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On Seven’s debut for the super rare Pinot Noir, plus 2020 Chardonnays

By Rick VanSickle

It really is a tantalizing tease of what’s to come from the tiny On Seven vineyard planted exclusively to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

But if you are lucky enough to score even one of the precious 168 hand-labelled bottles of On Seven Estate Winery’s debut Pinot Noir from the 2020 vintage, prepare to be captivated by its inherent charm and the promise of what it can be when it comes into full production.

This exceedingly rare Pinot, along with two Chardonnays — The Pursuit and The Devotion — will be available for ordering in August to wine club members (which is free by signing up here first and if anything remains, the public at large can purchase them. To get the Pinot, you will be required to buy a mixed case consisting of one bottle of the Pinot, three bottles of The Pursuit and two bottles of The Devotion.

Niagara wine

I know it’s a hackneyed term, but the On Seven Pinot Noir 2020 is truly a unicorn wine. With such a limited production, the winemaking that goes into making a half barrel of wine, the fact that it’s the first Pinot from what many consider is already a benchmark producer for Burgundian varieties, at least for Chardonnay in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and likely the last Pinot until the 2023 vintage, will make this a true rarity for informed Niagara wine lovers to hunt down.

As On Seven owner Vittorio De Stefano (above) and winemaker/consultant Peter Gamble (below) explained during a preview tasting of the new Pinot and Chards from 2020 recently, only 14 cases of the Pinot were made after farming the two acres of grapes to less than a half tonne per acre. That added up to less than half a barrel of wine when it was all said and done.

De Stefano attempted to source clear glass marbles from China to fill up the volume in a standard oak barrel to enable aging and prevent oxidization. The only other choices were to purchase wine to top up or purging the air space with inert gas. Neither were an option for On Seven.

Gamble decided on a long fermentation in used oak then a year-long slumber in stainless steel, followed by a year in bottle. There was light filtration and no fining in the finished wine and each bottle is simply hand-inscribed by De Stefano and the top dipped in wax by both De Stefano and Gamble. It’s a kitschy-cool bottle of wine with a story to match.

From this first bottle of Pinot Noir (not including the rosé from the 2021 vintage released a year ago) we start to see what the true nature of the terroir is in the five acres of vines (two for Pinot) planted at the estate. With several vintages of Chardonnay already sent out to the world, Pinot was the lone holdout, although a sparkling program, with the first blanc de blancs (Chardonnay), was started a couple of years ago but will not be released until it has sat on its lees for a decade.

It may appear to be one step forward, two steps back for De Stefano and Gamble, but it really isn’t. Both are perfectionists and won’t compromise on quality. The Devotion Chardonnay is only released in what they believe are the best vintages. When the Pinot grapes weren’t quite reaching the quality they wanted, they turned it into rosé in 2021, albeit a really good rosé.  

De Stefano purchased the abandoned seven-acre vineyard (hence the name) in 2009 in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation and promptly hired consulting viticulturist and winemaker Gamble. The site was prepped three years before replanting in 2014. The heavy clay loams are laced with calcareous deposits and sloped north to maintain freshness. The philosophy from the beginning was to be 100% organic certified and produce wines with minimal intervention. All wines are wild fermented with no fining agents, and sulphur is added only at bottling.

To craft the kind of terroir specific wines De Stephano and Gamble are committed to making, they adhere to a few guiding principles and values:

• Allow the vines to thrive and express the special character of their inherent genetics within a unique intersection of soil, climate and human influence
• Employ traditional and scientific certified organic farming practices that enhance the quality of the wine, and ecological balance
• Maintain low grape yields to ensure optimal ripeness and flavours
• Hand-harvest estate fruit into small crates to preserve integrity
• Allow wild yeast to express the vineyard’s unique sense of place in French oak barrels
• Limit wine production to very small quantities to maintain focus
• Release wine only after ample time in barrel and bottle to ensure its elements are harmoniously balanced

The three wines we tasted for this report are all from the 2020 vintage, an ideal growing season across the board for Niagara grapes. The spring was slightly delayed, but from late May through August, warm, dry weather prevailed. Continued ideal conditions in September resulted in healthy fruit, allowing the Gamble to wait for optimal ripeness before harvest.

