By Rick VanSickle
For Niagara food and wine lovers, the success Honsberger Estate Winery has enjoyed is a little perturbing. Now that it’s no longer a secret getaway for locals, it’s one of the toughest tickets in town.
As the wines get better and better under the skillful hands of winemaker Kelly Mason, below, and the outdoor patio restaurant and bar expand, no longer is Honsberger a hidden gem. You now have to take your chances if you don’t make a reservation for the patio (or Small Barn indoor restaurant in the off-season). Be prepared for disappointment; getting a table and/or the wines you want are not a guarantee at this popular Jordan oasis of goodness.
The Honsberger family has been farming their land since 1811. The current sixth generation has made the most profound changes in the history of the property. In 2002, Barbara Honsberger Condotta and husband Robert Condotta ripped out the cherry trees to plant Cabernet Franc and apple trees were removed to plant Riesling. For a while, some of that fruit was sold to other wineries but the family was eventually convinced to take the next step in their evolution and start their own label under the family name using grapes from 11 acres under vine.
The family has kept the portfolio of wine, all made by Mason from the very beginning, small and boutique in nature, with Riesling and Cabernet Franc considered their flagship varieties. Mason, also the winemaker at The Farm and Domaine Queylus, is a hands-off winemaker, using minimalist techniques in the cellar, wild fermentation, very few additions, judicious use of oak and the majority of wines made in a super dry, yet textured, style. The portfolio has been expanded to include varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay and Chardonnay sourced from what Mason calls “friends’ grapes” and bottled under the Handshake series.
Her current portfolio is the finest from top to bottom that she has made to date.
The wine program supports two restaurants at the small, distinctive farm along Jordan Road. The Oven runs May to October, depending on weather, and is based outdoors (perfectly socially distanced in these times of COVID-19). Best known for its wood-fired thin crust pizza made in the outdoor pizza oven, the menu also includes other seasonal dishes all prepared outdoors and cooked in the wood oven. All the food is homegrown, handmade and served in a friendly setting either under umbrellas on the open patio or under a patio that has a fixed roof in case of rain.
The other restaurant, and the newest addition to Honsberger, is the Small Barn, which runs November to April indoors. A throwback to simpler times, the barn is filled with candlelight and antique furniture with a modern edge. It’s a comfy-cosy space designed for farmhouse style eats and unique cocktails alongside an extended local wine and craft beer list.
Making a reservation at either restaurant is recommended. Call them at 905.562.4339 to book a table. The hours of operation at the Small Barn are Wednesday to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. with Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The patio hours are Wednesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
I sat down for a fun afternoon of tasting through the current wine releases with Mason and Barbara Honsberger Condotta. It’s interesting to note that Honsberger wines are not available through the LCBO – they can only be purchased at Honsberger Estate Winery or online. For more information call 905.651.3632 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what I liked from the tasting with Mason:
Honsberger Handshake Series Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($28, 91 points) — The handshake on the label of this small-lot wine refers to the casual arrangement Mason has with certain growers she seeks out for grapes not grown at the estate, like this Savvy and the one below from the gorgeous Schuele Vineyard. Only 60 cases were made of both this wine and the Sur Lie version below. Both wines were wild fermented and finished without oak. This has a lovely herbal nose with kiwi, guava, grapefruit and lime aromas. It’s fresh and vibrant on the palate with notes of pure grapefruit, pear, zippy lime, herbs and gooseberries that all lead to a vibrant finish.
Honsberger Handshake Series Sauvignon Blanc Sue Lie 2019 ($32, 92 points) — The same fruit is used for this Sauvignon Blanc but there is skin contact for nine days and aging on the lees. Mason’s style has always been to make super dry wines. “I love Sauvignon Blanc so much, but I don’t like sweet wines,” Mason says. The profile on the nose is similar to the above, with grapefruit, lime, kiwi and gooseberries with just a hint of bready/yeasty notes. It’s the texture on the palate that sets it apart, that and more layers and complexity intermingling with the citrus, gooseberries, guava, lime zest and wild herbs through a rousing, freshening finish. You might try cellaring this for a couple of years to see how it develops.
Honsberger Riesling 2019 ($24, 90 points) — This is Mason’s first wild ferment Riesling (almost all her wines now are now made that way) and it’s finished — wait for it — with zero g/l of residual sugar. Such a pure and beautiful nose of lime, grapefruit, white flowers, pear and green apple. It’s bracing on the palate and shows vibrant citrus, fresh pear and crisp apple notes along a firm acidic backbone. A little cellaring will chisel away at the tautness of this nifty little Riesling.
Honsberger Chardonnay Musque 2019 ($24, 89 points) — Not your typical Chardonnay Musque, this version is wild fermented, employs full malo and the fruit is hand picked from grapes planted in the early 1980s. It has a pretty nose of pears, white flowers, citrus and orange zest. It’s rich and textured on the palate with lovely creamy pear, bin apple and lemon notes in a super dry and zesty style on the finish.
Honsberger Handshake Series Chardonnay 2018 ($34, 92 points) — This fruit from Schuele Vineyard is wild fermented and aged in French oak (25% new, the rest neutral) for 24 months. Such a lovely nose of pear, apple, lemon, subtle peach notes and integrated fine spices. It’s ripe and juicy on the palate with quince, lemon tart, peach and elegant spices with juicy acidity through a finessed, perfectly balanced, finish.
Honsberger Gamay 2019 ($28, 88 points) — One of only two wines in the collection not wild fermented as Mason had to scramble to get any of the suddenly very popular Gamay in Niagara. Names shall be withheld, but let’s just say that after dogged pursuit of even a little Gamay, and bribery — yes, a plate of home made cookies — a winemaker friend broke down and parted with some already crushed Gamay for Mason to finish under the Honsberger label. This is made in a fun, fresh and fruity style with aromas of plums and red berries. It’s loaded with raspberries, cherries, herbs and a touch of earthiness on the palate with a fresh, vibrant finish. Serve slightly chilled for maximum pleasure.
Honsberger Cabernet Franc Rosé 2019 ($24, 91 points) — The grapes for this bone-day, 100% Cabernet Franc rosé were hand picked and hand sorted. It shows a light pale salmon colour in the glass and has aromas of red berries and herbs. It’s light and refreshing on the palate with raspberries, cherries, watermelon, herbs and a clean, vibrant finish.
Honsberger Cabernet Franc 2018 ($32, 92 points) — The signature grape at Honsberger estate, in my opinion, is Cabernet Franc — it’s always a winner each vintage. It’s wild fermented and made with low intervention, so no additives (aside from minimal sulphur at bottling) and only used oak (all 2nd, 3rd and 4th year barrels) aging for two years. The nose explodes with dark cherries, brambly raspberries, herbs, spice, dried tobacco, integrated spice and a touch of anise. It’s rich, ripe and bold on the palate with cherry/raspberry fruit, more pronounced anise/licorice, wild herbs, lovely mouth feel, ripe, supple tannins and depth of flavour through a smooth finish. Really nice Niagara Cab Franc.