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A sneak peek at the 2020 Niagara wine vintage at Flat Rock Cellars

By Rick VanSickle

We’re starting to get a better picture of the 2020 wine vintage in Niagara, a year many are calling the best in two decades.

Note, also in this Niagara Wine Report, Brock students dig into icewine harvest, the wine community is reeling from the tragic death of a young boy and the Ontario Wine Awards for 2021 postponed.

After a late start to the season and a rainy spring, sunny and dry conditions in the summer continued throughout September and October, providing ideal weather for the full and complete maturation of grapes and their harvest. Many winery growers reported a slightly earlier than average harvest with sparkling grapes harvested at the end of August. Harvest for table wines followed close on the heels of sparkling and progressed steadily through the month of October.

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Dry conditions at harvest resulted in grapes harvested in good condition with good fruit concentration.

While the overall grape crop is down compared to recent vintages, grape quality across all varieties is expected to be exceptional and wine expectations for the 2020 vintage are high, according to a report from VQA Ontario.

For one winery, the forward-thinking folks at Flat Rock Cellars, the enthusiasm for the vintage is just too hard to conceal. The team, led by owner Ed Madronich, above, recently invited consumers to take part in a virtual tasting of six unfinished wines from the 2020 vintage with the winemaking crew. Samples were sent to participants in small, glass containers with two servings each of six wines — two Pinot Noirs and four white wines — as a snapshot of the vintage.

Over a Zoom conference, Madronich, winemaker David Sheppard, assistant winemaker Allison Findlay and business development manager Jacob Glantz led participants through a chat and tasting of the wines and the 2020 season.

Aside from the obvious — the terrible pandemic cloud we are living under — “Mother Nature gave us good sunshine and good weather to make great wine,” said Madronich.

Sheppard, above with Findlay, for his part, remembered the late start — “not a bad thing, but when summer hit it was perfect with everything in the proper zone, picture perfect. All in all, the wine gods shined on us this year.”

Findlay, charged with co-ordinating the harvest and harvest crew under trying circumstances due to COVID-19, said: “We picked on our schedule instead of Mother Nature’s. That never happens.”

Wines In Niagara is preparing a large and complete picture of the 2020 harvest, culled from a wide range of winemakers and growers in Ontario, and will post the report later this month along with an updated Vintage report all the way back to 1998.

For Flat Rock, a little peek at unfinished wines is a window into what’s to come. “We’re not afraid to show our stuff behind the scenes,” said Madronich. “We love to share everything we do, our passion for wine.”

You can watch the full Zoom meeting here

I tasted through the samples prior to the Zoom meeting and got caught up on the conversation later (I’m Zoomed the to the hilt!).

Here are my impressions of the wines tasted (and please remember these are unfinished wines, early in their progress) along with two new Flat Rock wines just hitting the shelves.

Flat Rock Pinot Noir 2020 #1 — So named, from the Manitoba Block (Midwest in the estate Twenty Mile vineyard), this Clone 667 Pinot is from one of the higher elevations at Flat Rock. Aging is in Cadus French oak. The first thing you notice about the two Pinots here is the colour — a much deeper shade of red, and it follows that these wines have more depth, power and complexity. The nose is rife in savoury dark cherries and cassis in a generous and rich style. It’s vibrant and dripping in savoury red berries, anise earth and evident tannic structure.

Flat Rock Pinot Noir 2020 #2 — From the Winery Block (directly below the retail store), this Pinot is planted to Clone 115 and aged in Cadus French oak. Not as savoury as the above Pinot, with a prettier nose of raspberries, cherries, cranberries and minerals. On the palate, it too, shows the richness of the vintage with a full range of red berries, medium+ tannins and a tangy finish.

Flat Rock Unplugged Chardonnay #3 — This Chardonnay is aged on its fine less but does not catch even a whiff of oak. The nose shows ripe pear, grapefruit, golden apple and lemon blossom. It’s mouth-filling on the palate, quite ripe with orchard fruits and plenty of vitality through the finish.

Flat Rock Riesling 2020 #4 — A slightly off-dry style with expressive notes of lime, grapefruit, peach and green apple. It’s super zesty on the palate with sweet-tart citrus, apple, mineral notes and an electric finish.

Flat Rock Twisted 2020 #5 — This Twisted was the best-selling VQA white wine at the LCBO last year, so Flat Rock is doing something right here. It’s a proprietary blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. Such a lovely and forward nose of peach, apple, citrus and lychee that all follow to the palate. Lots to like here, even at this stage.

Flat Rock Pink Twisted 2020 #6 — The blend for this rosé style wine is Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Gamay and made in the saignée method. A nose of plums, citrus, lychee, and red berries. Lovely ripeness and flare on the palate with red berries, citrus zest and plums.

