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Niagara Wine Wire: Sue-Ann’s holiday surprise, mystery winery named, and a Twisted vertical

By Rick VanSickle

Sue-Ann Staff is a fifth generation grape grower, a former Ontario winemaker of the year, a bon vivant of epic proportions, one of the region’s greatest wine ambassadors and perhaps the most famous oak barrel roller Niagara has ever seen.

Note: Also in the Niagara Wine Wire report — the old Mike Weir winery in Beamsville finally has a name, and tasting a vertical of Flat Rock Twister whites.

We could go on here, but suffice to say, as proprietor and winemaker of Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery based on her family’s 200-year-old estate in Jordan, Staff is a champion for Ontario wines and much respected by her peers and wine lovers alike.

Her winery is located on the brow of the Niagara Escarpment and represents 100 years of the family’s rich grape-growing heritage and over 19 years of Staff’s award winning winemaking. Staff only crafts Ontario VQA wines from grapes grown on the estate. Her portfolio features a wide-range of wines over several tiers, including her wildly successful “Fancy Farm Girl” wines that are crafted to offer approachability and affordability to a wide audience primarily at the LCBO and now finding a home Canada-wide.

Ontario wine
Sue-Ann Staff

With all of Staff’s accomplishments — winning over 450 national and international wine awards, recipient of the 2018 Tony Aspler Award of Excellence for contributions to the Ontario wine industry, and one of the top four “Women in Wine” in the world by the International Wine and Spirits Awards of London not once but twice — one of them continues to fly under the radar. She is a masterful marketer.

Fancy Farm Girl wines were established by Staff and are very much a reflection of their maker.

“Years back, while tending my family farm, I had a revelation. I loved the farm. This is my Paris, my Australia, my South Africa, my freedom. So I dress the part and enjoy life through the rose-coloured glasses of the fancy farm girl. The farm is a metaphor, the attire an approach. The reality? There is a fancy farm girl in all of us,” she said.

Niagara wine
Sue-Ann Staff at the barrel rolling competition in Twenty Valley.

Having some fun with her love of F-words, Staff created four Fancy Farm Girl wines:

• Frivolous White: an easy-drinking, light, fresh and vibrant white
• Flamboyant Red: an approachable, lightly oaked red
• Foxy Pink: a juicy rosé
• Frissonesque: a crisp, dry, Sauvignon Blanc

They are sold at the LCBO in the sub-$20 category and have been met with great success.

“The farm is my home and my exotic escape,” said Staff, “I dress the part of the fancy farm girl, jeans in the vineyard, cocktail dresses for the evening events.”

I was given a first-hand look at Staff’s clever marketing skills over the holidays, along with other wine writers in Ontario. Staff arrived at the front door in person with a very large box of wine.

Inside the box was a collection of some of Staff’s favourite wines that she called “The Holiday Dozen” — a version of the 12 Days of Christmas. The idea was to open a bottle a day beginning on Dec. 20 and ending on New Year’s Eve. Each bottle was wrapped in bright red tissue and with a number each one with the to open it. Her plan was to have us open and enjoy one bottle a day for the duration of the holidays and get reacquainted with the Staff portfolio (I have been remiss in keeping up). It was an exciting and enjoyable experience. I admit that I couldn’t keep up with the intended plan and skipped some days, but eventually I did taste each and every wine over the holidays.

Here is what I tasted:

The Holiday Dozen

Dec. 20 — Fancy Farm Girl Frivolous White 2017 ($15, LCBO): Light, fresh, fruity, easy drinking Riesling dominant blend with some sweetness.

Dec. 21 — Sue-Ann Staff Bank Barn Baco Noir ($20, winery): From Baco planted in 1994, look for clean, ripe fruit, meaty notes and a touch of sweetness.

Dec. 22 — Fancy Farm Girl Foxy Pink 2018 ($16, LCBO in season, winery): 92% Riesling, 8% Cabernet Franc with a vibrant nose of lime, citrus, apple and cranberries in a dry, fresh style.

Dec. 23 — Sue-Ann Staff Riesling Loved by Lu 2018 ($18, winery): Expressive nose of lime, minerals, apple blossoms made in a dry impression thanks to racy acidity.

Dec. 24 — Sue-Ann Staff The Louie Pinot Gris 2018 ($35, winery, 2016 current release): Only made in riper vintages, this Gris is aged in oak for eight months. Notes of honeysuckle, peach cobbler, spice and apple with cellaring potential.

Dec. 25 — Sue-Ann Staff The Windsock Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($36, winery): Merry Christmas! This is a rosé style wine Staff insists you drink unchilled and it comes in what has to be one of Niagara’s most unique bottles. A basket of cherries, raspberries and sweet spice notes from light oak aging and some RS.

Dec. 26 — Sue-Ann Staff Robert’s Block Riesling 2018 ($26, winery, current release 2016): This is always a special Riesling with notes of grapefruit, lime, lemon and stony minerality in a juicy, off-dry style.

Dec. 27 — Sue-Ann Staff The Gritstone Cabernet 2017 ($30, winery): 75% estate Cabernet Franc and the Cabernet Sauvignon with lovely blackberries, currants, herbs and dark cherries with moderate tannic structure.

