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Winemaker built her dream from the ground up, welcome to Mason Vineyard

By Rick VanSickle

It is a shockingly beautiful vineyard with perfect rows of vines snug against the Niagara Escarpment on the Twenty Mile Bench with a gentle slope north toward Lake Ontario.

There is no doubt that this is a bucolic setting, but certainly much more importantly, the slope and north/south planting of the Mason Vineyard offers a relatively safe haven from the vine-killing winters growers have seen in recent years, including 2021-22. Very little winter damage occurred here as the severe deep-freeze episodes rolled off the escarpment, passed over the sloping vineyard and settled in north beyond the Mason Vineyard where it wreaked havoc. Kelly Mason — who purchased the vineyard, planted the grapes, created the brand, and makes the wine — feels terrible for the many growers who lost so much in the past year. “This vineyard is healthy,” Mason says, as we walk by rows of young Chardonnay vines. “I’m aware that I’m blessed.”

Niagara wine

Mason (above), who earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Western University in 1995 and an International MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University, quietly purchased the original vineyard in 2012 while working as an intern at Le Clos Jordanne and was virtually an unknown in wine circles. She bought it with money that she had been saving since her 20s and while working and earning a good living with auto parts maker Magna International. However, it was wine that was in her blood, not the corporate world, and at age 32, she began her quest to realize her dream of making wine and owning her own vineyard.

Mason’s first foray into wine was during a chance encounter in California that turned into an internship at the Pinot Noir centric Napa Valley winery Saintsbury, in Carneros. From there it was back to Ontario to earn a viticultural degree from Brock University and jobs at Tawse Winery and later, Le Clos Jordanne, which specializes in premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Next it was Domaine Queylus, learning under the guidance of Pinot/Chard guru Thomas Bachelder, first as the assistant winemaker and currently as the head winemaker. Mason was a quick learner and was beginning to get noticed on the Niagara wine scene. She was the first (and current) winemaker for Honsberger and then The Farm, which also made a Pinot Noir with her Mason Vineyard fruit. She left that position over a year ago to concentrate on her own project, Mason Vineyard.

While Mason was juggling all the various jobs she took on, she was diligently devoting any and all extra time before and after her day jobs to her vineyard and getting ready to launch her brand. In 2013, she bought a neighbour’s vineyard, increasing her farm to 25 acres, 12 of which are now under vine, and the entire vineyard was replanted to exacting standards that she believes will produce the best Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc possible. A block of Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been sold off each year, is being eyed as a replant to bring more Chardonnay into the fold. Currently Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc make up the bulk of the planted vines with the Chardonnay just coming into maturity and with more to come (watch for the first estate Chardonnay next year). She hopes to move the entire vineyard to organic in the years ahead.

It’s in a sweet spot on the Twenty Mile Bench, west of Cherry Avenue and south of Highway 8 with Tawse, Megalomaniac, Ridgepoint Wines and Vineland Estates as nearby neighbours. “This is my baby,” she says as we sit down to chat and taste the upcoming new Mason releases on the back patio at Mason Vineyard.

In the years after buying the two side-by-side vineyards, few knew that this rising star in the wine industry was a vineyard owner and had dreams of her own brand. “I didn’t tell anyone,” Mason tells me. “I was broke and struggling. I depleted my savings.”

The “turning point” for her was in 2018 when The Farm’s Mason Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 was awarded the Red Wine of the Year at the Ontario Wine Awards. As both the winemaker and the grower of the fruit for that wine, Mason was “ecstatic,” and she was beginning to think “I can do this thing.”

She says that to do all this — the daily work on the vineyard, two other jobs, branding Mason Vineyard — “is scary. I have no investors (and doesn’t want any, FYI), it’s just me. When my paycheque comes in it goes to labels, vines, bottles (etc.). But I’m having so much fun. It’s a struggle, but fun.”

Mason’s first wines were released to the world last December. It was somewhat of a quiet release but meticulously orchestrated by Mason and stunning in its presentation and quality of wines. Her little project, 10 years in the making, would no longer be just an idea, a dream, or a struggle. Mason Vineyard is bona fide player in the mosaic that is Niagara, and it has unfolded just as Mason dreamed it would.   

