By Rick VanSickle
There are falcons busying themselves in the nesting platform that stands tall at the north end of the Featherstone Vineyard on a fine spring day recently.
It’s pastoral here; quiet even, despite the traffic along the busy Victoria Road, the main north/south artery into Vineland. The sloping vineyard offers 180-degree views with the quaint and inviting tasting/retail building at the centre of it all. I’m back tasting with Featherstone co-owner and marketing manager Louise Engel (below), this time sitting on a spectacular (and new) back deck after two years of COVID restrictions. It feels good; I love tasting wine but crave the humanness of evaluating and talking and laughing and solving all that ails this crazy world of ours.
Featherstone is a must visit any time you are touring Niagara. The lineup of wines is as solid a portfolio of what Niagara does best that you will find in the region. And the prices are reasonable from top to bottom. But it’s the whole package — the wines, the people, the view, the simple approach to making great wine — that is what defines a visit to Featherstone. Engel and her business partner, husband and winemaker, David Johnson, have just done things right from the very beginning of their wine-soaked journey in Niagara.
The couple’s business philosophy is firmly rooted in getting their wines into the hands of as many consumers they can. They invested heavily in the best ways to sell their smartly priced wines at the LCBO and Vintages stores because they know many consumers don’t (or can’t) make the trek to Niagara or buy online. They learned the ropes, developed relationships, and now enjoy what so few do in the Niagara wine game — they sell most of their wines at government-owned LCBO stores. Over 65% of every bottle Featherstone makes is sold through the LCBO, either as Vintages Essentials, monthly releases or on VQA shelves. Not bad for a family business with a total of 8,000 to 10,000 case production annually.
Tasting the production pretty much every vintage, I get it. Make a consistent product, don’t mess with a good thing, charge a fair price, and you will have loyal consumers returning repeatedly for those wines. You might even entice them to come to Niagara to enjoy all the region has to offer.
Tasting the latest the new vintages of Featherstone wines, which are available at the winery now or coming to a Vintages store near you soon, you will find an honest approach to the winemaking, a true expression of Niagara and some interesting blends and approaches to the oak chosen for different wines (including rarely used Canadian oak barrels).
Here’s what I liked (only one wine, the Gemstone, is not being sold at LCBO stores):
Featherstone Four Feathers 2021 ($15, just released at Vintages, 88 points) — This is a porch-sipping white blend of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Gewurztraminer with a nose of tropical fruits, peach, apple, melon, and a side of citrus. It’s round and mellow on the palate but bursting with stone fruits, a touch of pineapple and zesty citrus on the subtly sweet finish.
Featherstone Pinot Grigio 2021 ($18, Vintages Aug. 13, 89 points) — It shows an onion skin colour in the glass from some skin contact with a nose of melon, apple skin, peach, touch of spice and a floral note. The palate reveals red apple notes, summer peaches and sweetness with balancing, lifted finesse on the finish.
Featherstone Phoenix 2021 ($19, Vintages Aug. 13, 90 points) — Phoenix is proprietary name given to this 100% Gewurztraminer, a grape that is a mouthful to pronounce and a hinderance in the sales department. It has a highly aromatic nose of grapefruit, lychee, rose water, some spice and lovely perfume notes. There’s fairly good weight on the palate and honey notes to go with the juicy pear, grapefruit, lychee nut, apricots and spice on the finish.
Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2021 ($18, Vintages Oct. 8, 90 points) — This interesting Sauvignon Blanc takes on a more tropical feel on the nose with underlying citrus and herbaceous notes. The palate shows guava, passion fruit and lemon with subtle grassy/herbaceous notes and a vibrant, mouth-watering finish.
Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2020 ($22, Vintages Essential, 92 points) — Considered the flagship wine at Featherstone, with 25% of total production dedicated to this Riesling, it’s named for the hard-working sheep that keep the lawn mowed and the lower leaves on the vines trimmed during the growing season on the farm. With only 10.5% abv, Engel refers to this Riesling as “adult lemonade.” It bursts with granny Smith apples, stony minerality, lime and a touch of peach. The palate is lovely with lemon-lime, bright apple, some peachy notes, and that tension-packed yin-yang of sweet-tart on the fresh and lively finish.
Featherstone Rosé 2021 ($16, at Vintages now and again Sept. 19, 89 points) — Engel calls the colour of this rosé “hot-pants pink, baby!” And I can’t disagree. “We fricken sweat rosé,” she says. “We want it the look substantial, we want heft, we want a food wine.” The blend is Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon with a nose of red berries, plums, rhubarb, and a touch of earthiness. It’s bone-dry on the palate but shows ripe black raspberries, strawberry tart, dark cherries, cranberries, and some complexity through a lifted finish.
Featherstone Canadian Oak Chardonnay 2020 ($23, Vintages Oct. 8, previously reviewed, 91 points) — Here’s a fun fact: Featherstone has the largest inventory of Canadian oak barrels in Canada and quite possibly the entire world, and they only have one purpose — to age the estate’s distinct Chardonnay. The winery is proud of this wine that is sourced only from estate fruit, wild fermented and aged in Ontario oak barrels from Ontario. “You can’t get more local than that,” says Engel. It’s made in an unapologetically bold and sassy style with pronounced spiced apple, baked pear, toasted vanilla bean, rich spice notes and a touch of lemon blossoms. It has weight on the palate and a rounded feel to go with concentrated stone fruits, some buttery notes, subtle citrus, and all wrapped up in mouth-watering acidity keeping it lively through the finish. A perfect pairing with lobster, pork tenderloin and grilled wild-caught West Coast salmon.
Featherstone Gemstone 2021 ($16, winery only, 88 points) — This Gemstone “burger” blend of Gamay and Merlot has returned to the Featherstone portfolio after a nine-year hiatus. It’s a light red colour in the glass with a nose of plums, brambly raspberries, dark cherries, and lovely savoury notes with a kiss of oak spice. It’s tangy and fresh on the palate with red berries, plums and herbs that is tangy and highly crushable with or without the burgers!
Featherstone Red Tail Merlot 2020 ($20, Vintages Nov. 5, 92 points) — It’s hard not to get too excited about a Niagara red at this price point that is this good and will improve further with aging. It’s the only wine in the portfolio that sees French oak. It’s a young wine and quite closed on the nose until you let it breathe. Then the cherry kirsch, black raspberries, crème de cassis and integrated spice notes begin to emerge. The palate shows the full range of ripe, complex, and concentrated red berries, cassis, cocoa and earth with smooth tannic structure and elegant spice notes on a long and vibrant finish. Lovely wine that will age nicely for 5-7 years.
Featherstone Cabernet Franc 2020 ($22, Vintages Essential, 91 points) — This always reliable CF is aged in American oak and benefits from the warm 2020 vintage. It shows saturated red berries and lovely savoury/spicy notes on the nose. It’s rich on the palate with medium+ tannins, anise/licorice notes, charred cedar, cassis, savoury red berries, length and vibrancy through the finish. Can cellar 5+ years.