic farming was key, so the existing vines were torn out and a protracted exercise of getting vines with pedigree from Burgundy began. Because Gamble wanted all the vines S04 rootstock with a variety of clones, it took a long time to get them to Canada during what has been an arduous task in Niagara since the winter-kill vintages of 2014-2015. Vines are simply hard to get — from anywhere. The vineyards also enjoy calcareous-rich soil, a desired attribute for terroir-driven wines.

Many other complex tactics are employed in the vineyard, now certified organic by Pro-Cert, including:

• Extremely low yields to ensure optimal ripeness and flavours (1.5 to 2 tonnes per acre)
• Hand-harvested fruit to preserve integrity
• Wild yeast to best express the vineyard’s unique sense of place
• Low production with a goal of only producing up to 1,000 cases of Pinot and Chardonnay
• Minimal intervention in the winemaking
• A deft touch with French oak, with no more than 25% new oak in large format barrels

“From Day One we’ve had a clean slate to begin with,” says Gamble. “We weren’t in a rush to plant vines. It was slow and focused.”

The first release of the 2017 “The Pursuit” Chardonnay is a mere 100 cases (1,200 bottles) only available by emailing  sales (at) The Pursuit label will fit in the mid-tier of the portfolio and is for sale at $45 for the debut vintage. It should be noted that the Pinot will follow, but it will be a few years before you see it. The first grapes, third leaf, will be harvested this vintage only for experimentation with the likely first commercial vintage coming from the 2020 vintage (after time in oak and bottle).

Because the winery is beginning life as a vineyard with no physical winery (the plan is to build one on the home farm at some point), the wines are being made under licence at Southbrook, where On Seven marketing director Paul DeCampo, above with Gamble and De Stefano, has a close relationship, and is a winery that shares a similar organic philosophy.

The question, of course, is can a project situated in one of the warmest climate of Niagara provide soulful, terroir-driven wines, envisioned in the Burgundian style that owner De Stefano had in mind when he purchased the property? After all, it just might be the only Chardonnay-Pinot Noir focused winery on that side of the canal, known more for its bigger style Bordeaux-variety reds and fuller-bodied white wines.

The team at On Seven is betting a lot of money it can and they have the right people in the right jobs to make it happen.

Here’s a review of the debut wine and a peek at the 2018 vintage.

On Seven The Pursuit Chardonnay 2017 ($45, order here sales (at), 93 points) — The first wine from On Seven is sourced from the home vineyard consisting of calcareous-loam and clay soil from vines planted in 2014 to Dijon clone 76. It was hand picked and whole cluster pressed. After settling to remove gross lees, the juice was transferred to large format French oak barrels (20% new, 80% neutral) for wild fermentation and aging for 14 months. This has such a pretty nose of fresh pear, salinity, stony minerality, crisp apple, lightly toasted vanilla, lemon blossoms and subtle, unobtrusive oak accents. This shows its full personality on the palate with rich yet poised flavours of pear/quince, river-rock minerality, gorgeous texture and oak accents all perfectly balanced from start to finish. The finish is clean and with just a touch of lemon zest on a long, lingering finish. Welcome to the grand mosaic of Niagara, On Seven.

The 2018 vintage of the same wine, though just a baby at this point and still in barrel, has a fresher profile and shows baby fat at this point, but clean and finessed and featuring stone fruits and stony minerality with citrus accents. The oak hasn’t chimed in yet.

Niagara wines featured at
the Vintages release Saturday

Niagara wines continue to shine at LCBO Vintages stores with the second big local release coming Saturday.

Twenty Mile Bench takes centre stage with two new wine releases, including the benchmark Gravity Pinot Noir and its charity driven Good Kharma Chardonnay. Also in the release, and reviewed here, are the Hidden Bench Riesling and Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay.

Flat Rock Gravity Pinot Noir 2016 ($35, 93 points) — This is a barrel selection from what was deemed to be the most age-worthy of the 2016 Pinots. Fruit is hand picked, sorted, destemmed and then cold soaked. This Pinot is wild fermented and aged in a mix of French coopers with only 15% new oak. It’s bottled unfiltered. This is always a showcase Pinot highlighting Twenty Mile Bench fruit, and Flat Rock terroir in particular. It has a beautiful, inviting nose of savoury red berries, lifted cherries, anise, stony minerality and a range of elegant spice notes. It shows more power on the palate with added earth and spice to go with brambly red fruits, anise, tannic structure, complexity, minerals with length and finesse through the finish. It’s a masculine-styled Pinot that will benefit from cellaring 5+ years. All in all, a gorgeous Pinot that will bring pleasure for years to come.

Flat Rock Cellars Good Kharma Chardonnay 2018 ($17, 88 points) — A percentage of the proceeds from this delightful, smartly priced Chardonnay goes to support the Feed Ontario initiative. This is a lightly oaked Chardonnay with a nose of pear, tropical fruits, a touch of citrus and subtle oak nuances. It’s crisp and mouth-filling on the palate with purity of fruit, a kiss of oak spice and a fresh, vibrant finish.

Previously reviewed and also released Saturday at Vintages stores:

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2017 ($25, 91 points) — A blend of the three estate vineyards, this has an enticing nose of lime, grapefruit, salinity and stony minerality. The fruit is tangy, fresh and mouth filling on the palate with gushing lime-citrus, minerals, a touch of peach and rollicking acidity to carry it through a lively finish.

Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2017 ($22, 90 points) — When co-owner Louise 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.

Also released, but not reviewed:

• Henry of Pelham Cabernet Icewine 2017 ($40 for 200 mL)
• Peller Estates Signature Series Classic Ice Cuvée Sparkling NV ($35)
• Angels Gate Mountainview Pinot Noir 2016 ($30)
• Henry of Pelham Estate Pinot Noir 2017 ($25)
• Stratus Wildass Rosé 2018 ($19)

Chateau des Charmes’
new Atelier wines

The new Atelier wines are the result of years of work at the St. David’s estate and the last brand development worked on by Michele Bosc, the marketing director who sadly passed away early this year.

The name Atelier refers to the private workshop or studio of an artist, “a place where they work with their team to craft their wares. However, instead of painting or fashion design, we have been working on the art of blending.”

The two wines in the series are from estate fruit, artfully blended from grapes that are sometimes overlooked as single varieties, including Auxerrois and Cabernet Franc.

It’s been a decade since Chateau des Charmes last released wines in this blended style under the banner of Generation Seven White and Red.

Both wines sell for $15 with $1 off until Oct. 12 at LCBO stores.

Chateau des Charmes Atelier White 2017 ($15, 88 points) — This is a blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Auxerrois with fresh aromas of lime zest, lemon peel, peach, lychee and ginger. It’s slightly off-dry on the palate with a juicy profile that features peach, lemon-lime, melon and just a pinch of ginger spice and honey on the finish.

Chateau des Charmes Atelier Red 2017 ($15, 87 points) — The red is an unoaked blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The nose displays ripe plums, brambly raspberries and cherries in a fresh fruit-forward style. It’s a medium-bodied, friendly red on the palate with pretty red berries, soft tannins and a vibrant finish.