Mason described the feeling of launching her own brand to Wines In Niagara this way in a post published last January:

“The dream was always to have my own wine. I made the decision in the summer of 2020 to start developing my brand, my label, and my winemaking vision. When I think of it, really, I have been quietly creating this brand over the past 10 years by owning and working in my vineyard. Caring for the vines and following each season gave me the chance to learn a lot about each vine and its ‘personality.’ Most mornings, you can find me out there working, or walking the rows. I have also had time to gain experience throughout the past 10 years as a winemaker by working on many different projects with many wonderful winemakers. These opportunities helped me create processes, small, dedicated teams, and relationships with amazing wineries. It has always been exciting!”

Judging by the success of Mason’s first release and now the second, her namesake portfolio is firmly entrenched in the pantheon of top Niagara wines to seek out.

If you think Mason is busy enough as the winemaker for Queylus, Honsberger, her own wines and tending to her vineyard … you’d be wrong. She also runs an enticing “dine and stay” B&B at the vineyard farmhouse, which includes a series of culinary evenings that match Mason’s wines with local celebrated chefs and an overnight stay.

Four to eight guests can enjoy a chef-inspired dining experience that includes a five- to seven-course dinner paired with Mason wines, presided by Mason, or experienced sommelier Arlington Johnson. After the dinner, guests can relax by the outdoor fire pit or indoor fire and indulge in smores and continue the conversations into the night before retiring to one of four bedrooms in the Mason House. Included in the evening are the Mason Vineyard wines — some being secret projects, never released or rare back library wines — introduced and poured by Mason or Johnson. For more information on the dine and stay package, go here.

After touring the vineyard with Mason, we settled into a full portfolio tasting of the already released Collab wines and Estate wines, including the two sparkling wines, released Sept. 7. Here’s what to expect and how to get them at the bottom of the post:

The Bubbles

For someone who only made her first traditionally made sparkling wines a year ago for Honsberger, Mason has certainly caught on quickly. Her Mason Vineyard bubbles — a 2020 Blanc de Noirs and 2020 Blanc de Blancs — are absolutely stunning.

Mason Vineyard Sparkling Rosé Blanc de Noirs 2020 ($55, 94 points) — This méthode traditionnelle Pinot Noir sparkler has been on the lees for 1.5 years and only gets a 2 g/l dosage from the base wine. This second effort has a bit more colour than the 2019 version but the same lovely, elegant, and persistent bead in the glass. There is an intriguing, lifted floral/rose petal note on the nose followed by bready/yeasty notes, fresh-picked red berries, flint, salty salinity, and citrus zest. It’s energetic on the palate with fresh and tart raspberry/cherry fruit, rhubarb, citrus zest, flint, and a bright, finessed finish.

Mason Vineyard Sparkling Blanc de Blancs 2020 ($55, 94 points) — This first 100% Twenty Mile Bench Chardonnay sparkling wine from Mason gets a 2 g/l dosage from the Mason + Bachelder Collab Frontier Block at the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard. It has a firm and elegant bubble in the glass with a bready/yeasty note on the nose followed by bright lemon, grapefruit, flint, and apple skin. It’s energetic on the palate with a subtle autolytic note, grapefruit, fresh apple, flint, a certain saline quality with a bright, lifted finish. Lovely wine here that will age nicely as it fattens up.

Collab Series wines

Mason started her brand with winemaker collaborations in mind. “Part of our mission at Mason Vineyard is to work collaboratively with peer winemakers, both new and established, because this strengthens our region and each other,” she says. “When two winemakers work together to make one wine, they share knowledge and inspiration resulting in exciting new approaches and discoveries. And it’s also fun.”

The collaborations don’t have a set schedule and not all of them come to fruition, she explains. “This means that when they end up allocated here, they are truly special and worthy of getting to know.”

The Collab Series wines are made from grapes sourced from other vineyards with the production, tanking and cellaring done at other wineries.

