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A force of nature — the new women-inspired wines from Niagara winemaker Yvonne Irvine

By Rick VanSickle

The Maenads were all about women celebrating women and — naturally — wine. It’s hard to think of better inspiration for winemaker Yvonne Irvine’s first Niagara wine brand.

It fits perfectly into Irvine’s hectic life of making wine for two wineries — Creekside and Queenston Mile — while raising two young children with her husband Rob Wallace and still wanting to take on more responsibilities. Like, hey now, let’s start a wine brand!

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The Maenads were the female followers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who were known for their “wild” behaviour and breaking out into enthusiastic dances as part of their rituals. Just browse Irvine’s @cellarmonkey Insta feed, a lavish mix of food, wine, family, fun and hard work as an assistant winemaker for 14 years. You will even stumble on a photo or two of her winning the Jordan Twenty Valley Winter WineFest Barrel Rolling competition not once, but twice!

Simply put, Irvine, above, is a modern-day Maenad and her wines, with the first three just released, are definitely a reflection of that unbridled spirit.

The inaugural trio of wines features a skin fermented Chardonnay, a Piquette, and a Vidal Pét-Nat fermented with sumac and peaches, all low intervention wines that are finished unfined and unfiltered. All these wines are now available here at Drink Collab.

The story the Maenad Wine Co. was born out of a period of reflection during the pandemic for Irvine. “I rethought my life after COVID,” she tells me as we sip her wines on a picnic table at Creekside. “I wanted my own business, and ultimately it came back to wine.” Irvine and her husband Rob Wallace both work full-time, with Irvine working double time during harvest, and are raising two children, 5 and 3 years old. “It was a bit of reach, but we just went with it. It was a bit of fly by the seat our pants and on the fly creativity.”

Once the decision was made to create a brand from scratch, it was then on to what kind of image best reflects the personality of Irvine for the wines she wanted to make. One day out of the blue, Wallace says to Irvine: “Have you ever heard of the Maenads? It was a like reading a story about you. I feel like I represent the Maenads in modern day,” she says.

Yvonne Irvine is a two-time barrel-rolling champ.

“Women through history have been misrepresented. The Maenads celebrate women; they are a bit wild, outspoken, go the beat of a different drum,” Irvine explains. “We need to celebrate women as they are.”

For Irvine, the naming of her virtual wine company is in many ways more about a lifestyle than it is any particular wine. But the wines and the Maenad name have become intricately entwined. Untamed, non-conformist, unpredictable, untethered, real, fiercely independent, comfortable in their own skin … the Maenads would love the three wines Irvine has put into bottles. “It’s a woman-driven brand, a brand to celebrate women … and modern-day men,” Irvine quickly adds.

Wines with women in mind was the motivation behind the Maenad brand and Irvine gives a nod to many of the women in the industry who she “looks up to and is inspired by,” including Natalie Reynolds (former winemaker Trius and Thirty Bench), Kelly Mason (winemaker Queylus, Honsberger, Mason), Ann Sperling (winemaker Southbrook, Sperling Vineyards and co-owner of Argentine winery Versado), Sue-Ann Staff (owner, winemaker Sue-Ann Staff Wine), Allison Findlay (winemaker Flat Rock Cellars) and Morgan Juniper (winemaker at 16-Mile Cellars and The Farm), to name just a few.

Winemaking is a “tough, dirty job and it’s mechanical,” Irvine says. “And still there are some who think women are less capable. Some of these antiquated ideas still exist.”

Maenad wines are an expression of Irvine, of what she likes to drink, and how she prefers to live her life. She doesn’t call any of her wines “natural” because the term has little meaning these days. They certainly are “wild” and in the genre of natural, but because Irvine doesn’t own her vineyards (yet) she can’t ensure that she will be able to acquire organic grapes every vintage. “Not saying it’s natural is just easier,” she says.

But the “wild” part she has nailed perfectly! “I’m letting the wine show itself. I’m just guiding it to show what’s naturally there. Just see what the vintage gives us with the least amount of intervention.”

