By Rick VanSickle
He stormed onto the Niagara wine scene as the winemaker at Ravine Vineyard, quickly rose to general manager status and then … I don’t know, poof, he disappeared.
But, boy, it needs to be said, Martin Werner is back and he’s back in a very big way with tentacles in myriad wine projects far and wide but firmly rooted in the rural vineyards of his beloved Niagara-on-the-Lake where he was born and raised.
Also in this report, our picks from the Vintages release on Saturday, including Fogolar Riesling and Lakeview Cellars Icewine.
Werner never really disappeared, but he did bow out of the limelight in 2019 to quietly begin the journey of reshaping his place in the tapestry that is Niagara. And after getting schooled over a couple of hours at the Paris Crêpes Café in Niagara Falls last week, we finally learned what a fascinating journey it has been for Werner and all the various projects he is involved in.
As the wines came at us swiftly and the relationships with friends, farmers, family and yes, even wine writers, were revealed in layers, and it became perfectly clear that growing grapes and winemaking are central to what ties all those bonds together.
Werner is not only a Niagara native but also well versed in nurturing vineyards and creating small-batch wines. He grew up on his family’s 80-acre farm, working in the vineyard each summer. Before he ever made a bottle of wine, Werner already had a lifetime of experience with grapes. Now, with many years of crafting wines in Ontario, New Zealand and California, he is not only embracing his roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake with various projects highlighting regional wines, but also his desire to showcase small-batch wines from multiple regions and appellations internationally through his Northern Wine Merchants agency. And this is where we will begin.
Northern Wine Merchants wines
The mission at this new wine agency is to create long term personal partnerships with producers looking to provide authentic wines and spirits to the province of Ontario through all available sales channels. The partners include Werner, his brother Michael, and three other associates who grew up in Niagara: John Keen, Kim Legros and Matthew Pauls.
The portfolio is growing quickly and includes a portfolio of interesting and eclectic wines from Argentina, France, Chile, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the U.S. and, of course, Canada, including his own wines, MW Cellars (more on that below).
Our tasting began with two sparkling wines, a cava and a Champagne, both lovely examples of the two different styles.
Vita Vivet Brut — The Spanish cava Vita Vivet is made in a fresh style from Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada grapes from Penedes. Lovely lemon tart, green apple, and citrus notes with a fairly robust bubble and vibrant finesse.
Jil Accaries Cuvée Racines Champagne — This is a 100% Pinot Meunier bubble from Vallée de la Marne region in Champagne. Interesting side note: Jil Acceries is a cousin of Chateau des Charmes winemaker Amélie Boury. Such a beautiful floral note on the nose with citrus, peaches, and biscuit. It’s creamy and vibrant on the palate with elegant bubbles.
Paramour Gamay 2021 — This is a structured Gamay sourced from Marty and his wife Rachael’s family vineyard on the St. David’s Bench and made in collaboration with Toronto wine writer Michael Godel. It’s a bolder style Gamay with some oak aging and has an enticing nose of plums, crunchy red berries, cassis, and spice. It has structure on the palate with ripe tannins, red/dark berries, plump plums, spice, and plenty of zip on the finish.
Corretta Chianti Classico Molino di Grace 2018 — The Corretta is a more fruit-forward Chianti that is a collaboration between the winery Il Molino di Grace and Godel. It oozes bright red berries, dried herbs, and subtle spice notes on the notes. There is some structure here with smooth tannins, anise, red berries, spice, and wonderful freshness on the finish.
Note: Prices vary for all the wines in this report depending on your point of purchase. Many of the wines are available at local bottle shops.
MW Cellars wines
The M stands for both Martin and Michael, two brothers who grew up on the family vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the W for their last names of Werner. They travelled the world pursing their passion for wine, all-the-while dreaming of returning home to open a winery together.
The fruit for the MW Cellars comes principally from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Werner family farm (aside from the Gamay above, which comes from St. David’s) and Martin Werner is helped in the winemaking process by assistant winemaker Carter Snow. The first wine from this project was the 2021 Rosé with a Cabernet Franc following closely behind. The label you see here is being replaced with a new concept going forward. Most of the other new wines in the portfolio are unlabeled, some experimental, and others looking for a home on restaurant lists or by-the-glass programs. Like I keep saying: There’s a lot to unpack with Werner and his new ventures.
Here’s a brief rundown of the MW Cellars tasted at Paris Crêpes:
MW Cellars Rosé 2021 — This is a blend of Chardonnay and Gamay made in a bolder, more textured style. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with ripe red berries and citrus notes. There’s a touch of sweetness on the palate from the ripe berries but all nicely balanced by the racy acidity.
MW Cellars Cabernet Franc 2019 — There’s a funny story that goes along this wine and how Twenty Mile Bench fruit from the Wismer Vineyard made it into a primarily NOTL brand. It involves the start of hunting season and harvest colliding at an inconvenient time, but that’s all I am willing to reveal. Let’s just say Cabernet Franc “is my favourite variety in Niagara. and has more a story to tell than Merlot,” says Werner, and the opportunity to work with Wismer fruit presented itself, so he jumped at the chance. This has a beautifully floral nose with plums, cassis, black raspberries, herbs, and spice. The herbaceous notes fold seamlessly into the red berries on the palate with bonus anise fruit, ripe tannic structure, spice and a long, lifted finish. Classic Bench CF.
The ‘undefined’ MW wines
And then came a series of unlabeled bottles, consisting of various grape varieties and styles, that have been course filtered but won’t be bottled until February. All the fruit is from Werner’s Lincoln Lakeshore vineyards.
The Pinot Gris is loaded with peachy stone fruits, mineral notes, apples, and melon. It’s fairly fresh and dry on the palate with a lovely saline note to go with all those ripe orchard fruits along a zippy finish.
