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It’s all red, white and orange at Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara

By Rick VanSickle

The year 2021 ended (for me) with a flurry of tastings either in person or otherwise as if winemakers were predicting another painful round of hunkering down to stay safe from the latest rogue variant on the loose.

How prophetic of them! It’s exactly what we are now facing — another round of shutdowns, slowdowns, sheltering in place … you know the drill — as Omicron lays waste to what could have been an enjoyable, normal winter. No one needs this, of course, the wine industry (and all of the fun things we take for granted) has been devastated by the seemingly endless pandemic. Announcements after announcements have been pouring into my inbox telling consumers that they are pausing through the holidays and moving to online sales only for the foreseeable future. It’s all so very sad. It’s all so very tiring. It’s all so very normal now.

Niagara wine

It’s advised that you check before coming to wine country to make sure the wineries you want to visit are accepting visitors. Some are and some aren’t and some are on the fence. But, by all means, keep supporting your favourite wineries by ordering online to keep that wine flowing. We have another tough winter ahead, and especially tough if you are running a winery and have staff that depend on you.

One of the last tastings of the year for me was at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Southbrook Vineyards with winemaker Ann Sperling (above), assistant winemaker Casey Hogan, and, briefly, owner Bill Redelmeier, who was about to embark on another “Purple Glove” wine run for thirsty Southbrook fans.

Sperling had set up robust tasting of mostly newly released top-end red wines crafted at the organic-biodynamic estate but also included a popular skin-fermented white wine, a personable Riesling from a favourite vineyard on the Vinemount Ridge and a rosé. I was also treated to the new Poetica Red that I just had to add to Wines In Niagara’s Most Thrilling Red Wines of 2021 list as a late entry. We tasted that beside the equally thrilling 2016 Poetic as a reminder of how well these proprietary best-of-the-best wines age over time.

Here’s what we tasted:

Southbrook Whimsy! Laundry Vineyard Riesling 2020 ($35, 93 points) — This late harvest style Riesling, with 29 g/l of residual sugar, is sourced from a favourite organic vineyard of Southbrook, the Laundry Vineyard on the Vinemount Ridge. Sperling says “Riesling was really the surprise of the vintage,” considering it was so warm. This is a lovely wine with a nose of ripe peach, candied lime, golden apples, honey, apricots and ginger notes. It is beautifully textured and honied on the palate with peach compote, ginger, tropical fruit cocktail and a juicy but balanced finish.

Southbrook Vidal Skin Fermented White 2020 ($30, 90 points) — The estate Vidal grapes were foot trodden to squeeze 30% of the berries and then all of it was included in open top stainless steel fermenters. It was wild fermented with 22 days of skin contact and bottled with some of the lees and is free of additives, including sulphites. It has a pronounced nose of summer peaches, nectarines, orange peel and subtle savoury notes. The searing acidity on the palate and subtle tannic notes amplify the marmalade, fuzzy peach, grapefruit, citrus rind and savoury herbs through a bright, vibrant finish. The glass in the photo is one Sperling is lobbying Riedel to make the official “orange” wine glass.

Southbrook Estate Witness Block Cabernet Franc Rosé 2020 ($35, 93 points) — What a gorgeous organic rosé with a vivid nose of summer strawberries, raspberry patch, creamsicle, herbs and tangerines. It’s rounded and creamy on the palate with leesy notes to go with strawberry shortcake, fresh herbs, cherries and mouthwatering acidity on the finish. Beautiful year-round rosé.

Southbrook Estate Merlot 2019 ($45, 90 points) — The grapes are from the home vineyard in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation, wild fermented and aged for 18 months in French oak (25% new). It’s quite aromatic with ripe black cherries, cassis, black currants and lovely integrated spice notes. It’s rich and savoury on the palate with wild raspberry notes, ripe cherries, cassis, cocoa, a touch of eucalypt, fine grained tannins and a lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Southbrook Laundry Vineyard Organic Merlot 2019 ($35, 89 points) — This Lincoln Lakeshore sourced organic Merlot (with a drop of Cabernet Franc) is a nice comparison to the Merlot above. This is much more austere with an elegant nose of brambly raspberries, plums and integrated spice notes. It has perfect balance on the palate with cherry/raspberry puree, cocoa, dried tobacco notes, a balanced approach to the oak spice and a long, lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Southbrook Estate Witness Block Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc 2019 ($45, 91 points) — The blend is 63.5% Cab Sauv and the rest Cab Franc from Block 105 of the Witness Block. The two varieties were aged separately for 13 months in French oak, blended and aged a further 6 months in neutral oak. It has an attractive and perfumed nose of black currants, anise, ripe cherries, subtle eucalypt and elegant spice notes. The palate reveals black fruits, sweet cherries on the mid-palate, some earthy notes, medium+ tannins, barrel oak spice notes and a lifted finish.