Here is what I liked:

The Pinot Noir

On Seven Pinot Noir 2020 ($55, only available in a mixed case with the Chardonnays below, 94 points) — The vineyard is composed of calcareous loam and clay soil. This wine was created solely from a 2017 planting of Pinot Noir Dijon clone 115. The fruit was hand-harvested then wild fermented in a French oak, with a percentage as whole clusters. Due to the small harvest (less than a half a barrel produced), the wine was then transferred and aged in two small stainless-steel vats. After 12 months in steel, the wine was coarsely filtered and bottled for another year of aging. The wine has not been classified into either of the two series — Pursuit or Devotion — but simply labeled as Pinot Noir, given the small production and the decision to not age the wine in oak barrels. The nose is quite pretty and delicately perfumed with summer cherries, pure wild raspberries and bramble, violets, with subtle anise, leafy herbs, and ever so faint spice notes. It’s a beautifully fresh and vibrant Pinot on the palate with a velvety texture that highlights forest berries, a melange of red berries, a stony minerality note, a hint of truffles and wonderful finesse and freshness though a long, lingering finish. Such verve and vitality. “With so few bottles made – this is a wine for quiet contemplation,” says De Stefano. “As our first Pinot Noir, and an expression of an exemplary vintage, it offers a glimpse into the character and quality of our vineyard. Share with friends and family who appreciate fine wine and are curious about the potential of the ‘heart break grape’ in Niagara.” You can cellar a few years, but my preference would be to just find the right moment in the next little while and enjoy.

The Chardonnays

The Pursuit is made every vintage while The Devotion is only crafted when the winemaker feels it’s a special vintage, such as 2020. Both wines are made the same way and are determined on barrel selection. In the heat of 2020, Gamble says it required mitigating factors to not over-ripen the grapes too quickly. More leaves were left on the vines and the grapes were picked based on acid and p/h. “It takes a lot to be on it,” he says. “You have to be out there checking all the time.” The fruit was hand-harvested and the whole clusters were then pressed to produce juice. After settling to remove gross lees, the juice was transferred to French oak barrels (25% new, 75% neutral) for wild yeast fermentation and aging. After 20 months in barrel, the wines were coarsely filtered and bottled. Yields for the Chardonnay were one and half tonnes per acre.

On Seven The Pursuit Chardonnay 2020 ($48, 93 points) — The Pursuit is a blend of Chardonnay from distinct French barrels. This blending allows its expression to be greater than its individual parts, says Gamble. There is a richness and density to the fruit on the nose, but also a lovely saline/chalky note that highlights the pear, white peach, lemon blossoms, crunchy apple, and bergamot. It’s rich and textured on the palate with layers of pear, quince and lemon tart and then more tertiary notes of stony minerality, hazelnuts and ever-so-subtle oak spice with a long, finessed finish. There is a lot like to here, right from the beginning, but more will be revealed with a bit of time in the cellar, say 3+ years.

On Seven The Devotion Chardonnay 2020 ($65, 95 points) — This Devotion is a blend of Chardonnay from the finest barrels, the finest blocks, and the finest years. There is the note I wrote in my tasting pad that succinctly shows how I feel about this wine. It is below:

Now, I know that’s not helpful in any way, but that’s what my potty-mouth brain told my pen to write. I can’t argue with that, or be more expressive, although I will try. It has a profound nose of puréed pear, quince, hazelnuts, an integrated flinty/reductive note that I love, lingering spice, vanilla cream and still a certain saline freshness wafting from the glass. It’s powerful and broad on the palate with a creamy texture followed by fruits of pear and yellow apple, starfruit then bergamot, and lemon zest, toasted hazelnuts, some savoury notes, and elegant spices all framed in fresh salinity on a long, luxurious, and lifted finish. Just a gorgeous Chardonnay that will reward with 5+ years in the cellar.