The Sauvignon Blanc is an elegant style with pear, grapefruit, starfruit, herbs, and subtle spice notes from what I presume is some barrel aging. It has lovely texture on the palate with pear, citrus, herbs, and a lively finish.
The Viognier is made in a fleshy style with pure apricot, jasmine, orange blossoms and peach. It has gorgeous mouthfeel and ripe exotic fruits on the palate.
The final two unnamed wines, just waiting for a restaurant to jump on them, are “my version of flaunting with natural wines,” says Werner. Both wines are a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the first one made as a white wine and the second one made as red wine with as little intervention as possible. The wine (get this!) was made in foraged demijohn bottles discarded on the side of farm roads in Niagara-on-the-Lake. These are true garagiste wines and they have a story to tell. The white, especially, caught my full attention with peach, orange blossoms and wild red berries that was nicely textured. The red is made in a lighter style with the full range of red berries on a fresh finish.
League of Farmers Cabernet Franc
The League of Farmers is a collection of good friends and grape growers who decided to turn wine they made for themselves over the last decade into a business (to help pay for their homemade wine). The friends are Werner (who also makes the wine), Trevor Falk, Shawn Spiewak and Mark Lepp. Equal parts of Cabernet Franc are collected from each farm (two bins each), which are all within a stone’s throw of each other in the Four Mile Creek Road/East-West Line area in the Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-appellation and blended together for the single Cabernet Franc they are making for this project every year.
The beautiful artwork on the label is from Julie Amlin, a Toronto-based artist and muralist. You will find her vibrant work scattered around the Toronto street art scene and in private collections.
League of Farmers Cabernet Franc 2020 ($42, you can purchase here, 93 points, only 98 cases made) — This is a really nice Cabernet Franc, about as concentrated and juicy as they come from the warm 2020 vintage. It’s tightly wound on the nose, but swirl for a few seconds and the gorgeous nose of dense black raspberries, kirsch, anise, mulled herbs, and fine oak spices emerge in spades. It’s substantial on the palate with a rich and structured profile that highlights ripe wild raspberries, black cherries, cassis, licorice, sage notes, elegant oak spices, and a long, lifted finish. Such a lovely Cabernet Franc. It needs a little time to integrate or decant if you can’t wait. Cellar 5+ years.
BOTL from NOTL
The idea behind the new BOTL (Blends On The Lake) label from Werner and friends Lepp, Dustin Gill and Jordan Hernder is to produce a non-vintage red wine with “a bit more creativity,” says Werner. The goal is to use Niagara-on-the-Lake fruit and take it to the ultimate of ripeness and to ensure that ripeness, take the best fruit from the best vintages and blend it. The blend for this first effort is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. Werner hopes to sell this in the $23-$24 range, incredible when you think about it, considering the low yields and work that’s going into this wine. It’s almost opaque in the glass with a dense nose of black cherries, cassis, ripe blackberry jam, kirsch, toasted vanilla, caramel, and lavish spice notes. It’s incredibly rich and dense on the palate with ripe red and dark berries, dried tobacco, macerated cherries, smoke, licorice, grippy tannins with length and power driving through a finessed and long finish.
Note: The MW Cellars, BOTL and League of Farmers wines are made at Palatine Hills Estate Winery.
Just the beginning …
As mentioned throughout this post, Werner has a lot on his plate, but what just might be his biggest project is the first one he began before all the others above.
While the bulk of the Niagara wines mentioned above were sourced from the Werner family farm on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake and neighbouring friends’ farms, Werner’s wife Rachael’s family farm is in St. David’s on York Road, where they live with their children. They have planted the vineyard with grapes for the York Vineyards sparkling program, what would be Niagara’s first winery devoted only to sparkling wines. The first grapes were planted in 2013 and Werner tells Wines in Niagara that consumers should start seeing the first sparkling wines from that vintage this coming summer. No bottles have yet to be disgorged and none of the base wine was available for this tasting, but I would venture to say the best is yet to come from Werner.
And just one more layer to this story: Rachael Werner’s parents also have a vineyard near Chateau des Charmes on the St. David’s Bench, where they live. The family has planted a further two acres of Cabernet Franc, not for sparkling, but for a still wine that will be coming to the MW Cellars line up soon.
And one final note: Kevin and Peter Buis manage the 80 acres of farms on Lakeshore Road and the Oppenlaender family takes care of both the St. David’s properties, totalling 15 acres.
Niagara wines coming to
Vintages stores Dec. 17
Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017 ($40 for 200 mL, 93 points) — Deep, rich burgundy colour in the glass with a bold nose of ripe black cherries, black currant jam, cherry kirsch and raspberry tart. It’s luxurious, complex, and rich on the palate with velvety texture, compoted dark berries, sweet cherry/raspberry jam and a long, lush finish buoyed by mouth-watering acidity.
Fogolar Hughes Vineyard Riesling 2019 ($20, 91 points) — This is from the warmer Hughes Vineyard in the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-app with the fruit hand-picked and whole cluster pressed. Fermentation was stopped at 26 g/l of RS with only 9% abv. This has a fruit laden nose with riper notes of peach, apple, citrus, nectarine and ginger. It’s juicy on the palate with sweet peach, Mandarin orange, ripe apple, lemon, ginger and nicely balanced between sweet and tart fruit.
Also released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:
• Peninsula Ridge Falcon’s Nest Barrel Aged Chardonnay 2020 ($20)
• Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($48)
• Two Sisters Eleventh Post 2018 ($48)
• 13th Street Premier Cuvée Sparkling 2015 ($40)
• Jackson-Triggs Entourage Grand Reserve Brut Sparkling 2017 ($30)
• Locust Lane Sparkling Riesling 2019 ($25)
• NOMAD Reserve Sparkling ($30 for a magnum)