By Rick VanSickle
Memories of Lailey Vineyard being sold in 2015 still linger in the minds (and palates) of engaged Niagara wine lovers all these years later.
And who can blame them? The Niagara-on-the-Lake winery was quite the going concern under the skilled winemaking team led by Derek Barnett and ownership headed by Donna Lailey. Those who follow wine closely rarely missed a chance to pack themselves into the then-tiny tasting room whenever Barnett released a new wine. Lailey was a cult-like, A-list winery that filled a lot of collectors’ cellars and made it on the lists of top restaurants in the province with some of the finest and personable wines ever made in Niagara.
“Sometimes I made too many wines,” Barnett told Wines In Niagara in 2015 following news of the sale. “But it brought people to our doors.” Barnett did not take up the offer from the new owners to stay on with Lailey, instead creating his own virtual brand, Meldville Wines and the head winemaking job at Prince Edward County’s Karlo Estates.
The Lailey family ended up selling the winery after years of it being for sale to John Chang and his wife Allison Lu, who had no intentions of keeping it in its former glory, instead turning it into a more commercial venture with an emphasis on icewine production and export sales. Chang and Lu, who also owned Lulu Island Winery in Richmond, B.C., were arrested while on a business trip in Shanghai in March 2016, accused of under-reporting the value of imported icewine. Chang was in prison for a couple of years before an agreement was finally reached and he was released. The couple is now B.C.
Meanwhile, Chang and Lu’s daughter Amy put Lailey up for sale and a door opened for Faik Turkmen (above), an experienced financial services executive from Toronto. Turkmen had already purchased a large vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake and planned to make top-notch Chardonnays under the banner Stonebridge Vineyards with a long-term view “to grow high quality grapes and high-end wines.” He hired Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling for the winemaking and vineyard strategy side, and Phil Clarke on the farm management side to form the backbone of his team.
Buying Lailey solved a lot of problems for Turkmen. He now had an established physical winery, tasting and retail facility and more vineyards with a proven record where he could operate both brands — Stonebridge and Lailey — under one roof.
Last fall, “our searches for the sales channels outside of LCBO, which in best of times do not want to carry high-end Ontario wines on a consistent vintage continuum basis, and also vineyards that we could depend on a long-term basis, presented Lailey winery as an opportunity,” Turkmen told Wines In Niagara. The Lailey owners were planning to sell all their Ontario vineyard assets. He brought the same team mentioned above on board, “and also with the active information support of Donna and David Lailey, we acted fast and completed our due diligence in four weeks back in October 2021 and acquired the winery.”
Said Turkmen: “What we are focused on with the Stonebridge project and what Lailey was and delivered under Lailey family and Derek Barnett are so similar — we felt we could make an easy transition.” Turkmen harvested what he could in November and December 2021, and recently bottled the first Lailey Estate wines — rosés and an orange wine. “In parallel, we are working on certain upgrades of the production facility and retail shop,” he said. “As the new custodian of the land and business, I felt it was my obligation to keep the ball rolling and keep the business open during the transition.”
Turkmen and winemaker/consultant Gamble quietly put three vintages of their Stonebridge Chardonnays on the shelves at Lailey (along with some Cabernet Francs and a Syrah), and have, for the most part, been selling them under the radar at the Lailey retail store. Many are surprised at the quality of the wines from the Stonebridge Vineyard, as was I when I tasted the full range recently with Turkmen and Gamble.
The 46-acre Stonebridge Vineyard, which is half planted to grapes and the rest used to raise sheep, is located at Line 5 and Concession 5 in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Half the vineyard space is devoted to five different clones of Chardonnay and the rest is divided between Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. The 2017 vintage was the first where Turkmen didn’t sell the grapes, instead deciding to begin making wine. Neither Turkmen nor Gamble want “oak domination” in their wines, so the average use of new oak is restricted to between 20-33% new oak. Cropping is stingy as well — 1 and half to 2 tonnes per acre max.
Lailey, in the Niagara River sub-appellation, is planted to 18.6 acres of vineyards and spread across 17 different varieties. “We want to restore it back to what it once was, but with a mix of soils, varieties and short rows, it’s going to be a challenge,” says Turkmen. Says Gamble: “It’s a really good vineyard with really good soils. It’s an elegant site.”
Here’s what I liked from my first tasting of Stonebridge wines and the new Lailey wines.
The Stonebridge Chardonnays
Stonebridge Chardonnay 2019 ($48, 91 points) — Only 38 barrels of Chardonnay were made from the Stonebridge Vineyard (Four Mile Creek) in 2019 and it was spread between three expressions. All three are barrel fermented and aged in oak from 20-22 months, 25% average of new oak. It has a showy nose with Bosc pear, bergamot, lovely lemon cream, subtle butterscotch, toasted vanilla bean and elegant spice notes. It’s rich and creamy on the palate with poached pear, yellow apple, citrus zest, toasted spices, a silky texture, slight note of ripe sweetness with length and finesse.
Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve West 2019 ($78, 93 points) — A more elegant nose than above with saline minerality, fresh pear, golden apple, and fully integrated and elegant spice notes. On the palate look for a mélange of stone fruits, zesty citrus, a rich and textured frame, depth, persistence, and a lifted finish that goes on and on. Really fine Chardonnay.
Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve East 2019 ($78, 93 points) — This East version of the single-block Chards is equally intriguing. It’s a bit more delicate on the nose, more elegant and evolving, then bin apple, cream, bergamot, toasted hazelnuts, pear, beautiful oak spices and a floral note. It turns to a more textured style on the palate with a creamy feel to go with rich stone fruits, a chalky/flinty note, rich spices, and electric finesse on the long and vibrant finish. Just a beautiful Chardonnay.
Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve 2018 ($78, 92 points) — A little less abv in this 2018 Chard at 12.4% compared to 13.6% for the other Chards in the family, and only 18 months in oak compared to 20-22 months for the others. The nose is nicely integrated with ripe pear, quince, toasted hazelnuts, lemon tart and spice. The pear, golden apple and zesty citrus are nicely balanced on the palate and work well with the stony mineral component and barrel spice notes. There is depth and persistence through the long, finessed finish.
Stonebridge Chardonnay Reserve 2017 ($110, only 60 cases made, 94 points) — I love a well-made Chardonnay that polarizes wine lovers, or at the very least, makes them think. Some will absolutely love this unique Chardonnay, others will not. Some will question whether spending $110 on a Niagara Chardonnay is a wise decision when they can buy decent Burgundy for less than that, while some understand completely when a Chardonnay such as this grabs a hold of you. This was the oldest Chardonnay in the tasting, yet for me, it was the freshest and has the longest aging potential. This wine is not about the fruit, it’s about the indescribable nuances that make it exhilarating. The nose has a savory/saline quality that draws you in, then white flowers, a touch of smoke, bergamot, stony minerality, quince and swirling spice notes. It’s incredibly lithe on the palate with chalky/flinty notes and savoury stone fruits, lemon zest that’s deep, dense and penetrating on an extremely long and finessed finish. Whatever spice is there is more about texture than dominance. A super special Chardonnay that will serve you well in the cellar for 5+ years and likely transform into something even more ethereal.
The Stonebridge Cabernet Francs
Stonebridge Cabernet Franc 2019 ($48, 90 points) — The fruit is from a Creek Shores vineyard planted in the late 90s. It spends 19 months in French oak barrels (up to 25% new oak). This old school Cab Franc has a leafy/savoury nose of wild raspberries, anise, earth, herbs, and spice. It’s smoky on the palate with anise/licorice, minty herbs, wild red berries, plums, charred cedar and tobacco notes with spice and finesse on the finish.
Stonebridge Cabernet Franc Reserve 2019 ($68, 91 points) — The reserve CF is sourced from a Twenty Mile Bench vineyard planted in the late 1980s/early 1990s and spends 19 months in French oak barrels. It’s made in a more classic Niagara style with a vivid nose of crushed black cherries, brambly raspberries, anise, black licorice, sage brush, herbs, spice, and a touch of cedar smoke. The palate reveals savoury red berries and anise in a rich and intense style that’s structured with polished tannins, minty herbs and spice followed by a long, lifted finish.
Stonebridge Cabernet Franc Reserve 2018 ($68, 92 points) — The 2018 CF is also sourced from the Twenty Mile Bench and spends 31 months in French oak barrels. This is the most elegant of the three. It’s tight right now but unfolds to reveal eucalypt, field raspberries, anise, savoury herbs, and integrated spice notes. It’s richly adorned in red fruits on the palate, and a touch of cassis in a highly structured style with ripe tannins, elegant spice, and verve through the lifted finish.
The Stonebridge Syrah
Stonebridge Syrah Reserve 2018 ($78, 92 points) — The Syrah is sourced from the St. David’s Bench and spends 30 months in French oak barrels. It has vivid nose of white pepper over savoury red berries, black currants, sage, and bay leaves with rich spicy notes. It’s an enticing Syrah on the palate with plump red berries, a savoury underbelly, black olives, black pepper with a silky texture, medium+ tannins, spice, and length through the lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.
The Lailey wines
Lailey Dry Riesling 2019 ($29, 91 points) — This single vineyard Riesling from the Niagara River sup-appellation has a rich and savoury nose with notes of grapefruit, lemon curd, yellow apple, and a slight reductive note. It’s mouth-filling with a creamy texture to go with citrus pulp, ripe apple, peach fuzz, a subtle note of petrol emerging and then a fresh finish. Highly stylized Riesling.
Lailey Rosé Estate Blend 2021 ($29 in bottle or $7 per can, 90 points) — This is a blend of four red varieties with some light oak aging. It has a bold nose of wild raspberries, fresh-cut watermelon, cherry pie and a touch of earth and spice in a more structured style. There is some grip and body on the palate with lovely ripe red berries, herbs, integrated spice notes and a fresh finish.
Lailey Orange Wine 2021 ($33, 88 points) — This skin-contact Vidal orange wine shows a light orange colour in the glass with a nose of peach skin, marmalade, and earthy/savoury notes. On the palate look for fresh squeezed oranges, minty herbs, pink grapefruit pulp, subtle astringent notes, and electric acidity on the finish.