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Rennie set to debut new appassimento wines at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio

By Rick VanSickle

The signs are now up, and ground has broken for the $5-million renovation to the winery at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio, a first for Ontario.

The former Stoney Ridge Estate Winery is now “The Crush” and the first clients are settling into the revamped digs. Wine lovers are bellying up to the tasting bar and can taste a range of wines under one convenient umbrella. And grapes, cases of the first wines made at The Crush, and barrels are filling up every nook and cranny in the winery. But there is much more to come.

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The Crush, the brainchild of CEO and Rennie Estate owner Graham Rennie (above), is starting to take shape. The brands hosted at the Jordan location include Rennie’s own wines, Stoney Ridge, including the Tragically Hip brand, Horseshoe Cellars, and Vladimir Skok’s Enoteka Niagara.

Rennie and his partners, including veteran winemaker Marco Piccoli, are clearly focused on the “big dig” and getting the winery ready for July 1, 2023. It will be a facility unlike any other in Niagara and will be able to handle 100,000 cases of wine annually and host as many as 12 clients producing multiple brands of wine under the winery’s manufacturing licence. The concept allows virtuals efficiency by diversifying production among multiple brand owners and the individual brands “achieve success through shared marketing, elimination of capital investment, reduction of initial financial and time requirements, more efficient processing, access to our retail store sales channel and on-demand, customized client support.” The retail operation at the new facility will give all clients an equal opportunity to offer their wines through the winery’s on-site and online retail channel.

The first appassimento grapes arrive at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio.

As with any new concept, there are wrinkles along the way and they often show up in regulatory documents that guide the industry that have not changed over the decades. Rennie is focused right now on convincing Ontario’s attorney general Doug Downey to update a regulation that prohibits a virtual winery from transferring its own wine from one location to another. Rennie hosted Downey at The Crush recently and heard firsthand from virtuals impacted by antiquated rules that prevent them from transferring wines from place to place. “We put on a show,” Rennie told Wines in Niagara. “Stakeholders got a chance to tell the minister how crazy it is that winemakers can’t move their wines.”

Graham says “there is no rule that says you can’t do it, but there isn’t a rule that says you can, either. There’s just a glitch in the way it’s set up.” He is confident that Downey (as attorney general he is ultimately responsible for the rules guiding the Ontario wine industry) understands the fallacy behind out-dated regulations that did not anticipate virtual wineries when the rules were drawn up and will rectify the language to allow wine to move from one location to another.

Rennie’s first wines, with grapes sourced from his 50-acre Heron Pond Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench and finished at The Crush, are being unveiled Dec. 17 at an open house that will also feature Stoney Ridge and Tragically Hip wines. The bottles will include two new appassimento style wines, plus a 2016 full appassimento wine Rennie has held back for years.

In this report, we have reviews for the new Rennie Estate wines, Stoney Ridge and the new Hip wine.

New Rennie Estate wines

Rennie Estate Christine Chardonnay 2018 ($40, 92 points) — Named after Rennie’s wife, this classy wild fermented Chardonnay is aged on its lees in French oak for 22 months and is bottled unfiltered and unfined. 2018 was a bit of a tough vintage in Niagara and the grapes ended up being picked earlier than other vintages and as such the bolder Rennie style gives was to more mineral/saline notes. It shows a lovely golden colour in the glass with ripe pear, golden apple, a floral note, baking spices and chalky minerality. It profiles has a minerally-laden Chardonnay on the palate with flinty/saline notes, integrated pear/apple and bergamot with creamy mouthfeel, elegant oak spices and a vibrant, lifted finish. Drinking really fine right now but can cellar 3+ years.

Rennie Estate Onyx 2018 ($45, 93 points) — This wine, and the Obsidian below, are the first two in what is the new Heron Pond Benchland Vineyard Series, a nod to the estate vineyard on the Beamsville Bench. This tier is where Rennie will slot “declassified” appassimento wines and other wines outside the traditional wines in the portfolio. “It was an opportunity to create a second label,” Rennie says, “to play around with what goes in the bottles.” The Onyx is 100% Cabernet Franc that’s dried for 80 days to get the kind of Brix Rennie wants with his top appassimentos — somewhere in the neighbourhood of 28+ Brix. It spends 38 months in French oak and is finished at a hefty 17% abv. It’s the baby sister to the top CF appassimento wine named Colleen, which was only made in 2016 and sells for $125. It is quite remarkable, and a more affordable option compared to the declared top wines. It has a penetrating nose of ripe blackberries, macerated cherries, cassis jam, dark plums, mulled herbs and eucalyptus, bold oak spices and earthy/savoury notes. It’s rich and substantive on the palate with dense dark and red berries, complementing herbal notes and anise/licorice in a bold and sassy style that is rich in spices and all leading to a super long, lifted finish. Can cellar this beauty for 10+ years. It should be noted, this wine and the Obsidian were made by Malivoire winemaker Shiraz Mottiar and Rennie, but were finished at The Crush.