Dec. 28 — Sue-Ann Staff Howard’s Vidal Icewine 2017 ($40 for 375 mL, Vintages, winery): Apricots, candied citrus and peach concentrate in a rich and honeyed style. Delicious.

Dec. 29 — Sue-Ann Staff Mabel’s V.C.R. 2018 ($29, winery, current release 2016): The blend of this white wine is Viognier, Chardonnay and Riesling with lots going on. Look for citrus, peach, apricot and spice notes with a nice freshness on the finish.

Dec. 30 — Sue-Ann Staff Chestnut Tree Cabernet Franc ($40, winery): Named after a historic chestnut tree planted on the estate, and, as legend has it, by Jesse James and/or his entourage of bandits. It spends 22 months in French and American oak. A gorgeous wine with notes of crushed red berries, herbs, anise and toasted vanilla/spice on a structured frame.

Dec. 31 — Sue-Ann Staff Luminescence 2017 ($37, winery): Happy New Year! One of three sparklers made at Staff, this is Riesling based with a Vidal icewine dosage. Good fizz in the glass, lime, grapefruit, green apple and creamy notes with subtle orange blossoms in a vibrant style that’s all nicely balanced.

A mystery wrapped in an enigma

Bit by bit we are learning more about the new owners of the former Mike Weir Winery located at 4041 Locust Lane in Beamsville.

Weir was finally sold last year after being first put on the market for a staggering $10.9 million. And while we do not know what the final sale price was, we do know this — it was sold to a group of owners from Toronto who have remained tight-lipped about their new venture.

In December, the old Weir sign was quietly replaced with a sign reading Locust Lane Estate Winery. I was later informed (thanks, Greg Roach!) that a website has been built for the winery with more information and hints at what’s to come.

Here’s the mission statement:

“Provide our customers with delicious, award-winning, quality wines that are all handcrafted locally. We provide an unparalleled selection of wines with something to satisfy every palate, from unique, fruit-infused wines to traditional white and red varietals and more! Whether you are reflecting on your experiences in the Niagara region or the Bench where we are located or reside in this beautiful region, our goal is for our guests to regard Ontario Winery as the most memorable winery they have experienced and welcome our brand into their lifestyle with a unique innovated vision. We have many facets of our hospitality from wines to wine tasting to events to an up and coming new venture of the world-renowned Glamping.”

Now, I do not know what “Ontario Winery” in that mission statement means, but the little information the new owners are releasing is intriguing. Glamping? Fruit-infused wines? Tell us more!

There is more, but not much more:

• Strengths: Jeffery Innis is an extremely skilled and well-respected winemaker
• Gorgeous 40-acre property, sitting atop of the ‘Bench’ located in the most ideal spot of the Niagara region
• Best view in the area having a perfect ambiance
• Perfect event space
• New innovative ideas and accommodation possibilities

Want to know more? Go to the winery’s sparse website here and signup for updates on when the grand opening will take place.

A Twisted vertical

The folks at Flat Rock love revisiting their wines to see how they hold up in the cellar — and not just their top wines, all the wines from top to bottom get a look from time to time.

In 2004, the Twisted line at Flat Rock was created and quickly became a Vintages Essential and consumer favourite. The wines were made in a fun, irreverent style, but made with the same attention to detail as all the wines in the portfolio.

The winemaking team at Flat Rock got together in November to taste a range of back vintages of the Twisted White to see how the wines hold up to cellaring and president of Flat Rock, Ed Madronich, was so happy with the results he shared a few of the bottles with Wines In Niagara.

“I know we make great wines, but I was particularly pleased to see that our Twisted brand has the potential to age just like all the other wines in our portfolio,” Madronich said. “It isn’t just a fun wine, but a well-crafted premium bottle that goes through all the same rigours and gravity flow technologies as our Pinots, Chards and Rieslings.”

Winemaker David Sheppard agreed: “It’s amazing to taste these wines that we sometimes write-off as ‘consumer friendly’ and see how they can develop over time.”

Assistant winemaker Allison Findlay had this to say about tasting the library wines: “Twisted is a No. 1 seller in its youth but will also reward fans of aged Rieslings with freshness and incredible complexities from the three grape varieties.”

Here’s what Wines In Niagara tasted:

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted 2012 — The blend is always a version of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. The nose shows a touch of sweet petrol with apricot, peach and citrus notes. It’s a touch of off-dry on the palate but still very much alive with a range of stone fruits, marmalade, waxy notes and honey with a fleshy feel and good balancing acidity.

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted 2014 — Fresh and vibrant on the nose with bright stone fruits, apricot, orange zest, lemon and lychee. Gaining flesh on the palate with a waxy/lanolin feel, rich texture, peach, apricot and citrus fruit and a touch of honey all nicely balanced. Attractive now but will develop a nice petrol quality if left in the cellar.

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted White 2017 ($18, Vintages Essential at LCBO, re-reviewed, 89 points) — The blend is a mix of 64% Riesling, 32% Gewurztraminer and the rest Chardonnay. It’s highly aromatic on the nose with the Gew taking centre stage showing lychee, grapefruit, peach, ginger, brown sugar, lemon and a floral accent. It’s off-dry on the palate and displays a range of stone fruits, lychee, Asian spices, honey, ginger and marmalade with decent balancing acidity. Delicious, and don’t be afraid to leave in the cellar a few years.