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Featherstone’s spring release takes flight, plus a roundup of new Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

It’s spring in Niagara — beautiful, refreshing, invigorating spring — with flowers popping, buds a bursting and the darkness of winter giving way to light and hope.

Also in this Niagara Wine Report, we have highlights from the Vintages release on May 15, including wines from Trius, Redstone and Southbrook, plus new wines from Flat Rock Cellars, Vineland Estates and Malivoire.

While we all would rather be enjoying wine tastings in person on outside patios and decks, with the aromas of azaleas, lilacs, apple and peach blossoms, hyacinth and daffodils heavy in the air, it’s just not possible. We are left to ordering online or curbside and enjoying wines in the oh-too-familiar comfort of our homes or backyards waiting for some semblance of normalcy to return during this endless pandemic.

Like you, I long to taste wines among the vineyards with knowledgeable staff guiding the way and maybe accompanied by a local charcuterie board or fine chef-made winery meal followed by a stroll through the vineyards as the sun sets on another glorious day. Remember those days?

We are mired in never ending Ground Hog Days, each one resembling the last one, just waiting for the fog to lift so we can get back to what we once had and live again. Will that be soon? Will it start and stop again? Will it ever be what it was? These are questions that have no answers. But they are asked over and over again during Zoom/FaceTime/whatever chats with friends, family and colleagues. So we wait in our tiny bubbles for answers.

As a wine writer, the most important part of my job is human contact. I crave the interaction between the wine and those who make it. I want a sense of what they were trying to do, the journey of how it got there and their thoughts on where it is going. It’s the story I’m interested in; the notes just a reflection of those stories. I have never had so few face-to-face wine tastings since I’ve been at this for the past 20 or so years. It is frustrating. But it’s necessary to beat down this ruthless virus confronting us all.

Niagara wines

And while I appreciate wine samples (I do not solicit for them) and tasting at home for notes, it’s hard to get a sense of how the wine was born, where it came from and why decisions were made on the style captured in the bottle. You can learn a lot by tasting alongside the winemakers or the winery owner.

I don’t consider Wines In Niagara to be a wine review site per se. We don’t need to taste every wine made in every vintage; but we do need to taste a wide spectrum of them to at least have a feel for the vintage and trends in the industry. You just can’t get that sense tasting in your living room.

One of the bellwether Niagara wineries for me has always been Featherstone Estate Winery in Vineland. It has earned that reputation because it is so consistent in what it does. Growing/sourcing Niagara friendly varieties grown in the region, David Johnson, self-proclaimed winemaker/grape grower/owner/tractor operator, always makes his wines with little fuss and as pure and as close to what the vintage delivers. One taste of Johnson’s Cab Franc, Canadian oaked Chardonnay or Riesling and you get a feel for any given vintage in Niagara as the winemaker always works within the parameters of what Mother Nature gives him, never tricking up the wines to cover flaws in the vintage or exploiting it. What you get from Featherstone is a tidy assortment of wines that do well in Niagara and representative of a true perspective of the vintage.

While I usually sit down and taste with Louise Engel, co-owner with her husband, marketing whiz and chief falconer (pictured above in 2019), on the gorgeous and comfortable wrap-around veranda at the estate once a year, it just hasn’t been possible for the past two years (have two springs of COVID come and gone already?). The next best thing was to taste through the wines on my own from bottles provided to Wines In Niagara.

Incredibly, four of these new releases are hitting Vintages shelves on May 15, two are Vintages Essentials and the other two are part of the release. We have those four reviews, plus the other Featherstone wines released this spring.

Below that, we have the other Niagara wines being released at Vintages, including our picks, plus new Flat Rock Wines, Vineland Estates wines and the new vintage of Ladybug from Malivoire.

Niagara wines being released
at Vintages on May 15

Featherstone Red Tail Merlot 2019 ($20, 90 points) — Graceful and swift, red tailed hawks are an impressive sight above the vineyards of Niagara and Featherstone makes this Merlot as a special appreciation of wild raptors.

Falconry is the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat, using trained birds of prey, which are known as raptors. Raptors include eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, and kites.

In 2005, Engel , pictured above and below, completed a two-year apprenticeship program to become a licensed falconer. She flies a Harris’ Hawk named Amadeus as a hobby and does not fly the bird anywhere else but at Featherstone for bird control.

The Red Tail Merlot is aged in French oak barrels for 10 months. This has a ripe, expressive nose of black cherries, red currants, raspberry bramble, touch of blueberries and subtle but elegant spice notes. It has medium tannins and structure on the palate but ultimately quite smooth with bursts of red berries, anise, spice and a bright, finessed finish. Can age 3+ years.

Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2019 ($19, Vintages Essential, 90 points) — Named after the estate’s eco-friendly approach to vineyard management, which includes a roving flock of sheep that munches on grapevine leaves. The sheep feed on the leaves thus exposing the Riesling grape clusters, which the sheep ignore, to sunlight. This brings about healthier grapes with enhanced ripeness. This is another wine from Featherstone’s steady, honest portfolio that provides consistent pleasure and varietal correctness every vintage. It has a classic Niagara nose of lime, grapefruit, green apple, peach and stony minerality. There is a touch of sweetness on the palate with ripe peach, pear and apricot with zesty lime and green apple all leading for a lifted, refreshing and balanced finish.

Featherstone Phoenix 2020 ($19, 88 points) — Phoenix is the proprietary name for this 100% Gewurztraminer. It shows a lovely golden colour in the glass with a spicy nose of lychee nut, grapefruit, perfumed rose petals and pear. It’s made in a relatively dry style with ripe pear, grapefruit, lychee and spice with fairly fresh finish. Good Gew here!

Featherstone Cabernet Franc 2019 ($20, Vintages Essential, 91 points) — Aged in 100% American oak (25% new barrels and the rest used barrels). Johnson makes a consistently well-made and textbook Niagara Cab Franc. It has a bright and savoury nose of black cherries, herbs, brambly raspberries and integrated spice notes. It’s smooth on the palate and drinking well right now with the full range of red berries, touch of cassis and interesting savoury herbs and spice with a lifted finish.

The rest of the spring
releases from Featherstone

Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($18, Vintages June 12, 90 points) — 20% of the fruit is barrel fermented using neutral Canadian oak barrels. This has a lovely grassy/herbaceous nose with notes of grapefruit, lime, kiwi and star fruit. There’s a bit more flesh on the palate, more richness in the grapefruit, lime and kiwi with spice and herb accents on a fresh finish.

Featherstone Pinot Grigio 2020 ($18, Vintages Aug. 21, 89 points) — The fruit of this new-to-Featherstone variety was machine harvested and then split into two groups. One half of the grapes were left on the skins to soak, and then pressed. The other half was pressed immediately. It shows a nice pale copper colour in the glass from the skin contact followed by notes of peaches, apples, melon, tangerine and citrus. There is a touch of sweetness on the palate but nicely balanced with a full range of orchard fruits and a touch of citrus zest on the finish.

Featherstone Rosé 2020 ($16, Vintages, previously reviewed, 89 points) — This rosé blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Gamay Noir (30%), Chardonnay (13%) and Merlot (7%) shows a bright cherry red colour in the glass. It has an expressive range of raspberries, cherries and strawberry patch on the nose just a hint of savoury herbs. There is subtle hint of sweetness on the palate that highlights the ripe red berries and kick of herbs and savoury notes on a bright, lifted and refreshing finish. An always reliable rosé from the folks at Featherstone.

Featherstone Four Feathers 2020 ($15, Vintages Aug. 7, 87 points) — This white blend consists of Riesling (62%), Sauvignon Blanc (20%), Gewurztraminer (15%) and Chardonnay (3%). There’s a lot going on here — citrus, lychee, apples, herbs and peach. It’s slightly off-dry on the palate and loaded with orchard fruits, herbs, lychee and zesty citrus fruit on the finish.

Our picks of other Niagara
wines released at Vintages

Trius Distinction Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($20, 90 points) — When you are on to a good thing, like Trius winemaker Craig McDonald is with his Sauvignon Blanc program, you find more and more ways to express this grape. For the Distinction, 30% of the fruit is barrel fermented. It shows a riper style on the nose with guava, grapefruit, lemon, subtle herbaceous notes and spice. It’s rounded on the palate with lovely texture and riper fruits of guava, melon, tropical fruits, grapefruit, lemon and a touch of spice on the finish.

Redstone Chardonnay 2016 ($20, 88 points) — A fragrant, floral nose with aromas of peach, lemon blossoms, honey and toasty oak. The palate expresses plenty of fresh peach, candied lemon peel and Mandarin orange. Acidity is vibrant and oak has been judiciously applied and is nicely integrated with the fruit, giving it a creamy texture and lingering buttery, caramel notes. (Michael Lowe review)

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($35, Flagship stores only, 90 points) — This Pinot is wild fermented and spends 12 months in French oak, only 10% of the wood is new. It has a frisky, bright nose of savoury cherries, brambly raspberries, cassis, spice and juniper and other wild herbs. There is lovely underlying earthiness on the palate with dense red berries, cassis, anise and integrated spice notes with length and vibrancy through the finish.

Other Niagara wines being released, but not reviewed:

• Jackson-Triggs Reserve Sparkling Moscato 2020 ($20)
• Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2018 ($30)
• Megalomaciac My Way Chardonnay 2018 ($25)
• Kew Barrel Aged Gamay Noir 2019 ($18)
• Peninsula Ridge Beal Vineyard Cabernet Rosé 2020 ($16)

A trio from Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock Cellars has always enjoyed a quick sell-through on its top tier wines — especially the Gravity Pinot Noir, Rusty Shed Chardonnay and Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling. “The demand for the benchmark tier of wines has sky-rocketed due to the unparalleled price-to-quality ratio and the ability of these limited production wines to gracefully develop well into their second decade,” the winery says in a news release.