Rennie Estate Obsidian 2018 ($45, 94 points) — In the parlance of appassimento speak at Rennie Estate, the top tier dried grape Cabernet Sauvignon is called Super G and retails for $125. It was only made in 2016 and 2017 with high potential for 2020. Rennie decided to create the Obsidian in 2018, from declassified dried grapes, and crafted it like the wine above — dried for 80 days to get to 28+ Brix. It spends 38 months in French oak and is finished at 17% abv. If you like your red wines big, you will absolutely love this Cab Sauv. It’s highly concentrated and the aromas jump from the glass with a full throttle array of wild blackberries, black currant compote, cassis, dried Cuban tobacco leaf, mocha, toasted vanilla bean and rich spices. It’s thick and rich on the palate with compoted dark berries, sweet tobacco, kirsch, ripe tannic structure, complexity, an abundance of fine oak spices and mocha, with a long, echoing, and finessed finish. Drink now with extended decanting or cellar for a decade or more.

Rennie Estate G 2016 ($60, 94 points) — The first time I reviewed this wine was in October 2019. What a treat for consumers to be the first to purchase this well-aged bottle at the Dec. 17 release at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio. This is part of the core top-tier appassimento reds that include both the Super G and Colleen 2016. This is Rennie’s full appassimento style red that is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It was dried in a custom trailer for up to 73 days. The fruit loses 30% of its weight from the drying and is finished at 29.1 Brix and 16.1% abv. It spends 24 months in French oak barrels. “This is exactly the kind of wine I wanted to produce in my small lot format,” Rennie said in 2019. I retasted this wine, now with three years of bottle age, and am updating my notes and score. The nose is expressive and opulent with concentrated black currants, blackberries, sweet tobacco, loam, mocha, thick spice notes, graphite, plums and crushed red berries. It’s big, bold and structured on the palate with plush tannins, a full range of dark fruits, earth, wild raspberry jam, melted chocolate, integrated herbs, savory notes, length through the finish and richness through the finish that’s all propped up by racy acidity. Just a beautiful wine that carries the 16.1% abv well. Can cellar 8+ years.

New wines from Stoney Ridge

Stoney Ridge became part of the umbrella Niagara Custom Crush Studio after the winery was sold to Rennie and his partners. The wines are made at the former Stoney Ridge winery by “The Crush” team and sold through the tasting/retail facility. I tasted a few Stoney Ridge wines, including the newest member in the Tragically Hip line of wines, with Crush/Stoney Ridge general manager Matt Loney.

The Tragically Hip Fifty Mission Cab 2014 commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Canadian band’s seminal album, Fully Completely which includes one of the band’s most popular songs: 50 Mission Cap. The band’s first wine, Fully Completely Reserve Red was originally produced to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the album, 50 Mission Cab continues this tradition as the album reaches its 30-year milestone. 

Working in conjunction with guitarist Rob Baker, the label concept pays homage to the lyrics of 50 Mission Cap and celebrates the legacy and final flight of Toronto Maple Leafs legend, Bill Barilko. The artwork was derived from a hand carved linocut image created by a Canadian artist commissioned for this design.

Tragically Hip Fifty Mission Cab 2021 ($40, 92 points) — This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Merlot from two select vineyards in in the Niagara Peninsula. Grapes were crushed and fermented in one tonne fermenter bins with daily manual punch-down of the caps. The wine was then racked into French oak barrels (30% new barrels, 40% 1 year old, 30 % seasoned) for 12 months prior to blending. Hip fans will be gobbling up these wines up quickly, but I hope they will take the time to enjoy the bottles rather than keep them as souvenirs — it really is a nice red wine to drink. It has a fairly robust nose of blackberries, dark cherries, dried tobacco, violets, plums and toasted oak spice notes. It’s rich and smooth on the palate with ripe dark berries, a touch of cherry compote, cassis, Cuban tobacco and earthy notes with lovely integrated spice notes and mouth-watering acidity driving the back end. A really fine Cabernet with classic Niagara elegance and enough stuffing to cellar 5+ years, though attractive right now. Better hurry if you want any of this special wine. Go Leafs Go!

Stoney Ridge Gewurztraminer 2019 ($15, 88 points) — A good value Gew with a highly aromatic nose of grapefruit, lychee, ginger, apricot, pear, and an intriguing floral note. It has a fresh and lively profile on the palate with juicy grapefruit, pear, peach, lemon peel, ginger, and a vibrant finish.

Stoney Ridge Small Lot Chardonnay 2019 ($25, 90 points) — Sourced from 100% hand-harvested Chardonnay grapes from Four-Mile Creek, this wine was barrel fermented in 100% new French oak barrels with regular stirring of the lees. The wine was further aged on its lees for 12 months in barrel. This lovely Chard has a spicy, rich nose of baked pear and apple, lemon tart, vanilla bean, and tropical fruit notes. It has a creamy texture on the palate with ripe orchard fruits, flinty notes, toasty vanilla, lemon curd and elegant oak spices with a vibrant finish. Old school Chardonnay with bold flavours and mouth-watering acidity.