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The big transition at Ironwood Cider House, plus new Niagara wines, Vintages preview

By Rick VanSickle

When last we spoke, Ironwood Cider House owner Richard Liu was in the early stages of making his lofty dream of putting Niagara cider on the map come true.

Note: Also in this report, new wines from Malivoire and Flat Rock with our Vintages report featuring Bachelder, a pair from Jackson-Triggs and a tasty Chianti Classico for the cellar.

One look at what the Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery has become today, and you would have to say mission accomplished, or at the very least, well on its way.

Niagara cider
Richard Liu outside the original Sunnybrook winery in 2017.

The quaint, but tiny, tasting room that featured an array of mainly fruit-based wines and a smattering of ciders has made way for the new $4 million expansion featuring a spacious and sleek tasting bar, retail store and new cidery/winery with plenty of room to grow his production of ciders exponentially to the 50 different styles he hopes to craft this year alone.

And Liu has done all this amid a COVID pandemic that impacted everything from construction to visitors for a full two years.

Liu purchased Sunnybrook Farm, situated along Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake, along with the surrounding orchards in 2013. His first instinct was to turn the small business into a vibrant VQA winery, but, partly because Ironwood Cider was so robust in the market place already, he “went the cider route.”

Liu graduated from York University in 2004 with a BA (honours) in communications and political science and has a work history that is heavy on the marketing side.

“We have to be a premium player,” Liu told me in 2017. “If we want to make this category viable, we have to make a premium product.”

Once Liu made it his mission to flip the two sides of his business around from fruit wines to cider, he began with his ambitious planning. An 8,000-square-foot modern cidery, winery and tasting/retail facility was built beside the existing original structure and opened to the public quietly this past fall.

With the new cidery came new labels, a new marketing plan and a focus on artisanal ciders with large-formats and cask and age-worthy ciders and perries.

Ironwood offers a diverse lineup of modern, artisanal, and vintage ciders made from local Ontario apples along with the fruit wines that still have a following. You can buy the ciders and wines at the cidery or at the LCBO, grocery stores or online here.

With the rebranding, Ironwood aims to be the most progressive cider producer in Ontario with a focus on creating synergy between artisanal creations and diversity found in local communities.

“For years we’ve planned to expand our facility to truly untap our potential for cider production and to provide a visit-worthy experience for people interested in learning more about craft cider, so it was important to us to take the time to ensure the new Ironwood was reflective of our core values and purpose; to welcome everyone and to bring people together,” said Liu. “Curiosity is at the core of the new Ironwood brand because it is curiosity that allows meaningful connections to the people and places that surround us. It is important to us to not only be inclusive, but to celebrate what makes us unique and learn from others in the community.”

This curiosity allows Ironwood to be versatile and engage in all kinds of interesting cider products, whether it be wild fermented farmhouse ciders, ciders made from exotic European apple varietals, or unique flavours that can be found in different cultures. As part of their community focus, Ironwood is working with local artists to showcase their artwork and provide a platform to share their stories.

“We’re inspired by the many diverse and talented local artists, that like us, are guided by a passion for their craft. We will be collaborating with up to five artists per year to feature on our labels, where we will also showcase their work inside the cider house. Working with only a select few artists each year allows us to highlight each individual and share their unique stories, inspiration and what they they’re curious about,” said marketing manager Megan Voth.

I recently paid a visit to Ironwood and was impressed with roomy tasting room and tasting bar. There was a fairly robust offering of ciders and a smaller selection of fruit wines to choose from. Here’s what I took home and tasted.

Ironwood Cider House Heritage Farmhouse Scrumpy ($8 for 500 mL bottle, 92 points) — Scrumpy is a dialect word originating in the West Country of England. It originally meant “rough,” referring to dry ciders for local consumption, as opposed to the “smooth” sweeter ciders for sale abroad. The Ironwood style is a natural cider crafted using traditional techniques — wild fermentation with native yeast and local apples, and bottle conditioned for natural carbonation. The nose is earthy with bright citrus, bin apples, saline, and savoury funk. It’s fresh and lively on the palate and perfectly dry at 0% g/l of RS with notes of fresh lemon, tart green apple, savoury notes, light spritz and a clean finish. 7% abv.

Artwork on bottle: I Saw the Turtle
Artist: Brent Hardistry

Ironwood Cider House Ciderita Caribbean Lime ($15 for a 4-pack of 473 mL cans, 88 points) — I can definitely see why this is a bestseller at Ironwood, but for me, I prefer ciders made entirely from locally grown products. It has a floral perfumed nose of pronounced lime, green apple and ginger notes. It has a gentle spritz on the palate with some sweetness and then juicy lime, citrus, crisp apple and a fairly lifted finish. For sunny days beside the pool … or dreaming of the Caribbean while soaking in the hot tub on cold winter nights.

Artwork: Pretty as a Bow
Artist: Camille Lauren

Ironwood Cider House Kirmizi Red Piquette ($8 for a 500 mL bottle, 88 points) — Piquettes originated in France centuries ago as a drink for vineyard workers. They extracted flavour and colour from freshly pressed red wine grape pomace and added water and sugar. Ironwood uses Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Gamay and Merlot grapes, all sourced from Icellars winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It shows a rich garnet colour in the glass with a nose of earthy red berries, cassis and touch of white pepper. It’s bone-dry on the palate with some tannic structure and lively spritz. The flavours are all about the red berries with a lifted and refreshing finish. 4.5% abv.