Mason Collab Cabernet Franc — Mason + Honsberger 2020 ($50, 92 points) — Mason collaborated with Barb Honsberger (owner of Honsberger Estate, where Mason is the winemaker). The two have worked together for over a decade. From the early start up days, Honsberger gave Mason her first chance as a winemaker and Honsberger “would help press Cabernet Franc with her feet (well rubber boots, it’s cold outside in November),” says Mason. “The barn floor was dirt and things were kept simple. Since those early days a lot has grown and developed on that beautiful Honsberger Estate property.” Always supportive of creative winemaking ideas and a sharp businesswoman, Mason says Honsberger knew she had a special site for Cab Franc. With a shared love of all things Cabernet Franc, it made sense to Honsberger and Mason to make a collaborative wine.

Mason bought her vineyard in 2012, the same year she was hired as the winemaker at Honsberger. “Barb knew I wanted my own vineyard,” explains Mason. “And if I do I want to do a 50% Honsberger and 50% Mason Cabernet Franc. We’ve been talking about it for years. What would happen if it was co-fermented, picked on the same day, same tank and wild fermented?” This wine is a result of that. Whole berries were co-fermented right from the start. “After two years in elevage, we have a wild fermented wine that is not a clear expression of one vineyard over the other, but a harmonious blend that moves back and forth showing the hallmark characteristics of the two sites (Mason on the Twenty Mile Bench and Honsberger in Creek Shores).”

This has a forward nose of high-toned black raspberries, maraschino cherries, cassis, Cuban cigar leaf, savoury/earthy notes, and elegant spices. It’s bright and open knit on the palate with a profoundly rich melange of red berries, cassis, a touch of anise seed, smooth tannic structure, and lightly toasted spice notes. Wonderful wine with enough stuffing to improve for 5+ years.

Mason Collab Wild Ferment Viognier Part II — Mason + Husband 2020 ($35, 92 points) — “Brooke (Husband) and I have worked together for (four) years; Brooke (above with Mason) is the assistant winemaker and as she likes to say, it’s a fancy title for following me around to every project I work on. Her job is definitely a lot harder than just following! She helps keep us on track, asks tough questions, finds solutions, and makes sure the job gets done,” says Mason. Husband and Mason began working together in 2017 when Husband did her first harvest at Domaine Queylus for her college practicum with the Niagara College Winery and Viticulture Program. She then went on to live in a 14-foot trailer in the Okanagan while interning at Black Hills Estate. “Her focus and passion is making wild fermented Pinot Noir, so I was lucky to be able to get her back for the 2019 harvest and we have not stopped since! In 2021, it was her fifth harvest.”

The Viognier Part II is the same wine as the previous first iteration but kept for one more year in neutral oak barrels and stainless steel. The Vio is sourced from the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation. This vineyard is one of the oldest in Niagara — the first harvest of grapes from the site was in 1874. The soil is predominantly clay and silty clay/loam over calcareous red clay subsoils. The vineyard is farmed without reliance on chemical herbicides and adopts other sustainable land stewardship practices including undertaking biodiversity plantings and habitat restoration. As Mason explains, “We have never made Viognier before. We like drinking it and thought this was a great opportunity to make a small batch and try something new. Friends and family came out to help us pick the grapes and help with the hand sort. We fermented in stainless for the first half of primary fermentation and in neutral oak for the second half.” The Vio was wild fermented and aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak. It is finished with the highest amount of residual sugar — 2.5 g/l — in the portfolio, which is still very dry. It’s highly aromatic with profound apricot, honeydew melon, peach cobbler, honey suckle, white flowers, ginger, grapefruit, and apple. It has a fleshy/oily texture, and the extra age has added to an already unctuous and luxurious feel with an enticing broth of exotic tropical fruits, apricot tart, a ginger/nutmeg/spice thing going on, with depth, complexity that all lead to a fleshy, juicy, yet vibrant, finish.

Mason Collab Blended Block Chardonnay — Mason + Bachelder 2020 ($48, 93 points) — Now, this collab is geek winemaking of the highest order. It is two parts — the first one a blend of two blocks from the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard and the other a single-block rendition. Bachelder and Mason’s stories are intertwined, explains Mason. Yes, they worked together doing the heavy lifting to get Domaine Queylus off the ground, collaborating on keeping the vineyard organically run and making wines that are “subtle, deft, and pure,” says Mason. “We are connected by very similar palates, a similar passion for life, about one starting a sentence and the other finishing it (or a wine). There is a shared love of local terroir; of the wines of Pinot and Chardonnay, and the inexplicable love of doing your own terroir project.” With both Mason Vineyard and Bachelder, together, they had “the infrastructure to pull a crazy wine collaboration wine off.” 

