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Pillitteri’s transformative year: Spectacular winery reno, Team Canada wines and long awaited release of Fruttaio

By Rick VanSickle

This has been a very good year for Niagara’s largest family-owned winery, Pillitteri Estates.

Not only has the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery just completed a massive renovation that includes a stunning and fully immersive touring experience for consumers, it was also granted the exclusive rights to produce VQA wines for the Olympics over the next six years, and just released a Canadian-first Amarone style wine using traditional grapes native to the Veneto region in Italy that are now grown at the estate on Niagara Stone Road.

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The doors leading to the new winery transformation and immersive tour.

The renovation has turned the fire engine red wine facility into a modern winemaking mecca housing dozens of high-tech stainless steel fermentation tanks that can be viewed via a mezzanine where the public can see for themselves the entire process for making wine at Pillitteri with a bird’s-eye view of the operation. There are also new lab offices, a revamped barrel cellar and room enough to house all the old stainless steel fermenters inside and provides the space for the series of new Bulgarian fermenters (three different types) that were purchased for the project.

Winemaker Aleksander Kolundzic says Pillitteri now has the capacity to produce 150,000 cases of wine. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of 120,000 cases are produced now over multiple tiers.

The racina is the first thing you see when swing open the doors. Above photo by Pillitteri.

Ornate metal work is everywhere.
The wall of spent staves.
The spectacular icewine display, including the first icewine ever made by Gary Pillitteri before the winery was even built.
The first icewine press used by Gary Pillitteri.
A bird’s-eye view of the working winery, above, and how it looks from the ground floor, below.

Inside the new winery, the first thing you see is an intricately designed “racina” which is a locally crafted metal structure depicting grapes on a vine that spans three floors (each floor shows a different aspect of the unique art piece) and is lit from the bottom with rotating colours. You will notice ornately designed metal wraparound grape vines on the guard rail posts, a wall of spent barrel staves woven into an intricate design and welcoming doors that mirror the racina inside.

On the bottom floor, Pillitteri has gone to great lengths to highlight an icewine gallery that touches on all the milestones the winery has achieved, including the very first icewine made by founder Gary Pillitteri. Behind an ornate metal door is housed the first wine press used by Pillitteri that he had made as an amateur winemaker prior to the winery opening in 1993 along with a couple of vintage presses, including one used to crush apples for cider.

The exquisite barrel cellar, above and below (bottom photo by Pillitteri.

And, finally, a “magic” door hidden in a wall opens to the magnificent barrel cellar. It is designed to be a functional and high quality location to age high end wines with no vibration, natural humidity, temperature and little light. The architectural style of the cellar is Neo Norman and designed to highlight the symbolisms present. Of note are the 23 stainless steel chairs hanging above either side of the table, the king’s chair is the emblem on the front of the Exclamation wines and the chairs contain many elements of the Pillitteri family story.

Jeff Letvenuk, marketing manager at Pillitteri, says there will be a new courtyard outside the winery finished next spring where guests can gather and chill before or after their tour.

In all, it’s a spectacular and educational experience, thought-out and brilliantly designed right down to every detail.

Team Canada Wines

In 2018, Pillitteri was selected as a wine supplier for Canada Olympic House at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea in 2018. Staff attended, poured wine, and cheered on Canadian athletes in one of the best Olympic performances in Canadian history. That was followed with negotiations to foster a more permanent partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Now Pillitteri is the official wine supplier of the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Olympic Team (Team Canada). This partnership includes a red and white wine and an icewine that will be the official wines of Team Canada and the Olympic movement. It also makes Pillitteri the “Official Wine Partner of the Canadian Olympic Team.” As part of this partnership Pillitteri has the exclusive rights to use the Canadian Olympic Committee logo on wine and for wine related promotions within Canada. In addition, Pillitteri will be the exclusive wine supplier to all Canadian Olympic events as well as the exclusive wine supplier to Canada Olympic House for the next three Olympic Games (Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, Paris 2024).

The red and white Team Canada wines were released in June in the winery retail store, provincial liquor boards across Canada, private wine retailers, grocery stores, Canadian border duty free stores and in restaurants and bars. The wines retail for $15 wtih $1 from the sale of each bottle of the “Team Canada” wines going directly to the Canadian Olympic Foundation to support Canadian Olympic athletes.

