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Rennie Estate Winery adds to impressive and bold portfolio of Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

The last time I walked Graham Rennie’s Heron Pond Benchland Vineyard in November 2019, a blanket of snow covered his still maturing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

It was one of the weirdest vintages on record, with many wineries picking icewine grapes ahead of their red table grapes. Rennie was among them, but unconcerned with the snowy blanket that encased his beloved grapes for one of the most compelling appassimento portfolios in the country. Rennie and his winemaker, Malivoire’s Shiraz Mottiar, embrace the long hang time and a little snow wasn’t much cause for concern. “This early winter weather has created a natural appassimento opportunity for those of us who utilize this Old World technique — fruit tastes beautiful and sweet and is very clean. Just another challenge to manage when you’re making vino in Wine Country Ontario,” Rennie said at the time.

Niagara wine

It’s been a while since I’ve been back to Rennie’s gorgeous Beamsville Bench farm, with its breath-taking views looking north down the Bench with Toronto gleaming on the horizon. COVID and all its difficulties that have kept consumers out of tasting rooms and life events put Rennie on the sidelines for most of the pandemic.

While the Rennie Estate Winery consists of 50 acres of vinifera grapes — Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — it is mostly contracted to other wineries. He saves some of the key blocks for his small production appassimento/ripasso program and single bottlings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He does not have a home winery and therefore no on-site production or licence to manufacture/retail wines. He relies on Malivoire’s production team headed by Mottiar for making his wines and the retail team there for selling the wines.

It’s been a relationship that has worked well for him, but with COVID and the stops and starts that resulted in frequent tasting room closures and a lot of wineries moving to less traffic in tasting rooms, it has been a challenge for “virtual” brands such as Rennie’s. After all, Rennie’s wines require hand selling for the consumer to understand the unique nature of the wines, and the prices for the wines, due to drying of the grapes, which puts them into a more luxury category. All of that combined made retailing his wines all that more difficult during COVID.

But Rennie is back, and on a glorious September day walking his vineyard, all seems perfectly in line for another great vintage following in step with the previous 2020 vintage that was simply perfect for the bold, ripe style he prefers for his dried-grape style of reds and even his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which he prefers to make in a more robust style.

Rennie and his family purchased the vineyard in 1997. This magical site is one of the oldest vineyards on the bench, and was a producing vineyard in the early 1960s. The vineyard is surrounded to the east by woodlands and ponds, to the north by Lake Ontario, and to the south by the protective shield of the Niagara escarpment. After levelling, grading, and under-draining the property in 1998, Rennie planted his five varietals in 1999 with spacing at 1,275 vines per acre with 8 feet wide rows. The varietal mix is 28% Pinot Noir, 17% Chardonnay, 20% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winemaker Shiraz and Rennie Graham.

I tasted through some current 2017 and 2018 wines with Rennie, including his newest wine in the portfolio, a double ripasso-style red called Rennie Estate Evan’s Alchemy 2017, and his top appassimento red, the Rennie Estate Super G Cabernet Sauvignon 2017.

Here’s what I liked (you can buy the wines online here or at the Malivoire retail store.

The wines

Rennie Estate Christine Chardonnay 2017 ($40, 92 points) — After whole-cluster pressing, the juice was barrel-fermented using indigenous yeast. After malo and 16 months of aging with regular lees stirring in 228 L French oak barrels (22% new), the wine was bottled unfiltered. The Christine, named after Rennie’s wife, is released with some age, giving the wine a ripe and voluptuous nose of baked apple, toasted vanilla, butterscotch, pear and lemon toast with well integrated oak spices. It’s a rich and full-bodied Chardonnay on the palate with a dominant baked apple profile to go with grilled pineapple, opulent spice notes, poached pear and toasty, creamy vanilla accents along with a vibrant finish.

