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You had me at Merlot: Kirby Estate winery makes a bold statement with Niagara debut

By Rick VanSickle

The tree-lined driveway at the Kirby Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake leads to a stately, immaculately kept home surrounded by vineyards at every turn.

I have been looking forward to this visit since first tasting a surprising Merlot from this undiscovered winery around Christmas time in 2020 at a going away party for former Adamo winemaker Shauna White. Impressed with how elegant, pure, and layered it was, we set up a tasting before a COVID lock down scuttled those plans, like a lot of plans during the “pandemic” years.

Niagara wine

The fledgling vineyard owners, Scott and Maria Kirby (above), were drawn to the region in 2017 by the “idyllic beauty, pastoral environs, and favourable climate.” They were eager to showcase their wines over two years ago, but Mother Nature threw a few obstacles in their way, requiring a partial vineyard replanting and an opportunity to plant grapes that align with what the couple likes to drink.

I am greeted at the front door with big smiles from Scott and Maria Kirby along with consultant Peter Gamble on an overcast late summer’s day last week. As we await the arrival of wine writer Tony Aspler and his guests from the UK, we walk the tidy rows of vineyards heavy with plump, ripening grapes.

When the Kirbys first visited the property, it was obvious to them that the former peach farm turned vineyard in the 1990s was a special place with its rich soils, bounded by Four Mile Creek on the east and north, and overflowing with tender fruit, nut trees, and a plethora of birds and wildlife. There were also acres of vines with mature red and white vinifera varieties scattered around the property.

The couple was looking for a lifestyle change and embraced the challenge with optimism, and maybe just a little trepidation, as they journeyed down the road less travelled becoming grape growers and vignerons.

Consultant Peter Gamble.

Under their stewardship, the Kirbys have partnered with top industry professionals with expertise in vineyard management and artisanal winemaking to craft premium, small-lot, single-vineyard Merlot, Chardonnay, and soon to come, Gamay, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Blanc sparkling wines.

Kirby Estate is situated in the sub-appellation of Niagara Lakeshore and is approximately 2.7 km south of Lake Ontario. The location between the escarpment and the lake fosters convection breezes which ventilate the vines and moderate winter and summer temperature extremes, while extending the growing season into late October and early November allowing for exceptional fruit maturation.

Historically the property lies in the shallows of former Lake Iroquois, now receded, but leaving behind clay tills and sandy loams.  Additionally, the east half of the property is contained within an historic floodplain of a former tributary of the Niagara River (now Four Mile Creek) which has over 17,000 years deposited calcareous sediments eroded from the escarpment resulting in additional alkalinity in the silty and sandy soils. This soil condition is highly desirable for resulting acidity in the wine. The area temporarily floods annually in the spring resulting in natural fertilization.

The vineyard is planted to five red varieties: Gamay Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot; and two white varieties: Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, totalling approximately 11 acres under vine on the 17.5-acre farm.

When the Kirbys bought the property in 2017, they sold their first inherited crop of grapes. In 2018 they made their first wines, two barrels of Merlot. As mentioned above, Gamble is the consultant on the project while Cloudsley Cellars handles the production under the guidance of Matt Smith as the winemaker. Glen Elgin Vineyard Management’s Craig Wismer is the vineyard manager.

The estate acquired a manufacturing licence and site approval this summer to build a winery inside a barn on the estate and there are plans to move some of the winemaking on site, but they are unsure if they will have a full retail and tasting venue at their property. It’s more likely that they will use an “appointment only” system popular with smaller producers in the region.

The production sits at a tiny 400- to 500-case level with a ceiling in the future of no more than 1,200 cases, “but we don’t care if it takes 10 years to get there,” says Scott Kirby. The plan is to keep the portfolio at the super-premium level with room for three tiers — Estate, Reserve and Signature.

It’s clear that Merlot is the star attraction at Kirby, and the first release available to consumers will be a trio of this grape over the three tiers. The plan going forward is to bring Petit Verdot into the blend. “I want to make a claret,” Scott Kirby says, referring to the Merlot-based Right Bank Bordeaux blends from Pomerol. “We just love Merlot and Petit Verdot,” adds Maria Kirby. “You’ve got do what you like.”