The Team Canada Vidal Icewine is being released at LCBO stores and duty free shops this month, with $1 of every bottle going to the Olympic foundation.

Here’s what to expect:

Pillitteri Team Canada White 2017 ($15, winery now and online, LCBO in spring, 88 points) — The blend is Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Grigio in almost equal measure. Highly aromatic with notes of peach, citrus, grapefruit, lychee, some tropical notes and subtle ginger. It’s juicy and clean on the palate with a range of orchard fruits, lemon zest and lychee/ginger notes in an medium off-dry style that finds balance with the racy acidity.

Pillitteri Team Canada Red 2017 ($15, winery and online now, LCBO in spring, 88 points) — The blend is 70% Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot with four months of aging in mostly used French oak barrels. This will appeal to a wide range of wine lovers with its nose of savoury red berries, black currants, plums, wild herbs and subtle oak spices. It’s smooth and approachable on the palate with cherries, brambly raspberries, plums, herbs, light spice and toasty notes with a vibrant finish. Ready to drink out of the gate.

Pillitteri Team Canada Vidal Icewine 2017 ($30 for 200 mL, LCBO in December, winery, duty free and grocery stores, 92 points) — This is an intense and exotic take on classic Canadian icewine with vivid aromas of peach preserve, apricot, mango, marmalade and candied brown sugar. It’s layered and complex on the palate with creamy peach, apricot, honeycomb, ginger, candied citrus peel and balancing acidity that keeps the 210 g/l of residual sugar in check through a long, luxurious finish. An Olympian effort here that will become more complex with aging.

The new Fruttaio

If there is another red wine in Canada that features Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, traditionally the three grapes that make up the blend for Valpolicella red wines, most notably those of Amarone, I am unaware of it. It has been a labour of love for the Pillitteri family and Kolundzic to get this wine into bottle. The grapes for the Fruttaio, including about 12% Merlot, were dried in the winery’s unique drying chamber for 30 days with the wine spending 24 months in all new French oak barrels before being released.

It’s produced under The “Riserva Famiglia” label only given to wines produced in the best vintage years, which have passed a rigorous tasting panel. They are made in the traditional appassimento style, where the grapes are rack-dried in a single layer for 30 days in fruttaio rooms. Forced air circulation in the rooms allow the fruit to slowly dry, thereby not unbalancing the wine’s organics and giving a textured and complex profile on the palate.

Here is my review of this unique wine:

Pillitteri Riserva Famiglia Appassimento Fruttaio 2015 ($98, winery, 92 points) — The blend for this one-of-kind Canadian red is 50% Corvina, 35% Rondinella, 12% Merlot and 3% Molinara, all estate grown and the grapes are rack-dried in a single layer for 30 days in fruttaio rooms. The wine spends 24 months in all new French oak barrels. This is the first commercial release of the Fruttaio, made from vines that had six years of growth at the estate, and Pillitteri makes no bones about it — it’s their take on traditional Amarone. This is an extremely young wine and one that I tasted at the winery with winemaker Aleksander Kolundzic and Jeff Letvenuk and later at home in three sessions — after three hours of decanting, eight hours of decanting and finally 24 hours of decanting. The longer it was decanted, the better it got, which suggests cellaring this for 5+ years, with the capability to improve for a decade or more. Such an impressive and unique nose of thick black cherries, kirsch, black figs, dried herbs, Cuban cigar leaf, earth, cinnamon, sweet vanilla spices and cocoa. It’s big and bold on the palate, but the 16% abv is kept in check with a firm vein of acidity. It’s made in a dry style with evident tannins that dissipate somewhat as it opens up. And then a riot of flavours — cherry preserves, ripe plums, figs, cassis, smoke, leather, cocoa, cloves, toasted vanilla, earth and black peppercorns all kept together in a tight package that promises to open up with further tertiary flavours emerging and a smoothing of the tannins. It’s a wondrous wine, so unlike anything else being done in Ontario, a tip of the hat to the Pillitteri family for chasing their dream of producing a traditional Amarone style wine against all the odds. If you can’t wait on this wine, please decant at least three hours before you even consider drinking it. You will be richly rewarded.