When Mason and Bachelder (photo above) met by chance in the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard, they realised that both were sourcing fruit from the same block … and so the thought of a collaboration popped to mind. They tasted and tested, talked, and tasted, and that seed of an idea came together in a duet, “not just of two winemakers, but of two wines from different parts of the same Grimsby Hillside Vineyard, in an unjustly unknown part of Niagara. Collaboration is hopefully about bringing out the best in everyone, we hope that, when you pour that first crucial glass, you will agree that this is one of Niagara’s great undiscovered terroirs.”

The blend is from Mason’s Frontier Block (86%, clone 76) barrels and Bachelder’s Red Clay Barn Block (14%, field blend of clones 76, 95, 809) barrels from the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard (photo above).

“Thomas and I played around with different blends to create a unique wine where the addition of the Red Clay Barn Block would add a different tasting experience and new layers to the Frontier Block. We are showing with this wine how Chardonnay can express a site.”

This is certainly fascinating, a cerebral exploration of two blocks of Chardonnay a stone’s throw away from each other. And they are profoundly different if you taste them side by side, which I urge you to do. I found the blend to be a bit more restrained at the start on the nose but rich and seductive has it opens up to baked pear, yellow apple, bergamot, stony minerality and fine oak perfume. The ripe stone fruits really open up on the palate and offer a creamy, textured profile with enticing spice notes, wet stones and a freshening acidity on the lifted finish.

Mason Collab Frontier Block Chardonnay — Mason + Bachelder 2020 ($48, 95 points) — If you needed another reason to understand why so many top winemakers are sourcing single-vineyard Chardonnays from the Frontier Block of the Grimsby Hillside Vineyard, this will certainly open your eyes.

This Collab Chard is a blend of Bachelder and Mason’s Frontier Chardonnay — all clone 76, 66% Mason and 33% Bachelder. “Thomas and I played around with different blends to create a lean wine with tension and focus. Try the two Collab wines together, see the difference for yourself.

For me, this is a beautiful rendition of the Frontier Block and reflects both the beauty of the fruit there and a melding of the two winemakers’ styles. It has such a saline/sea breeze nose with ripe pear, apple skin, flinty minerality, lemon tart and elegant spice notes that is both intense and seemingly wants to give even more with a bit time in the cellar. It is textured, rich and elegant on the palate with a “salty, briny, flinty” profile, as Mason defines it, with rich stone fruits, pristine salinity, lemon zest and seamless spice notes and depth, complexity, and verve on a long, lifted finish. Extraordinary Chardonnay, people!

The Estate Wines

Mason Vineyard The Matriarch Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2020 ($55, 94 points) — Pinot Noir is exactly what Mason had in mind when she bought her vineyard 10 years ago. She absolutely loves Pinot, and it shows in this wild fermented, lightly oaked style that highlights a beautifully perfumed, forest floor nose of ripe dark cherries, beet root, anise, black raspberries, and subtle, unobtrusive oak spice notes. It shows silky, caressing tannins on the palate, somewhere in the middle of power and grace, with ripe and brambly red berries, lovely savory notes, black earth, seamless spice notes and a lifted, finessed finish. This is exactly what Pinot should be — it makes you ponder and think. Mason suggests 3-5 years of cellaring, if you can wait … good luck with that!

Mason Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2020 ($55, 93 points) — The estate Cabernet Franc, a variety that Mason is also deeply committed to, is bottled unfiltered and is wild fermented. Such a wow nose of brambly black raspberries, stewed herbs, savoury wild berries, thyme, leather, a touch of cassis and light toasty oak spice notes. On the palate, the fruit turns to mouth-filling darker berries of cassis and anise, to go with brambly summer raspberries, a firm-ish texture, medium+ tannins, savoury spice notes, herbs, and elegant oak stylings on a rich, lifted and vibrant finish. I can see this cellaring nicely for 5+ years.

How to get the wines

The Collab Series wines are available now. Go here to purchase them.

The Estate wines, including the two sparkling wines, go on sale Thursday morning Sept. 7. You must be on the email list to get them. Go here to sign up.