The three Merlots (one from 2018, the other two from 2020) in bottle from the Kirby collection are head-turners, that is certain, and the top Signature Merlot is one of the finest I tasted from Niagara in any vintage. The addition of Petit Verdot will bring some tannic structure to the plusher and more rounded Merlot and build a wine with the aging power of top Right Bank Bordeaux wines.

The other two wines being released are a 2019 and 2020 Chardonnay, also top-drawer examples of this grape from Niagara-on-the-Lake.

How to get the wines

Kirby is not set up yet for public visitation. They owners plan to sell from a subscription/member list as well as to licensees and deliver wine to purchasers. The e-commerce portion of the website is now live here.

“It seems like everything is speeding up on us regarding the wine business,” says Scott Kirby. “We are super excited and hope that people will enjoy our offering.”

You can also follow the winery’s progress here on Instagram.

Here’s what I liked from the tasting:

The Chardonnays

Kirby Estate Chardonnay 2019 ($60, 92 points) — Sourced from the estate’s older Chardonnay vines (24 years old), the wine is wild fermented and aged in 42% new French oak and the rest neutral French oak for 20 months. The nose shows saline freshness, ripe pear, guava, lemon blossoms, yellow apple, perfectly integrated oak spices and citrus zest. It shows more density on a textured and creamy palate with a melange of orchard fruits, some tropical accents, lemon, lingering spice, lovely freshness, and verve through a layered and long finish.

Kirby Estate Chardonnay 2020 ($60, 93 points) — Sourced from the estate’s older Chardonnay vines (25 years old), the wine is wild fermented and aged in 34% new French oak and the rest neutral French oak for 20 months. The 2020 version of this Chardonnay is more open knit and expressive from the get-go with a nose of perfumed pear, lemon-tinged citrus, ripe apple, summer peach and elegant spice notes. There is (remarkably, due to the vintage) a racy vein of salinity on the palate with a complex array of ripe, juicy orchard fruits, bergamot, integrated oak spices and plenty of finesse and flare keeping it lively through a textured finish.

The Merlots

Kirby Estate 2018 Merlot 2018 ($60, 92 points) — The estate Merlot, and the first wine produced by Kirby, is from 16-year-old grapes planted at the property. It’s wild fermented and aged for 20 months in 55% new French oak and the rest in neutral barrels. This is beautifully aged with lovely perfume on the nose followed by brambly raspberries, dark plums, ripe cherries, anise, earthy/savoury notes and spices. It’s mouth-filling on the palate with a basket of ripe red fruits, juicy plums, a touch of earth, dark chocolate, a plush texture, spice, and tangy acidity. It’s an elegant, yet firm Merlot, with a long, finessed finish. Can cellar 5+ years. 12.5% abv.

Kirby Estate Merlot Reserve 2020 ($80, 93 points) — The reserve Merlot from the warm 2020 vintage is from 18-year-old grapes planted at the property. It’s wild fermented and aged for 20 months in 20% new French oak and the rest in neutral barrels. The nose is a bit closed on first sniff, but it opens up with swirling to a nuanced and elegant array of dark cherries, wild black raspberries, dark plums, clove, and toasty vanilla spice. It’s ripe and dense on the palate with a bed of plush tannins, a rich broth of ripe red berries, anise, dusty/firm tannin structure, complexity, layered and long through a lifted finish. Perfectly poised between pretty and powerful with a window of drinking stretching through a decade. 14.7% abv.

Kirby Estate Merlot Signature 2020 ($108, 95 points) — Simply stated, this “signature” level Merlot is a blockbuster, maybe the finest I have tasted from Niagara. It’s made essentially as the Merlot above except for two factors: this is unfiltered, and the wine is finished at 15.7% abv (though Gamble says it’s more like 15% abv), that doesn’t feel like it at all. Such a beguiling and perfumed nose of meaty, ripe, and seductive red berries, plum pudding, figs, sweet tobacco, cloves, elegant oak spices and sandalwood nuances. It is mouth-filling, rich, and layered with a silky texture, ripe tannins supporting a complex array of ripe/brambly red berries, anise, plums, truffles, subtle pepper, and lovely spice notes that are integrated and elegant. It’s surprisingly balanced through an incredibly long and finessed finish with little indication of the stated abv. What a beautiful Merlot that takes its inspiration from the top wines of Pomerol. To quote a certain president: “And that’s no joke!” This can easily cellar for 10 or more years.