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Something to celebrate: 20 years of growing grapes in The County for Rosehall Run

By Rick VanSickle

This year Rosehall Run celebrates 20 years of growing grapes in Prince Edward County, and what a wild ride it has been.

Dan Sullivan and his then wife (now business partner) Lynn ran a home improvement business in Scarborough, Ont. prior to purchasing their 150-acre farm on Greer Road in 2000. Dan was already an amateur winemaker, crafting vintage wines from Ontario-grown grapes and being mentored by Niagara veteran grape growers Gerald Klose, Gunther and Mary Funk and Don and Bea Eastman. His wines were well received by friends, Amateur Winemakers of Ontario judges and, most importantly, brother-in-law John Campbell Reston, who eventually became the Sullivans’ first investor and partner in the establishment of the vineyard.

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The site was chosen due to its proximity to Lake Ontario and the remarkable Hillier clay soil scattered with numerous rock and shale fragments on a limestone base. Planting of the vineyard began in 2001 with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines imported from France. The debut vintage was released in 2004, a County Pinot Noir, to rave reviews.

It’s odd to think of Sullivan, above, a progressive winemaker and a leader among his peers, as a County pioneer. He takes a youthful approach to making wines, always exploring and never afraid to take risks with new and interesting wines. But the region only really got its winemaking start in 1993 when Ed Neuser and Rita Kaimins established the first commercial vineyard in PEC at their Waupoos Estates Winery and planted winter hardy hybrids. Subsequent growers, including Geoff Heinricks, Deborah Paskus and Mike Peddlesden experimented with a method of burying vines in the winter, which would allow vinifera to flourish in the Hillier area, and not kill off the vines every winter. After meeting Peddlesden, Sullivan joined the small group of pioneers and set about learning everything he could about farming noble grapes in The County. And the rest, as they say, is history.

From those modest, uncertain beginnings, a tiny, but profoundly soulful wine region was born and has grown steadily to include over 40 wineries plus cideries, breweries and everything else that we love to drink and eat. And Rosehall Run is firmly in the centre of it all.

In 21 years, Dan and Lynn Sullivan have built a premiere winery that proudly displays its County roots and crafts most of the wine they make from their own estate fruit, but also have grown to include sourced grapes from trusted growers in Niagara to expand their growing portfolio using grapes that don’t fare well in the harsh climate of The County. Rosehall Run has never stood still, always experimenting with leading edge Pét-Nats (the latest version reviewed below is a Muscat Ottonel and cider blend), canned wine (Pixie Petite), long-aged traditionally made bubbles, and forever tinkering in the cellar with various oak and other wood barrel ferments and aging.

While the focus is squarely on top-drawer single-vineyard estate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, the same effort goes into every wine up and down the portfolio, no matter what it is.

Rosehall Run just released a “Small Lots” Pinot Noir 2019 from the Mottiar Vineyard, which is owned by Malivoire Wine Company winemaker Shiraz Mottiar. Malivoire, in turn, just released a Rosehall Run Vineyard Pinot Noir made from Sullivan’s grapes. After tasting these wines side-by-side, with friend and contributor to Wines In Niagara, Peter Rod, we could definitely see both the winemakers’ style and the unique terroir of The County and Beamsville Bench shine through. Rod tasted the two wines blind (I did not) and easily identified both wines correctly.

Sullivan says he’s become a “huge fan and kindred spirit” of winemaker Mottiar, above, since they first met nearly two decades ago. “Last summer we agreed to interpret each others’ terroir and traded a tonne of Pinot Noir with each other,” he says. “This unique micro-lot of two barrels is my offering from his beautiful Beamsville Bench vineyard. While our perspective comes from opposite sides of the lake, our passion for great Pinot Noir is shared.”

We are going to kick off our Rosehall Run wine reviews with the side-by-side Pinots from Sullivan’s and Mottiar’s traded grapes.

Two Pinots, two terroirs

Rosehall Run Small Lots Mottiar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019, Beamsville Bench ($40, 93 points) — This absolutely shouted out to us that it was 1) Beamsville Bench and 2) Sullivan’s version. Sullivan is fanatical about his oak treatment, always tweaking and experimenting, while Mottiar is the same, but uses less oak and nearly always neutral barrels and/or concrete or stainless steel vats. In this wine, Sullivan used a mix of two different French cooper oak barrels, with shorter aging than he uses for his own signature JCR Pinot. The nose is fleshier than the Rosehall fruited wine with riper cherry/raspberry fruit, some earthiness, spice, a lovely chalky minerality with a floral note. It has gorgeous texture, a bit more depth and structure with dense black cherries, wild raspberries and a touch of bramble, cassis, minerality and seductive barrel spice notes. This has a bit more oomph on the palate with a lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Malivoire Rosehall Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019, Prince Edward County (likely around $40, 93 points) — The rich vein of limestone minerality on the nose was a dead giveaway that this was from The County, a prettier, more floral style with fresh cherries, touch of cassis, forest berries and light spice notes. The palate reveals fresh-picked cherry fruit, brambly ripe raspberries with some tannic structure, rich minerality, toasted vanilla, integrated spices and a silky smooth delivery on a long, finessed finish. Can age this, also, for 5+ years.