Two new Flat Rock Releases

Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay 2019 ($20, Vintages with $2 off right now, 88 points) — The fruit is fermented and aged in French oak barrels. It has such a lovely nose of baked apple, pear, spice and subtle lemon zest. There’s a lot of wine here for the price on the palate with ripe apple and pear, spicy accents and zesty citrus on the finish.

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted 2018 ($18, Vintages, 88 points) — The final blend for this fun wine is 69% Riesling, 17% Gewurztraminer and the rest Chardonnay — the three white grapes grown at the estate. It has a nose of fresh-cut lime and grapefruit with green apple, pear and lychee. It has a honey sweet note on the palate, but balanced by racy acidity, then citrus, pear, peach, lychee and grapefruit with a lifted, fresh finish.

Brock students make icewine
in first-of-its-kind co-op

Not everyone appreciates chilly winter nights, but Niagara’s recent cold snap was welcomed by Brock University students Claire Findlater, above, and Mario Spinosa, as it allowed them to participate in their first-ever icewine harvest.

The third-year oenology and viticulture (OEVI) students are taking part in a first-of-its-kind icewine co-op with Pillitteri Estates Winery, and they have been patiently waiting for temperatures to drop below – 8 C so they could press the frozen grapes needed to make the specialty product.

The co-op gives Brock students hands-on experience with all aspects of working on a Canadian icewine harvest.

Jamie Slingerland, director of viniculture for Pillitteri Estates, says the partnership between Brock and the winery is beneficial.

“From a resume-building perspective, working on a co-op at a renowned winery in icewine is a tremendous opportunity; there’s not too many students who are able to say they’ve done that,” he says. “It’s also an honour to mentor these brilliant, hard-working students because they are the future and helping them learn means helping the future evolution of our industry.”

Pillitteri is one of the few wineries that have chosen to produce icewine this year — allowing the students to also work on a rare vintage of the dessert wine.

Much of Canada’s icewine sales is driven by tourism and duty-free shopping, which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With that in mind, some wineries with enough inventory to meet this year’s demand decided to skip the icewine harvest and focus more on table wines.

“Getting to do something so special to Canada in such a whirlwind year has been a really cool way for us to get that hands-on industry experience,” says Findlater. “Jamie is always so willing to help us with anything we need and there is so much experience and knowledge we are gaining from everyone we’re working with.”

Pillitteri, which is recognized internationally for its icewine, has been partnering on research, outreach and student learning opportunities with Brock and the University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) for nearly a decade.

The winery is passionate about bringing on Brock students and worked with the Co-op, Career and Experiential Education office and Steven Trussler, CCOVI Senior Lab demonstrator and Academic Advisor for the OEVI program, to develop the icewine co-op.

The goal is to offer it to students every year.

“We work together, hand-in-hand, to make industry connections, and present our students with amazing opportunities such as this,” says Melissa Beamer, Brock’s Manager, Talent Development and Engagement. “We are proud to be able to provide our students with great opportunities — especially during this challenging time — and we look forward to continuing this strong partnership and continuing to offer our students unique opportunities in this amazing industry.”

During their work term, the students will tackle everything from working in the field and understanding how the harvesting machinery operates, to crafting the wine itself and learning how it’s promoted and sold in a retail environment.

GoFundMe campaign for
Beamsville family after tragedy

This past Monday, the Komar family unexpectedly lost their 4-year-old son in a terrible tobogganing tragedy and the Beamsville community lost a friend and classmate. Adam was a kind, inquisitive, and gentle child who cared so much about everyone around him.

Adam leaves behind his younger brother (Daniel), mother (Margaret), father (Michael), and a wide circle of family and friends who just thought he was the greatest little dude. Michael Komar is the cellarmaster at Creekside Winery.

The money from this GoFundMe campaign will go to help alleviate any financial needs and unexpected costs that the family may occur as a result of the accident. The family wants to donate any left over money, in his name, back into the community of children Adam was a part of. Adam had a big, conscientious heart and always talked about growing up and doing great things to help people.

The Komar’s would like to extend their gratitude to the community for the overwhelming love and support they have received since the accident.

To donate, go here.

Ontario Wine Awards postponed

Tony Aspler, right, with the Ontario Wine Awards winemaker of the year in 2020, Philip Dowell.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with all of our lives and disrupted our activities.

The Ontario Wine Awards team was looking forward to celebrating the best in Ontario wines this year in June. However, it is with great sadness that we announce we will not mount a competition this year, said Tony Aspler, OWA founder and chief judge.

“One aspect of the competition we plan to go forward with – just to keep continuity — is the voting of the 2021 Winemaker of the Year Award,” said Aspler. “We will canvas the opinions of our long-time judges and announce the results sometime in the summer – at a small ceremony.”

Aspler plans to keep the public informed of developments on plans for the 28th Ontario Wine Awards to be held in 2022. “In the meantime, we wish you a bountiful and safe harvest and look forward to the time when we can all raise a glass of our favourite beverage together.”

Note: Some of the information in this post was provided to Wines In Niagara