Artwork on the bottle: The Relay of Eons
Artist: Emily Andrews

Ironwood Cider House Session Extra Dry ($12.50 for a 4-pack of 473 mL cans, 90 points) — This core cider from Ironwood is crafted entirely from Ontario apples grown in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s everything you want in a crisp cider with apple aromas, saline and citrus accents. It’s vibrant, fresh, and loaded with bin apple notes, subtle sweetness and lemon zest on the finish. 4.5% abv.

Artwork: (Arrived) I Come in Peace
Artist: Nic Varesh

A pair of new wines from Malivoire

Malivoire Pinot Gris 2020 ($22, 89 points) — A very interesting expressing of Pinot Gris with a nose of peach, melon, apricot, perfumed pear, and floral/ginger notes. It’s quite fleshy and fruit-laden on the palate, but perfectly dry, with rich pear, ripe peach, melon, touch of citrus, ginger, and a bright finish. Ready to drink now.

Malivoire Small Lot Gamay 2020 ($22, 92 points) — The estate grapes were divided into two lots to ferment in concrete (55%) and oak vats (45%). After fermentation and blending, 30% of the wine went to stainless steel, while the larger portion was aged in neutral oak barrels. It has a vivid, expressive nose of crunchy cranberries, savoury raspberries, tart cherries, ripe black cherries, subtle floral notes and spice. It’s juicy on the palate with a lovely basket of red berries, plums, savoury spices and pepper with a bright, finessed flare on the finish.

Two Twisted Flat Rock wines

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted 2019 ($18 with $2 off starting April 24, Vintages, April 16, 89 points) — The white Twisted is an aromatic blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay. It has an expressive nose of lime, nectarine, lemon blossoms, lychee, pear, and subtle ginger notes. It’s ripe and juicy on the palate with the full range of stone fruits, citrus zest, lychee nut, ginger, a touch of wild honey and a fresh, crisp finish.

Flat Rock Cellars Red Twisted 2019 ($20, Vintages April 16, 88 points) — There’s a lot going here in this unique blend of Gamay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, all aged separately in barrels before blending. The first note on the nose is juicy plum with cassis, black cherries, herbs, spice, and black raspberries. The fruits turn somewhat darker on the palate with anise, plums, cassis, savoury red berries, spice, light tannins, and juicy acidity keeping it lively through the perky finish.

Our picks from Vintages release on Saturday

Bachelder les Villages Chardonnay 2018 ($35, online exclusive, 91 points) — Les Villages is the only Chardonnay in the lineup that sees new oak aging with 20% of the fruit directed to new barrels. The blend is culled from a combination of Willms, Wismer-Foxcroft and Wismer-Wingfield vineyard fruit. You can smell and taste a little bit of each vineyard in this friendly blend that offers terrific value for such a well-made wine. The nose is quite rich and expressive with ripe pear, baked apple, lemon toast and toasted vanilla bean accents. It shows a rich texture on the palate with vivid pear/apple/quince fruits, citrus zest, vanilla, spice, and a lovely mineral edge on a clean and zippy finish. Good drinking right now but can age a couple of years or more.

Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($21, 92 points) — The fruit for this Sauvignon Blanc comes from two vineyards, one in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation and the other from the Lincoln Lakeshore. The fruit was left on the skins for eight hours prior to being destemmed and pressed. It’s quite expressive on the nose with vivid gooseberries, passion fruit, grapefruit, kiwi, pear, sage, and grassy/herbaceous notes. It is an elegant and pure wine on the palate with layers of gooseberries, grapefruit/citrus, herbs, minerals and just a hint of tropical fruits through a bright, vibrant finish. A very nice wine at this price.

Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Pinot Noir 2019 ($26, 90 points) — Harvested predominantly from the Montague Vineyard in the Four Mile Creek, this Pinot spent 18 months in French oak barriques. It has a perfumed nose of black cherries, red currants, strawberry tart, brambly raspberries then cassis, a floral note, and integrated spices. The palate reveals crunchy raspberries, dark cherries, cassis, earthy/leathery notes, smooth tannins and a lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

A Chianti Classico to consider

Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2017 ($50, 92 points) — The blend for this outstanding Chianti Classico is 83% Sangiovese, 12% Merlot, and the rest Colorino from the hot 2017 vintage that gave rise to ripe, robust wines. Riserva Ducale Oro Gran Selezione, released in only the best vintages, was aged for about 36 months, including the first 12 months in concrete vats, followed by 12 months in large Slavonian oak casks and a final 12 months of aging in barriques used for four and more years. This is always a good buy for the cellar, with 10+ years (minimum) of evolution ahead. In its youth, it is bold and expressive on the nose with earthy red berries, dark plums, forest floor, dried tobacco, mocha, eucalyptus, and rich barrel spice notes. It shows dense red berries on the palate with anise, earthy/meaty notes, overt savoury spices, a touch of pepper, plums, firm tannic structure, and persistence through a long finish. Needs time to fully come into harmony, but it has the stuffing to get there.

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed:

• Leaning Post The Fifty Chardonnay 2019 ($23)
• The Foreign Affair Dream 2018 ($30)
• Trius Distinction Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($20)
• Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay Musque 2020 ($20
• Queenston Mile Proud Pour for the Sea Pinot Gris 2019 ($18)
• Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2019 ($40)
• Kew Soldier’s Grant 2018 ($20)
• Frogpond Farm Organic Rosé 2018 ($17)