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A not-so-normal wine tasting at Niagara’s Two Sisters winery (with a good result)

By Rick VanSickle

The retail store at Two Sisters is now open daily for purchases only, but it wasn’t that way when I got a call from winemaker Adam Pearce to taste through some new release wines.

It had been months — 79 days, but who’s counting — since tasting in person with anyone at any winery, cidery or brewery anywhere. That pretty much covers the beginning and continuance of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been strange times indeed. So I considered the offer, the risks and steps we would need to take to stay perfectly safe, and then accepted the offer.

Pearce, below, was professional in his approach to tasting one on one. The tasting/retail room was wiped down, the bar where we were tasting was sanitized, and we both were prepared to taste numerous wines with utmost respect for the coronavirus. I brought my own COVID kit that travels wherever I go — hand sanitizer, masks, clean microfiber cloth, paper towels, mini spittoon cup and my own glass — and we discussed the rules of engagement.

He had already safely laid out the stemware, so we used those. I also utilized the spittoon provided and emptied it when done. There was no exchange of touched stemware and when I moved bottles to photograph them they were moved with a sanitized cloth and never actually touched by me. We were never within six feet of each other, and we were alone in that large, open tasting/retail room.

It was surreal. Never in my life could I imagine something like this happening. Every step in the process of tasting those wines was an exercise in self-awareness: Don’t touch anything but the glass, don’t touch your face, speak “moistly”, stay focused, spit carefully and sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Moving bottles from one spot to another took concentration and attention to detail.

These precautions weren’t for me, they were for Pearce, his family and mine. He has a young family, mine is older and our daughter is home (our son is in Ottawa), but we both need to think of them. Offering any chance of passing the virus on to them for a taste of wine is beyond comprehension, so we wanted to be 100% safe, and we were confident we were.

Up until my visit to Two Sisters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, tastings have been conducted myriad ways — Facebook Live, Instagram Live and with samples to my home with follow-up questions. It has been difficult to keep up with the writing. So many wineries are in dire in need of sales while their wineries and restaurants are closed. So many are struggling as they face an enemy they cannot defeat until a miracle occurs and there is a vaccine.

We will see more and more wineries opening their tasting/retail rooms in Ontario and there will be innovative and safe ways for consumers to taste and purchase wines, but it will be far from normal for a very long time. There are still difficult times ahead. There is a trust that must be earned on both sides.

There has never been a more urgent need for wine lovers to drink local, support your favourite wineries and buy direct from them. They are all working hard to provide a safe environment to buy (and, in some cases, taste) their wines and all offer online ordering (most with free delivery) and curbside pickup, if that is more comfortable for you.

The Two Sisters retail boutique is open for purchase only daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with curbside pickup available by calling 280-241-4983 or email here.

The Wines

Two Sisters Vineyards has always prided itself on estate-based red and white wines and some meticulously sourced white wines from the finest terroirs in the region. But the winery has been busy this spring planting a new vineyard along the Niagara Parkway that will be home to 15.8 acres of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and more Cabernet Franc. It will be a while (four to five) years before we see wines from the new vineyard, but it is exciting news for fans of Two Sisters. Also coming down the pipe is the winery’s first Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine that was just bottled in February from a new planting or Chardonnay at the estate. It will sit on its lees for several years before you will see it, but nonetheless, it’s in the works. We have a preview of that wine and taste several others that have either just been released or will be in the near future.

Here’s what I liked from our tasting recently:

Two Sisters Blanc de Franc 2017 ($62, released this month, 93 points) — No one else (that I know of) is making a traditionally made sparkling wine from 100% Cabernet Franc in Ontario. I do not know why because this is such a wonderfully expressive style of sparkling wine. It was disgorged in December after 522 days on the lees with zero dosage. There will be subsequent disgorgements and triage will be noted on the back of label. The nose is all about toasty brioche, lemon biscuit, creamy pear, baked apple and zesty citrus with an elegant, persistent mousse. It really is a delight on the palate with rich apple, tangy citrus, pear and biscuit with depth, vigor and some weight that will round out with a bit of time in the cellar. In all, a crisp, perfectly dry sparkler in a unique style. Wonderful wine. I also had a preview of the first 100% Chardonnay sparkler from Pearce, admittedly years away from reaching consumers, but showing some wonderful flavours of bright apple, grapefruit and subtle peach. Obivously needs years of sitting on its lees to pick up complexity and personality, but nice to a sister for the Blanc de Franc.