Southbrook Estate Witness Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($45, also available in magnums, 91 points) — The estate fruit is sourced from Block 105 of the Witness Block and is aged in French oak barriques for 19 months. Let this breathe or decant for a good hour or so if opening right away, then it begins to reveal a bowl of fresh cherries, red currants, blackberries, well integrated oak spices and earthy notes. On the palate, the fruit turns to darker berries of cassis and blackberries with subtle cherry/raspberry notes, a touch of minty herbs and a lifted finish. Can cellar 7+ years.

Southbrook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($45, also available in magnum, 92 points) — The estate Cab Sauvignon is blended with 14% Merlot and aged for 13 months in 50% new French oak with an added 5 months when the varieties were blended. The nose shows attractive black currants, cassis, eucalypt, barrel spices notes and leathery/earthy undertones. It’s a complex and structured wine on the palate with fine-grained tannins, black fruits, savoury raspberries, earth, spice and subtle herbaceous notes with a lifted and finessed finish. Good aging potential here, say 8+ years.

Southbrook Poetica 2019 and 2016 ($70, previously reviewed, 93 points) — The 2019 vintages was one of the last the wines I tasted in 2021 and was so impressed I included in my Most Thrilling Niagara Wines of the year list. The 2019 vintage won’t go down as one of the finest in Niagara history, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker such as Sperling, who carefully chooses the best grapes from the estate’s biodynamic and organic vineyards and then picks from the best barrels for this top red wine from Southbrook, an average vintage can shine. Poetica, with this year’s featured label poetry by Canadian Christopher Dewdney, is only made in the vintages Sperling and her team believe will stand up to the reputation of the name, and due to some bad winters and replanting, no Poetica red wines were made in 2014, only a tiny bit in 2015, and none in 2017 or 2018. The 2019 blend is 65.4% Merlot and 34.6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clusters were sorted and whole berries were fermented in micro-cuvee lots in open top new French oak barrels. After pressing, the lots were returned to the barrels for 13 months of aging and then tasted, assessed and blended. The blended wine received an additional five months in neutral oak barrels. The Poetica is normally a Cab Sauv dominant blend, but due to the vintage, Merlot took a lead role. It has a highly aromatic and elegant nose of ripe black cherries, perfumed and brambly raspberries, blue plums, subtle earthy notes, touch of cassis preserves and integrated fine oak spices. Such a soulful wine on the palate with ripe red and dark fruits in harmony, anise/licorice, earthy/savoury notes, leather, ripe and smooth tannins and richly spiced with tingling acidity holding it all together through a long finish. This will only improve in the bottle for 8+ years. Re-tasting the 2016 Poetica, which I assigned 95 points to when originally reviewed in October of 2020, I predicted an aging arch of 20 years or more and after tasting the wine again, I firmly stand by that. The blend is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot all from the hot 2016 vintage that produced some remarkable Bordeaux variety wines in Niagara, especially from Niagara-on-the-Lake. Count the Poetica Red 2016 among the best. The wine spends 24 months in French oak barriques, 50% of the oak is new with further bottle aging for two years. The expressive nose shows a concentration of ripe blackberries, black currants, dark cherries, elegant oak spices and mocha. Such a soulful wine on the palate with an enticing array of ripe black currants, cassis, kirsch and blackberries that marry perfectly to the woodsy spices, ripe tannic structure, mocha and toasted vanilla notes. The fruit echos on the finish for minutes with enough juicy acidity to keep it balanced and poised for many years to come. One of Ontario’s top reds of the vintage.