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New Rockway winemaker setting her sights high for Niagara portfolio

By Rick VanSickle

There’s a new sheriff in town and her name is Simone Ardiel — and the well-travelled winemaker has returning the wines at Rockway Vineyards to their former glory firmly in her sights.

Ardiel took the reins at Rockway only this year after travelling the world honing her skills as a winemaker. It’s a return to her roots in Ontario where she was raised on a fruit farm and learned the value of hard work on the job and at home, where she is an avid gardener and forager.

Niagara wine

After graduating from the winemaking and viticulture program at Niagara College in 2011, Ardiel worked for both Tawse and Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara before travelling abroad. She spent many vintages at premium international wineries such as Leeuwin Estate and Grosset in Australia, Amisfield in New Zealand, Ponzi in Oregon and Domaine Fernard et Laurent Pillot in Burgundy. Before returning to Niagara, she spent over three years in the Okanagan working for Meyer Family Vineyards before becoming winemaker for their sister winery Mayhem wines. Upon returning home, Ardiel has spent the last two years reacquainting herself with cool climate viticulture working for Adamo Estate Winery in the Hockley Valley.

While Rockway has gone through ownership changes, philosophical transformations and a steady change in winemakers over the years, Ardiel hopes to showcase the “knowledge and experience” she brings to Rockway from her worldly wine stops around the world.

“My intentions are to try and make sure we get the absolute best fruit out of the vineyard, making sure we look after the fruit. Nurture it,” Ardiel says in a Q&A with Wines In Niagara. “I hope to encapsulate the flavours of the fruit in my wine and present what is grown in our vineyards in our bottles.”

While the bottles of Rockway wines reviewed in this report were not made by Ardiel, the estate bottles represent what can be done with the fruit grown on the Twenty Mile Bench from Rockway’s terroir. There are some gems in the wines reviewed that deserve consumers’ attention while you wait for Ardiel’s stamp to be put on new wines from 2020 and onward.

The reviews are below following a quick Q&A with the new winemaker.

Wines In Niagara: You have quite a diverse resume of various winemaking jobs throughout many of the key winemaking regions of the world. What brought you back to Ontario and Niagara in particular to take the reins at Rockway Vineyards?

Simone Ardiel: “After spending many years travelling abroad for work, as well as the years spent living in the Okanagan, I yearned to return to my family and friends, and spending that time with those people in some of my favourite locations around Georgian Bay. While grape growing can be done up north, I preferred the growing region of Niagara. I sought out the winemaking opportunity at Rockway to put my best foot forward as the head winemaker, and to showcase the knowledge and experience I had gained working in those key winemaking regions around the world.”

WIN: Rockway has undergone many evolutions, but has always had some a great vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench to draw from. What is your vision for Rockway going forward?

Ardiel: “My vision for Rockway is to produce wines showcasing our great vineyard in the pursuit of excellence, and to further continue the evolution of quality in both the vineyard and winery. My intentions are to try and make sure we get the absolute best fruit out of the vineyard, making sure we look after the fruit. Nurture it. I hope to encapsulate the flavours of the fruit in my wine and present what is grown in our vineyards in our bottles.

“Many people know Rockway Vineyards as a place to golf and enjoy beautiful views, but we want people to know that we are also a destination for wine and culinary experiences. We recently had a five-course winemaker’s dinner, featuring a different Rockway wine with each course. It was a great opportunity for our chef and sous chef to showcase their talents.”

WIN: I know it’s hard to get a feel for the kind of wines you hope to make at Rockway, considering many of the wines reviewed here were at least started by other winemakers. What is your preferred style of wines? In other words, what can we expect from Rockway in subsequent vineyards?

Ardiel: “My preferred style of wines would be those which reflect the unique individual terroir, with slightly higher acids to help carry the wines while remaining in balance with palate weight, alcohol, and complex fruit-driven characters. For wines married with oak, I tend to not want the level of new oak to overpower the fruit flavours and other nuances which the fruit showcases. I certainly prefer dry style wines when sipping for myself, however, will continue our Rockway 9 series, which appeals to those looking for a sweeter style.”

