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Extraordinary Chardonnays from On Seven, plus a roundup of new Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

The tiny On Seven Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake is the stuff nightmares are made of (for bean counters), but for the rest of us, it’s a dreamy Chardonnay project that is only beginning to show its full potential.

Also in this Niagara wine report: New wines from Kacaba, Malivoire, Chateau des Charmes and London Born Wines.

The first On Seven wine was released a year ago to critical acclaim. The second releases, which include two bottlings this time around, are stunning examples of Niagara Chardonnay made without compromise from a previously unheralded terroir meticulously planned and planted from scratch.

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Now, a bean counter might scoff at that optics of two low-production Chardonnays (82 cases of one wine and 31 cases of the other) that were cropped below one tonne an acre for the 2018 vintage, but the owner of the project, Vittorio De Stefano, and the consultant and winemaker Peter Gamble (both below), are only in the early stages of full production. Next up is the Pinot Noir, with the first vintage slated for release in 2022, with “our intent to limit production to 800-1,000 cases,” De Stefano says.

I’m not great at math, but even with prices for the Chardonnay at $48 and $78 a bottle, at a modest target of 1,000 cases, this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

For Gamble and De Stefano, this small boutique approach to top-drawer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was a calculated risk worth taking.

De Stefano, a Toronto resident who works in finance, and his wife Sula, acquired an abandoned farm on seven acres on Line 3 Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake for the project. The name of the winery is derived from the acreage, though there are now only five acres planted on the property to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with another eight adjoining acres purchased and just in the process of being planted now.

Gamble, a well-known consultant on many major wine projects across Canada and beyond, was hired from the beginning to lend his expertise for On Seven and to be the founding winemaker.

It was a daunting task. The original vineyard was essentially abandoned and was completely reimagined with an eye to producing classically styled Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the ground up.

The plan was always to grow organically, so the existing vines were torn out and a protracted exercise of getting vines with pedigree from Burgundy began. The vineyards also enjoy calcareous-rich soil, a desired attribute for terroir-driven wines.

Many other complex tactics are employed in the vineyard, now certified organic by Pro-Cert, including:

• Extremely low yields to ensure optimal ripeness and flavours (1.5 to 2 tonnes per acre in ideal vintages);
• Hand-harvested fruit to preserve integrity;
• Wild yeast to best express the vineyard’s unique sense of place;
• Low production;
• Minimal intervention in the winemaking;
• A deft touch with French oak, with no more than 25% new oak in large format barrels.

For the 2018 vintage, Gamble felt he had enough clonal differences and variation in the barrels to bottle a second Chardonnay, called The Devotion. It’s a wine that will only be made in vintages that warrant a second tier (there won’t be one in 2019). “We’re looking for finesse and longevity in The Devotion,” says Gamble.

He has achieved that in spades with this debut; it is such an elegant yet persistent and balanced Chardonnay that has incredible bones for longer-term cellaring.

The key for De Stefano on the tiering is to always make sure the core Chardonnay, The Pursuit, is right where they want it to be. “We would never compromise Pursuit,” he says.

Both Chardonnays will be shipped out to consumers on Aug. 22 through an allocation system. You must be on the mailing list (go here to get on the list) to order wines that will in turn be allocated out. You might not get everything you want, depending on demand, because of the low quantities and the desire to get as many of these wines into the hands of wines lovers as possible. The allocation prices are $45 for the Pursuit ($48 after that if not sold out) and $65 for the Devotion ($78 if not sold out). For wines not sold out, they will be listed on the website. Got it?

Here’s what I liked of the two Chardonnays:

On Seven The Pursuit Chardonnay 2018 ($45, 93 points) — The 2018 growing season got off to a slow start, but record heat from May through August more than made up for it. Summer drought was an issue in the young vineyard, limited somewhat by the high moisture retention of the soils. Cluster thinning to one bunch per shoot was employed to reduce the crop and lessen the burden on the vines, hence the tiny yields in 2018. The estate fruit was hand-harvested and the whole clusters were then pressed to produce juice. After settling to remove gross lees, the juice was transferred to French oak barrels (20% new, 80% neutral) for fermentation and aging. After 18 months in barrel, the wines were coarsely filtered and bottled. Such a beguiling nose of perfumed pear, ripe apple, white flowers, nectarine, toasted vanilla and perfectly balanced oak spices. The pear/apple/nectarine fruits are broad and succulent on the palate and impart a wonderfully elegant mouth feel. There is a nervy vein of flinty minerality through the mid-palate with lemon zest and bright acidity lighting up the finish. A lovely wine that will reward with 5+ years of cellaring.

