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A brave new world for the ‘rock’ stars at Flat Rock Cellars

By Rick VanSickle

Flat Rock Cellars owner Ed Madronich has always been a ‘go big or go home’ kinda guy, and with a new branding overhaul, he’s gone big, real big.

NOTE: Wines In Niagara’s Most Thrilling Niagara Red and White Wines of 2021 will be published on Boxing Day, Sunday Dec. 26.

Niagara wine
Flat Rock owner Ed Madronich.

It’s a re-imagining that was three years in the making, spearheaded by marketing guru Jacob Glantz, and the results convincing enough that Madronich not only agreed to the focus on place over name but embraced and encouraged it. It’s a bold and brash move.

Beginning with the 2020 vintage, the striking new labels and tiering have begun to turn up on the shelves at Flat Rock and will continue to roll out as new wines are bottled. “It’s taken a long time to get to this point,” says Madronich, “but we are excited to fully embrace our name in every way.”

Assistant winemaker Hayley Frankis joined the tasting with some stunning barrel samples of upcoming 2020 reds.

Flat Rock turned to Vancouver-based Brandever, a design firm whose labels are displayed in galleries and museums around the world, for the redesign. The label theme throughout the various tiers focused on the winery’s diverse geology, the ancient limestone soils, which is now a focal point in the new packaging.

“This new look speaks to the importance for our place, our soils, our rocks and our promise that the quality of our wines will never change — nor will our pursuit of excellence,” says Madronich. We are not afraid to push the envelope. It’s just who we are.”

Cross-sections of limestone were obtained from the estate by a geologist, and one-of-a-kind microscopic images were used to create the texturally rich images that are intended to speak to the uniqueness of the estate. “Flat Rock Cellars has the type of rocky terroir that not only inspired its name, but also produces award-winning wines,” says Brandever senior designer Claire Tam. “Using this simple, but powerful connection, we were able to rework the brand into a seamless and modern creative space.”

The new branding emphasizes three consumer-driven concepts: first, the new terroir-focused labels create a link to the place, both on the inside and outside of the bottle, second, a concise framework with which consumers can more easily identify the different series, and, finally, a rejuvenation of the logo, which references the meaningful stone cairns dotting Flat Rock’s property and creating an inherent link between the people and place. Each vintage, the cellar team, led by winemaker Allison Findlay and assistant winemaker Hayley Frankis, creates an inukshuk style structure, see photo below, from rocks found on the property, which inspired the stylized cairn on the new labels.

“My dad would be proud of what Flat Rock has become and would be excited about our vision for the future,” says Madronich, whose father, Edward Sr., founded Flat Rock over two decades ago.

At a big reveal at the estate this month, Madronich beamed with pride over the evolution of his winery and brand, that essentially began on the strength of what he feels grows best at his Twenty Mile Bench estate — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. The plan was, and still is, to champion these grapes in every which way that is possible while also showcasing fruit not grown at Flat Rock that fit nicely into the portfolio (Madronich is considering new plantings of estate Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc). The Flat Rock team over the years has taken those grapes and explored clones, blocks, experimental bottlings, innovation (first in Niagara to put the entire production in screwcaps) and single vineyard expressions using sustainable farming and a unique gravity fed winery.

The goal for the rebrand, says Madronich, was to capture the essence of what Flat Rock is today. “What we wanted to really do was embrace our place.” And, as Glantz says, “the new labels now tell our story.”

Our tasting, led by Madronich, began with a series of classic Flat Rock wines from the library dating back to 2003. “If you want to be a great winery, or a great wine region, your wines have to be able to age,” he says.

The wines were tasted blind and featured the Flat Rock Rogue Syrah 2007, an elegant, fully integrated, berry-and-spice-laden beauty that showed little sign of its advanced age. The 2012 Gravity Pinot Noir 2012 displayed dense red berries, anise and savoury notes, while the 2014 Unplugged Chardonnay was elegant, loaded with stone fruits and showed lovely freshness on the finish. The 2009 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling was the star of the tasting with its dynamic nose of grapefruit, lime, apple, subtle petrol notes and steely minerality that still has plenty of life in it.