Rennie Estate Paradox Pinot Noir 2018 ($40, 91 points) — After a gentle crush, whole clusters of Pinot were added to the tank and punched down twice daily in small batches for two weeks before being transferred to French oak barrels. The Pinot was aged for 22 months and went through malo before being bottled unfiltered. It has an overt and generous nose of black cherries, cassis, forest berries, and rich spice notes. There’s an earthy note on the entry to the palate with savoury red and black berries and elegant spice notes on a smooth and silky frame. Surprisingly lifted finesse on a long finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Rennie Estate Scarpata 2017 ($45, 91 points)This is a ripasso-style wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the estate’s Heron Pond Vineyard. Following primary fermentation, skins from the Rennie “G” Assemblage (appassimento Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) were added to this wine. The wine was transferred to French oak barrels, 35% of which were in first use, to undergo malo and age for 28 months. It was bottled unfiltered. Rennie calls this “Cabernet Sauvignon squared” wine, “my enter level appassimento wine for people who don’t want to spend $65 or more.” It has a unique nose of smoky blackberries, plums, cassis, dried figs, toasty vanilla and spice cake. It’s rich and layered on the palate with ripe black fruits, smoky/earthy notes, kirsch, lovely spices and a long finish. Can cellar 7+ years.

Rennie Estate Evan’s Alchemy 2017 ($75, 93 points) — This is the newest addition to the portfolio and is named after the Rennies’ youngest son Evan (the last of the family to have a wine named after them). The Alchemy is made from estate-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon (58%), Merlot (33%) and Cabernet Franc (9%). Post-ferment skins from the estate appassimento grapes were added to the already-vinified Cabernet Sauvignon for a “ripasso-style” second fermentation. After a year in 3rd-fill French oak, it was given a second soak on dried skins. Now essentially a double-ripasso, the wine rested a further 14 months in neutral French oak before completion with an addition of full appassimento Merlot from 2016. “It’s really a one-off made from odds and sods. Alchemy is the key,” says Rennie. As one might imagine, there is a lot going on here. It has a ripe and generous nose of plums, black currants, cherry kirsch, smoky caramel, dark chocolate and toasted nuts and integrated spice notes. It’s full bodied and has a bit of heat from the 16% alcohol with mouth-coating flavours of currants, cassis, sultana raisins, savoury/earthy notes, dark chocolate, rich spice notes, a firm tannic backbone and a juicy, lifted finished keeping it somewhat balanced. This should reward with 7+ years of cellaring and bring it into harmony.

Rennie Estate Super G Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($125, 94 points) — Super G is “my favourite wine and the one that really tells me what the vineyard can do,” says Rennie. The first full appassimento wine Rennie and Mottiar made, called Gaia at the time and made from Merlot, was in 2010. Rennie poured a taste of that wine alongside his new vintage, and, my, oh my, what a beauty and just now coming into its own. Super G is constructed from hand-harvested grapes picked on Nov. 7 from 22-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines located on a select, west-facing shelf at the estate’s Heron Pond Vineyard. The sugar was at 22.2° Brix at harvest and increased to 30.1° as the grapes were chamber-dried for 65 days, losing 34% of their weight. The dried fruit was first vinified in a small tank, undergoing gradual primary and full malolactic fermentation. The free-run juice was transferred to French oak barrels, 75% of which were in first use, and aged for 28 months. When bottled in August 2020, alcohol was measured at 16.5 % and residual sugar was 0.6 g/l. Only 37 cases are available. This is a super-concentrated, powerful red wine with a hedonistic nose of mature plums, black currants, juicy kirsch, mocha, cloves, rich and elegant spices and never-ending persistence. It fills the mouth with a river of fruit, alcohol and tannins, highlighting ripe, dark fruits, anise, red berry compote, sweet dried herbs, dark chocolate, nutmeg, decadent spices, some tar and toffee notes with a long, luxurious finish that will need time to fully integrate all these glorious moving parts. A structured and powerful red wine that will pay dividends with a fair amount time in the cellar, say 10+ years. You could not go wrong pairing this with a big juicy steak now, however.