Two Sisters Estate Unoaked Chardonnay 2018 ($39, released in July, 92 points) — This unoaked style of Chardonnay is a blend of 67% Lenko Vineyard (Beamsville Bench) and the rest Hulink Vineyard (Creek Shores) with weekly lees stirring and no malo. It has a highly perfumed nose of yellow apple, fresh pear, crushed stones and creamy/leesy notes. The fruit is pure and succulent with crisp apple, Bosc pear and citrus accents with wonderful richness and finesse. “We’re taking this style seriously,” says Pearce.

Two Sisters Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($34, available now, 91 points) — The fruit is a 50-50 blend of fruit sourced from Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Bench that only sees stainless steel with just a little lees stirring. “I want it to be fairly electric,” says Pearce, “not super rounded.” It shows a fresh nose of grapefruit, guava, herbs, subtle tropical fruits, kiwi and underlying grassy notes. It has lovely mouthfeel, some complexity and straddles the line between herbaceous and tropical fruits with good finesse through the finish.

Two Sisters Riesling 2018 ($35, available now, 93 points) — A blend Wismer-Foxcroft Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench and Lenko Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench, this is classic Niagara Riesling with a gorgeous nose of lime, grapefruit, lemon, Mandarin orange, white flowers and wet stone minerality. It has lovely texture on the palate with an attractive mélange of lime, citrus, tangerine, stony minerality and mouth-watering acidity that keeps it fresh lively through an echoing finish. Great aging potential here, 10 years plus.

Two Sisters Margo Rosé 2019 ($35, available now, 92 points) — This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Franc that’s all purposely grown for rosé, picked early for the acidity and has minimal skin contact. It shows a light copper colour in the glass and has a nose of pretty red berries, sour cherries, a touch of earthiness and light herbs. It’s a bit more bold and sassy on the palate with bright red berries, subtle tannins, herbs and zippy acidity to carry it through the finish. Really nice juice.

Note: A portion of the proceeds from every bottle of this rosé sold between now and Sept. 30 will be donated to Gillian’s Place, a safe haven for abused women and children. “It’s the perfect way for us to combine two things we love: a glass of rosé for any occasion and helping women become everything we know they’re capable of,” the winery says.

Two Sisters Merlot 2016 ($54, available now, 93 points) — This is a retaste of the ’16 estate Merlot that was previously reviewed last January and is now starting to round into shape. It has a heady nose of fleshy black cherries, mocha, concentrated black currants, cassis, anise, earth and stylish oak spices. It’s a highly structured and complex red on the palate with rich, concentrated red and dark berries, savoury notes, layered spices, toasted vanilla bean, anise and a plush feel through the finish. Will get better and better for the next 7+ years.

Two Sisters Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($66, available now, 91 points) — The fruit spent 32 months in oak and has a nose of cassis, blackberries, black currants, anise, pronounced spices and mocha notes. It’s nicely mature with good integration on the palate that showcases an array of dark berries, earth, spice and depth through a long finish. Can cellar 5+ years but pretty attractive right now.

Two Sisters Stone Eagle (Red Label) 2016 ($96, 93 points) — The Stone Eagle series from Two Sisters is the top tier at the estate. There are three levels within the series — estate reserve, red label and special select. This Red Label is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (both 34%) with the rest Merlot and aged in 100% new French oak. I’ve tasted and reviewed this wine before, but it has become much more integrated with a nose that expresses ripe cassis, black currants, kirsch, cocoa and espresso bean with some subtle red berries and oak spices. The oak is more evident on the palate and the ripe tannic structure provides grip and power to go with a complex array of dark fruits, spice and length through a long finish. This will age well for 10+ years and will need time to fully integrate.