On Seven The Devotion Chardonnay 2018 ($65, 94 points) — The Devotion is a blend of Chardonnay from the finest retention of the soils at the estate vineyard. Gamble zeroes in on the best barrels and clonal differences for this top Chardonnay from the estate. It is made essentially the same way as The Pursuit, but presents itself in a whole new light. It shows a slightly deeper golden colour in the glass and is tighter on the nose until you swirl to open it up. The reward is immediate; pure elegance, quince, lemon zest, crushed rock, salinity, subtly buttery notes, nougat and fine spice accents. There is depth, concentration and persistence on the palate with ripe pear and golden apple melting seamlessly into the wet stone minerality, zesty citrus notes, elegant spices, toasted almonds and vanilla and a long, long finish driven by electric acidity. This is a long-lived Chardonnay that will reward with extended time in the cellar. It is a must for lovers of fine Chardonnay.

New wines from Kacaba

Kacaba Unoaked Chardonnay 2020 ($16, LCBO, winery, 88 points) — This is made in an open-knit style on the nose with forward notes of tropical fruits, peach and lemon blossoms. It’s crisp, fresh and bright on the palate with ripe peach, apricot, pineapple and golden apple fruits and a pinch of sweetness on the finish. Great value here.

Kacaba Jennifer’s Pinot Gris 2020 ($20, winery, 89 points) — A highly perfumed nose of pear, melon, apple and fuzzy peach. It’s refreshingly bone dry on the palate with pear, citrus, peach and mineral notes and a zesty, bright finish.

Kacaba Pinot Noir 2019 ($33, winery, 91 points) — This Pinot was aged in a combination of new and old French oak (88%) and Acacia barrels (12%). It’s quite intense on the nose with savoury cherries, brambly raspberries, strawberry tart, subtle cassis, cedar and toasted oak spices. It’s silky smooth on the palate and bursting with savoury red berries, charred cedar plank, Cuban leaf tobacco and spice with a lifted and vibrant finish. Could age up to 5 years, but pretty nice right now.

Kacaba Cabernet 2020 ($16, LCBO, winery, 88 points) — I hope consumers are snapping up the ripe 2020 Niagara red wines from all price points; they are terrific, seemingly across the board. The nose on this Cabernet Franc (71%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (29%) blend is rich in raspberries, black cherries, black currants and light spice notes. It’s fruit-packed on the palate with ripe red berries, cassis, subtle herbs and integrated spice notes.

A pair from Malivoire

Malivoire Old Vines Foch 2019 ($27, winery, 89 points) — Not a lot of Foch is being made at this level in Ontario, but Malivoire has always championed this grape from the Quarry Ridge Vineyard planted in 1972. It’s aged for 16 months in American oak barrels (20% new). It has quite the beefy nose of kirsch, blueberry pie, black currants, savoury spices and smoke. It’s bright and lifted on the palate from electric acidity that carries a unique profile of meaty/savoury red and dark berries, smoky notes and rich spices through a bright finish. Lovers of bold and spicy red wines will love this.

Malivoire Wismer Cabernet Franc 2019 ($27, winery, 91 points) — Sourced from the Twenty Mile Bench, this Cab Franc was one part fermented in a large oak cuve and the rest in stainless steel tank. 13% of the wine was sent to new oak barriques to age for 7 months before blending to age in a mature oak tank for 16 months. A classic smoky/savoury nose with black cherries, cassis, licorice and well integrated spice notes. It’s bright on the palate with savoury red berries, smoke, anise, herbs, spice and a finessed finish. Would love to see this with five years or so of cellaring.

New bubbly from Chateau des Charmes

Chateau des Charmes Rosé Sparkling Wine 2016 ($35, winery and online exclusive, 92 points) — This rosé sparkling is a classic blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (49.1% Pinot Noir and 50.9% Chard) made in the traditional method. It shows a bright salmon colour in the glass, derived from the Pinot Noir dosage, and a high energy bubble in the glass. The nose is all about fresh-picked strawberries, raspberries, mineral notes and toasty/biscuit accents. The tiny bubbles explode on the palate and offer a lovely persistence for the tangy red berries, subtle brioche/leesy notes and refreshingly bright finish.

London Born’s ‘victory vine”

London Born Wine Company Siegerrebe 2020 ($19, winery, 88 points) — Siegerrebe (literally “victory vine” in German) is a white wine grape that is grown primarily in Germany with some plantings in England, Vancouver Island, Washington state, British Columbia’s North Okanagan and Fraser Valley and Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. London Born, which first planted Siegerrebe in 2017 with the 2020 bottling its first vintage of a single varietal wine, believes there is only one other source of this grape in Ontario. It has a bright and forward profile on the nose with grapefruit, lime zest, peach, lychee and floral notes. It’s off-dry and juicy on the palate with zesty citrus, subtle herbaceous notes, peach/apple fruits and a refreshing, lively finish. An interesting new variety to put on your summer white wine list.