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Smitten by the wines at Niagara’s Back 10 Cellars

By Rick VanSickle

Niagara’s Back 10 Cellars is one of those success stories that just makes you smile — a hard-working couple making honest wines from the sweat of their labour and knocking it out of the park.

The story of Back 10 is well documented. Andrew and Christina Brooks, below, had no experience in farming or agriculture but wanted to “build something from scratch.” They felt that vineyard ownership was out of their reach. The couple had no experience in farming or agriculture, but clung to the dream of starting a vineyard from the ground up (each label of the wines they sell suggests a different chapter of their journey).

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That dream began nearly 20 years ago at the delightful River Café in Calgary, where the couple lived at that time, and a small vineyard owner had come in to talk to staff about wine as part of the education for staff.

“He spoke of his passion for wine, how he had attained a small parcel of land and started his little winery. We were immediately smitten,” said Andrew Brooks. They eventually quit their jobs in Calgary, packed up and headed east to Niagara.

After finding an ideal spot between Vineland and Beamsville (on the north side of Old Highway 8), the couple spent 10 years building a wine business, renovating the house and replanting the derelict farm.

The Brooks ran Crush on Niagara Wine Tours (which they sold just this year) with several packages available for guests from touring around Niagara to more personalized wine adventures.

While running that business the Brooks replanted the rundown vineyards on the property to Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Featherstone’s David Johnson mentored and guided the couple with their plantings in the early days and later made the wines, which he still does to this day.

The Back 10 portfolio, which focuses on what Niagara does well, has been consistently good since the very beginning.

“We are committed to nurturing our environment and having the least invasive footprint as possible,” says Andrew Brooks. “We take extra steps in caring for our vines and really consider ourselves to be stewards of the land. Our no ‘shortcut approach’ produces the cleanest and purest single varietal wine in your glass.”

The Brooks acted quickly to transform the farm into a safe environment for consumers to come and enjoy a glass of wine, charcuterie or gelato once the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring. They built a giant covered “Bergola” (repurposed from the original intent) beside the vines for outdoor tastings (or private if you book it) or guests can simply bring a picnic blanket and enjoy wines on the ground with or without a reservation (though a reservation is highly recommended).

I tasted through the new releases with Andrew Brooks recently. Here is what I liked:

Back 10 Cellars Smitten Sparkling 2018 ($25, 90 points) — This 100% Riesling bubbly, made in the charmat method, is the estate’s most popular wine, outselling all others 3-1, says Brooks. You can see why, it’s such a lovely sparkling wine with notes of pear, citrus, apple and lime on the nose. It pops on the palate with a brisk mousse followed by lovely pear, apple and lime in a slightly off-dry, but balanced, finish. Simple, fresh and lively.

Back 10 Cellars The Big Reach Riesling 2019 ($23, 89 points) — “It’s that zingy acidity we’re after with the Riesling,” Brooks says. Call it mission accomplished with this one, with a nose of bright grapefruit, lime, fresh apple and just a hint of summer peach. All that lemon, lime and apple is electric on the palate from the juicy acidity and wet stone minerality that finishes with a fresh ginger accent.

Back 10 Cellars Rose Coloured Glasses Rosé 2019 ($20, 89 points) — This rosé is a blend of 60% Gamay and 40% Pinot Noir and shows a vibrant magenta glow in the glass. It opens with expressive confected red berries, watermelon and subtle citrus zest. It is bright and vibrant on the palate with crushed red berries, cotton candy, watermelon and zingy citrus with a crisp finish.

Back 10 Cellars Start From Scratch Chardonnay 2018 ($28, 91 points) — This Chardonnay was barrel fermented with wild yeast and aged in new and used Canadian oak. The nose is rich and creamy with tropical fruits, caramel, coconut cream, pear and spice. It’s rich and bold on the palate with juicy tropical fruits, vanilla toast crème brûlée, nutmeg, poached pear and subtle citrus to give it lift on the finish. No bones about it, this is a bold, rich and spicy Chardonnay. Lobster anyone?

Back 10 Cellars Everything At Stake Gamay 2019 ($25, 90 points) — This block of Gamay was sourced from the Bonamo Vineyard in the heart of the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-app and is aged for four months in American oak. “It’s all used oak,” says Brooks, “we’re not after too much smoke; we want it super plush.” It has an attractive nose of brambly raspberries, strawberries with a touch of anise and savoury spice notes. It has plush tannins on the palate and lovely fresh red berries, spice and herbs with a fresh, tangy finish. Really nice Gamay.

Back 10 Cellars The Big Leap Cabernet Franc 2018 ($29, 92 points) — Blocks of Cab Franc grown on the heavy red clay of the estate vineyard are notorious for small berries and low yields. The fruit is bunch thinned in the vineyard at the end of August and “optically sorted” after the harvesting. The fruit is hand-punched every six hours in open top fermenters and aged in new, one, two, and three year old American oak. Such a lovely, personable CF with a nose of forest berries, wild raspberries, savoury herbs, anise, black currants and tobacco. It’s bright and rich on the palate with polished tannins, red berries, plums, herbs, spice and cigar box cedar to go with classic bright Niagara acidity on the finish. Can cellar 4+ years but attractive right out of the gate.