The rest of the red wines

Rosehall Run Small Lots Pinot Noir Cherrywood 2019 ($34, 92 points) — This estate Pinot was pressed and settled into mostly second fill French barrels, but also two stainless steel barrels, one fitted with cherry wood heads and stave inserts. This is Sullivan’s first wine using cherry wood. It has a pretty nose of rich black cherry fruit, wild raspberries, sweet oak notes and a mineral edge. The red fruits are ripe on the palate with added savoury/bramble notes, fine oak spice, grippy tannins and terrific balance and poise through a lifted finish.

Rosehall Run Cabernet Merlot 2019, Niagara ($29, 90 points) — This is a Niagara sourced blend of Merlot (49%), Cabernet Franc (43%) and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon that is aged in French and American oak for 10 months. It has a big nose of ripe dark cherries, cassis, muddled herbs, dark chocolate and spice notes. The Cabernet Franc makes itself known on the palate with lovely savoury notes to bolster the bevy of ripe cherries, brambly raspberries, herbs, anise and spicy bite on the bright finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

The white wines

Rosehall Run JCR Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($36, 93 points) — This top estate Chardonnay, named after the winery’s co-founded John Campbell Reston, is into its 15th vintage and continues to perform at a high level. The Chardonnay is fermented in 500 L puncheons and aged on the less for 17 months. The elevage saw only used French oak barrels, as less oak character was desired to the frame the vintage. Generous aromas waft from the glass and the immediate thought turns to the stony minerality of Prince Edward County. There is ripe pear, apple, lemon blossom and perfectly integrated spice notes. It’s more robust on the palate with saline/stoniness followed by creamy pear, bin apples, touches of citrus zest, vanilla toast, oak spices with a zesty, finessed finish. Beautiful Chardonnay that can age 5+ years.

Rosehall Run Hungry Point Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($28, 91 points) — There is a light golden hue in the glass of this estate grown Savvy and a vibrant nose of grapefruit, melon, sweet herbs, minerals and delicate spice notes. It’s perfectly dry and fresh on the palate with spiced grapefruit, lemon, melon and hay with lovely texture and verve that carries through the vibrant finish.

Rosehall Run Hungry Point Pinot Gris 2019 ($28, 91 points) — Another golden-hued beauty in the glass, this is not your typical Pinot Gris. It’s more in tune with the textured, fulsome Gris made famous in Alsace. This version was barrel fermented and left to rest on the lees for nine months and has a peachy/apricot-y nose with a lovely floral-mineral note. It’s quite beautiful on the palate, with what might be a subtle reductive note that adds some complexity to the orchard fruits, wild honey, layered minerality and hint of spice through a bright finish. Can age this a few years to see how it broadens out even more. Delicious!

The sparklers

Rosehall Run Pét-Nat 2020 ($20, 88 points) — What a fun cider-wine! Sullivan decided to create a marriage between the agricultural bounty offered in The County and created this unique blend of estate Muscat Ottonel grapes (40%) and apples grown at Cheer Family Farms (60%). It’s bottled unfiltered and unfined within a month of harvest and no additives were used. The nose displays peach, lemon, golden apple and fresh lime juice. It has vigorous pop on the palate with underlying earthy notes then a lively mélange of orchard fruits, with apple on top. It’s juicy, fresh and crushable and will leave you wondering — is it a wine or is it a cider?

Rosehall Run Stardust Brut Cuvée 2013 ($50, 94 points) — Turning to more serious matters, here is a traditionally-made sparkling wine crafted from 57% Pinot Noir and 43% Chardonnay grown in the estate’s Rosehall Vineyard. It spent seven nervous (at least for Sullivan, who wasn’t certain he could pull off this wine from the difficult 2013 vintage in PEC) years en tirage before it started to “reveal itself” in 2019. “The searing acidity and gangly structure of the 2013 vintage gave way to grace and delicacy driven by precise acidity revealing complexity and depth,” said Sullivan. It shows beautiful colour in the glass with a persistent, elegant mousse. It has a lovely nose of creamy pear, a vein of minerality, cut lemon, baked apple, salinity and a brioche note. It’s immensely pleasurable on the palate with ripe pear, golden apple and zesty citrus with a creamy texture and lovely tension and structure. This is a pristine, layered and minerally-driven sparkling wine with length and a finessed finish. Pair it with a little Stardust from prog-rocker David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars …

Rosehall Run Loveless Brut Rosé 2017 ($45, 92 points) — Now, the first question is why Loveless? If you know Sullivan, he’s a music man with a vast knowledge and interest across a wide swath of genres. A few years ago, the story goes, Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg visited Rosehall Run, and, as it often does, a lively discussion ensued about music. The topic of the masterpiece by My Bloody Valentine (an Irish-English alternative rock band) came up. Agg joked that it would be unlikely, but “awesome,” if someone ever dared to name a wine Loveless, the second studio album from the band. Says Sullivan: “So, Jen, this one’s for you!” It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir (87% from 2017, 13% from the ill-fated 2014 vintage), left en tirage for about 33 months and made in the traditional method. It shows a gentle bead in the glass with a pretty light rosé colour. The nose teems with strawberries, brambly raspberries, forest berries and light creamy notes. It has soft bubbles on the palate and is super dry with a basket of red berries, brambly notes, a creamy texture and a fresh finish.