From there, we were treated to a range of new wines under the new labels. Here is what I liked:

Foundation Series

The Foundation Series of wines are Flat Rock’s single-varietal classics, crafted with “uncompromising quality and offering exceptional value. They are also some of the wines you know and love.” The new design of these labels puts the estate’s distinctive vineyard and the rocks that make it so, on centre stage. The designs are rock formations obtained by taking cross-sections of limestone samples from the vineyard to create bold, texturally rich images that speak to the uniqueness of Flat Rock. Look for estate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Unplugged in this tier.

Flat Rock Estate Pinot Noir 2020 ($20, 89 points) — This shows the ripeness of the vintage with pure red berries, a touch of anise, spice and savoury notes on the nose. There is pretty good structure and a tannic backbone for a wine at this price point with lovely dark cherries, earth and spice with a lifted finish.

Flat Rock Estate Chardonnay 2020 ($20, 90 points) — The nose shows fresh pear and apple with lemon blossoms and lovely spice notes. It’s ripe and open knit on the palate with pear/quince fruits, citrus zest and vibrancy on the finish. A killer wine for the price.

Flat Rock Estate Riesling 2020 ($18, not available quite yet, 88 points) — An attractive nose of fresh lime, grapefruit, guava and green apple. It’s fresh and vibrant with lime, lemon, orchard fruits and a touch of honey.

Monolith Series

The ever-changing and innovative projects in this tier drive the team’s pursuit of knowledge and excellence. Experimental wines are not new for Flat Rock Cellars, but the Monolith Series and these wines are.

Flat Rock Explore Gamay 2019 ($30, 91 points) — A promising unplanted parcel lies in the estate vineyard’s northern tip. It inspired the Flat Rock team to ponder a curious question: “what’s next?” Perhaps Gamay, a winter-hardy varietal that is gaining momentum in Niagara as a consistent and high performing grape. The grapes for this Gamay were sourced, but there could be estate Gamay coming in the future. This is the first ever bottling of a single-variety Gamay from Flat Rock. A personable nose of dark plums, tart cherries, wild raspberries, cassis and savoury spice notes. It’s medium bodied on the palate with a fresh and vibrant feel to go with vivid red berries, touch of spice and lifted finish.

Flat Rock Explore Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($30, 90 points) — Another first for Flat Rock — Sauvignon Blanc — that fits perfectly into the “Explore” series. It’s a test run with sourced fruit to see if it’s a fit at the estate for future plantings. It has an elegant nose of grapefruit, gooseberries, spice and passion fruit notes. It has a creamy texture from the fume-style of oak fermentation and aging with spice nicely integrated to go with grapefruit, pear, gooseberries and herbs with a zingy, mouth-watering finish.

Flat Rock Amplify Riesling 2020 ($35, 89 points) — From the “how far can a winemaker push the character of a wine” department comes this “audacious” oak-fermented, full malo Riesling from one of the ripest vintages on record in Niagara. It’s thoroughly unique example of Riesling on steroids. So, full-on ripe peach, lime concentrate, baked apples, apricot tart and spicy ginger notes. It has a soft-ish texture on the palate with the full-range of peach preserves, golden apples, apricots, honey and spice with a soft and fleshy finish.

Flat Rock Not Blue Skin-Fermented White 2020 ($35, 88 points) — The fruit for this Gewürztraminer/Riesling skin-fermented orange wine, the first from Flat Rock, was hand-picked, hand-sorted, hand-plunged, hand-pressed in an antique wooden basket press, hand-bottled and hand-labelled. It was fermented on the skins for 30 days. An expressive, unique nose of canned peaches, apple cider, marmalade, burnt orange, lychee, grapefruit and brown sugar. There are noticeable tannins and structure on the palate with a funky orang-y profile, peach pie, poached pear, nectarine, citrus zest and electric acidity taking over on the finish.

Capstone Series

“We enter each harvest with the goal of expressing that vintage’s story and to convey the purity, complexity and potential of our exceptional site.” The Capstone Series is the culmination of the soil, climate and winemaking knowledge coming together to create the ultimate expression of the unique single varietal vineyards. These Capstone Series wines are the pinnacle of what Flat Rock does and are intended to age for a decade or more. Gravity Pinot Noir, The Rusty Shed Chardonnay, Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling and The Rougue Vineyard Gewürztraminer will emerge under this series, but won’t be released until this spring.