WIN: It’s always been a delicate balance at Rockway making wines that appeal to the golfing crowd there and wines that have a broader appeal to Ontario wine lovers. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right mix. As the winemaker, how do appeal to the best of both worlds?

Ardiel: “For the most part, golfers on the course are primarily drinking beer. That said, we produce wine in a can and going forward that canned wine will be slightly lower in alcohol content, around 9%. We intend to encourage golfers to switch out a beer for a can of wine that will be refreshing but not high in alcohol so they can make it to the 18th hole. Off the course on our patio, we are serving up refreshing whites and a rosé that go great with many dishes on our menu. For anyone who wants a light- to full-bodied red, we have many options there as well. Having a diverse portfolio without too much selection, I hope, will be the key to balancing the mix of clientele.”

The wines

Rockway Pinot Noir Canal East 2018 ($35, 91 points) — The original intent for the two 2018 Pinot Noirs from Rockway was to harvest estate fruit from the Twenty Mile Bench and fruit sourced from the St. David’s Bench appellation and blend the two together. But after tasting the batches separately, the decision was made to keep them as single-vineyard wines to showcase the differences between east and west of the Welland canal. This wine was aged for 15 months in 15% new French oak. This has a more robust nose (than the Pinot below) with a concentrated nose of dark cherries, earthy/brambly notes, raspberries, cassis, a floral note with savoury spice notes. It shows a bit more restraint on the palate with a mélange of red berries, sweet barrel spice notes, smooth tannins, underlying savoury notes and bright acidity keeping it lively, fresh and balanced through the feisty finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Rockway Pinot Noir Canal West 2018 ($35, 92 points) — The west version of this fascinating east-west horizontal was aged for 15 months in 25% new French oak. It shows a much more nuanced nose of tart cherries and brambly raspberries with crunchy cranberries and more overt oak spice notes. It’s gorgeous on the palate with earthy/meaty dark cherries, strawberry patch, a touch of cassis, subtle herbaceous notes, medium+ tannins, good structure and elegant spice notes through a long, finessed finish. Can also cellar 5+ years.

Rockway Small Lot Alter Ego Syrah 2017 ($30, 91 points) — The estate Syrah was co-fremented with 7% Viognier and aged in French and American oak (25% new) for 18 months before bottling. It has a smoky, meaty, spicy nose of ripe dark cherries, savoury blueberries, boysenberries, anise and cracked black peppers. It’s rich and savoury on the palate with a mélange of ripe cherries, forest berries, herbaceous notes, charcuterie, licorice, blackberries, smoky undertones, baking spices, pepper and firm tannic structure with finesse and verve driving through the finish. Can caller 6+ years.

Rockway Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2017 ($25, 92 points) — The estate Cab Franc was 100% de-stemmed and crushed into tank. Once the fermentation was complete, the wine was pressed off to stainless steel to settle before being racked to French barrels with 30% new oak. The wine was aged in for 15 months before racking back to tank where it was then stabilized, filtered, and bottled. It has a lovely floral nose with lifted berry perfume, herbs, anise, wild raspberries and fine oak spices. It’s mouth filling on the palate with a riot of red berries, touches of anise, cassis, dried herbs and licorice with spice and tangy acidity through the lifted finish. Really nice job here showcasing Niagara Cab Franc. Drinking quite well right now but can cellar 3+ years.

Rockway Small Lot Chardonnay 2018 ($25, 88 points) — This estate Chardonnay was barrel fermented and aged for 9 months in 30% new French oak. It has a pristine/saline nose of sweet pear, lemon tart, apple skin and spice notes. It’s quite elegant on the palate with a bit more spice than the nose reveals and shows poached pear, golden apple, some flinty/savoury notes and zesty citrus on the finish. It could use a year or two of cellaring to fully integrate the oak spices.