Pardon the side note

I tasted the three wines in advance of interviewing Irvine at Creekside. On a personal side note, I admit to not fully understanding orange, skin-fermented, untamed pét-nats and piquette style wines. I’ve reviewed plenty of them, but I am always disappointed in the way I approach about them. These are not conventional wines and they deserve an unconventional approach to writing about them. They are living, breathing wines that are constantly changing in the glass and bottle. They appeal to an entirely new generation of wine drinker, while I tend to wallow in a stodgy classically focused mindset when it comes to assessing wine. I have made the decision to not rate them anymore, and by that, I mean not assign a number to them. What is the point? People who appreciate this genre don’t care about points and really don’t think in terms of descriptors — it’s too Robert Parker-ish (Google him!). So, we are going to tackle the trio of debut wines from Maenad through the eyes of the maker Yvonne Irvine with only a few impressions sprinkled in from me. And no scores!

The wild ones

Maenad Skin-Fermented Chardonnay 2020 ($34)

Technically speaking: The Chardonnay was harvested by hand from the Niagara College Teaching Vineyard. It was destemmed with partial crushing to bin where it was fermented for 14 days on the skins with wild, ambient yeast. Gentle pressing to extract the wine. Aged in neutral French oak barrels (small portion in stainless steel) where it underwent malolactic fermentation. The final wine is meant to be a play on textures. Some structure and tannin from the skin ferment balanced by a soft creaminess and roundness. Unfiltered, unfined and no sulphites added.

Yvonne’s thoughts: “I love Chardonnay, I like that it’s a grape you can manipulate. For me texture is key. Some (orange wines) go too far, they are too bitter, too tannic. This is a textural experiment, a focus on texture. The tea thing (tannins) hit first, there’s a roundness, elegance. I love how it all came together.”

Rick’s thoughts: A medium golden colour with a hazy appearance in the glass. Some reductive notes blow off and then marmalade, orange zest, a certain savouriness, pulpy lemon and bin apples. It’s dry on the palate with light tannins, citrus rind, orange pekoe tea, aniseed, savory notes and a bright finish.

Maenad Vidal Pét-Nat 2020 ($29)

Technical notes: Vidal grapes co-fermented with Niagara peaches and sumac to add subtle complexity and fun. This wine is bottled before the primary fermentation is complete to capture the carbon dioxide and produce all those bubbles. The sumac adds citrusy flavours and a bit of structure as well. Serve ice cold to avoid gushing. Keeping the bottle upright without mixing it up too much before hand can also help. We suggest opening over a bowl if you want to be sure not to lose any precious wine! Unfiltered and bottled with lees. No sulphites added.

Yvonne’s thoughts: Irvine feels Vidal as a table wine can be one dimensional, so she looked to what Niagara has to offer to spice things up. “Peaches felt specific to the region. Sumac added a citrusy vibe, an interesting addition. It’s fun, different and goes along with the vibe of not taking things too seriously. I love the flavours and complexity.”

Take the advice of Yvonne Irvine — chill the pét-nat and open carefully, or suffer the same fate as I did. It’s all part of the fun with these wild wines.

Rick’s thoughts: I did not get the above memo (it’s right on the label!) about chilling the pét-nat to a proper non-explosive cold temperature, so mine gushed like a spewing volcano of epic proportions. Lesson learned. I did get enough in the glass for these impressions. It shows a hazy light orange colour in the glass and pours a big, frothy head. Lots of orange blossoms, citrus, mulled peaches and no reductive notes at all. It’s quite energetic on the palate with an orangy-spruce needle thing going on, some herbs, peach skin and citrus fruits with a refreshing finish.

Maenad Piquette 2020 ($20)

Technical notes: Not actually a wine, this beverage is made by adding water and a small amount of sugar to freshly pressed Sauvignon Blanc grape skins. Allowed to ferment with wild yeasts and bottled just as fermentation was ending to create a light spritz. At only 5.5%, this Piquette is extremely crushable, and drinks very much like a refreshing, craft beer. Unfiltered and bottled with lees. No sulphites added.

Yvonne’s thoughts: “This was a pleasant surprise with the intensity and flavours. Citrus, Five Alive, and Orangina with alcohol. It’s a fresh tasting wine beverage that drinks more like a beer.

Rick’s thoughts: This new darling drink of the summer has a funky nose of earthy grape must, peach pith, tangerine and lemon biscuit. It’s light (5.5% abv) and refreshing on the palate, relatively dry with lemon drop, peach skin, less reductive notes, with soft effervescence and a citrus kick on the finish. Completely refreshing.