As of the 2019 vintage of the Gravity and Rusty Shed, Flat Rock has decided that the two wines will now be exclusive to the winery (and select restaurants) and prices will rise — Gravity goes up $5 to $40 and the Rusty Shed is going up $6 to $33. You will no longer see these wines at LCBO (Vintages stores) but you can buy directly at the winery or online when released to the public on June 1 (after wine club members get first crack at them).

We have reviews for the new releases of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay below, along with the Pink Twisted.

Flat Rock Cellars Pink Twisted ($18, winery now, Vintages June 12, 88 points) — The blend for this personable rosé consists of equal parts of Gamay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. It shows a vibrant candy apple red colour in the glass and a nose of raspberries, ripe cherries, strawberry patch and a hint of plums. There’s subtle sweetness on the palate with fresh red berries, touch of citrus zest and a lively finish.

Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2019 ($33, winery only June 1, 93 points) — This top of the line Chardonnay from the estate’s Twenty Mile Bench vineyard represents a barrel selection of Chardonnays chosen for their richness, texture and subtleties of oak. It’s deep and complex on the nose with ripe pear, golden apple, nougat, citrus accents and biscuity/creamy notes and spice. It’s rich, layered and expressive on the palate with a ripe attack of pear, quince and lemon zest to go with elegant oak spice notes, a creamy texture, underlying minerality and all driven by racy acidity to keep it lively through the finish. Really fine Chardonnay that will benefit from 5+ years in the cellar.

Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2019 ($40, June 1 release, winery only, 93 points) — A simply gorgeous Pinot and a nice little departing gift from veteran winemaker David Sheppard who is retiring after 40 vintages of making wine in Niagara and beyond. The estate Pinot is chosen from a rigorous barrel selection deemed best to produce bold fruits, depth of flavours and texture. A mixture of French coopers was used in the 10-month aging process with only 15% new oak used. It’s bottled unfiltered and has an intense, penetrating nose of black cherries, violets, raspberries, anise, woodsy/spicy notes and forest floor. It’s not shy on the palate. It shows full throttle dark cherries, field raspberries and anise on a firm bed of ripe tannins, elegant spice notes and length through a finessed finish. Simply beautiful and can stand long-term cellaring, say 10+ years.

A pair from Vineland Estates

Vineland Estates Rotling 2020 ($20, winery, 90 points) — I was on the crush pad last fall when Vineland Estates assistant winemaker Tobias Fiebrandt, above, was processing his co-fermented blend of 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Vidal for his unique Germanic style rosé called Rotling. On the day I was there, Fiebrandt held up a sample of the unfinished, but crushed wine (note, it was in a 2019 bottle). It didn’t end up that richly coloured. This unique style of wine is steeped in German tradition, but it is also practical. Historically, Rotling was created from a “field blend” of grapes that survived to the end of harvest and it was meant to be an everyday wine of comfort. Fiebrandt, who is from Germany, wanted to introduce this “wine of the people” through estate’s portfolio and is now part of portfolio every vintage.

The 2020 version, the third Rotling made at Vineland Estates, shows a pale gold colour in the glass and has a ripe and forward nose of peaches, apricots, pear and mixed berries. It has lovely texture and body on the palate with honey notes to go with a ripe broth of pear, melon, apricot, peach and subtle herbs followed by juicy acidity keeping it all together. A fun wine that Tobias says is bold enough to stand up to BBQ sausage.

Vineland Estate Frienzy Sparkling Rosé 2020 ($20, 89 points) — The blend for this delightful sparkling rosé is 64% Riesling and 36% Cabernet Franc. It’s a high-energy charmat style bubbly that pours a pale salmon colour in the glass with a lively effervescent mouse and aromas of fresh red berries, touch of herbs and citrus zest. It has a steady bead in the glass with a touch of sweetness on the palate but nicely balanced by the juicy acidity and ripe fruits of raspberries, cherries, strawberry patch and citrus zest of the vibrant finish. At 12% abv, a perfect foil for the porch, pool, beach or cottage.

Malivoire’s top selling Ladybug Rosé

Malivoire Ladybug Rosé 2020 ($15 until May 23, regular price $17, LCBO, 90 points) — This wildly popular Ladybug is the pillar of the rosé family at Malivoire that includes two other still rosés and a sparkling version. They take their rosés very seriously. The 2020 version of the Ladybug appears a bit lighter in colour to last year’s version, showing a paler shade of pink in the glass. It’s a blend of 47% Cabernet Franc, 46% Gamay and the rest Pinot Noir and has an attractive nose of red berries, subtle herbs, watermelons and plums. It’s refreshing and bursting with the full range of red berries, herbs, apple skin and a refreshing finish with mouth-watering acidity. This might just be the driest Ladybug to date. It’s a delight!