By Rick VanSickle
There are a lot of firsts taking place at Niagara’s first custom crush pad, but none more significant than the full release of the Rennie Estate Vineyard’s 2020 wines.
The Niagara Custom Crush Studio, former home of Stoney Ridge Estate Winery in Lincoln, will reveal its new line up of Burgundian varieties and appassimento (dried grape) wines this weekend on Oct. 14 and 15 for a first time, exclusive tasting of the 2020 vintage wines in the new home of Rennie. The tasting will include a 2022 vintage barrel tasting, a tour of the new Niagara Custom Crush Studio production facility, followed by a guided tasting of the 2020 wines, and cheese pairing. Each session will be hosted by owner and CEO of the Crush, Graham Rennie, with tickets costing $45 per person. They can be purchased here.
The concept of the region’s first custom crush pad was something Rennie (above) conceived years ago while searching for a permanent home for his small collection of what he calls “super Niagara” appassimento wines along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from his Beamsville Bench vineyard called Heron Pond. He and his partners eventually settled on purchasing the former Stoney Ridge winery and began a year-long renovation project that included building a new production facility large enough to attract winemakers looking for a home to craft their wines and retail them all in one place.
There are currently several brands on site for the 2023 harvest including: Rennie Estate, Stoney Ridge (including Tragically Hip wines), Veronica’s Vineyard (a project from the Lincoln Lakeshore sub-appellation with the first wine being A Thousand Kisses Viognier), The Long Way Home (a project by former Flat Rock Cellars and Hidden Bench winemaker Marlize Beyers), Horseshoe Cellars (a Riesling project from John-Daniel Steele and Scott Woody), 13 Kings Cellars (a project from the King family), Therianthropy (a project founded by a group of “wine-loving humans” crafted by vintner David Eiberg), and Unscripted Wine (a project that I have no information for).
It’s a gorgeous state-of-the-art production facility, with more than enough space to handle a busy harvest season for multiple projects. Former Arterra winemaker Marco Piccoli is the in-house winemaker and a partner in The Crush.
The Niagara Custom Crush Studio is a new kind of wine production concept, backed by a group of established investors who shoulder the up-front costs that many winemakers cannot afford on their own. “I started The Crush so that other winemakers could benefit from the same opportunities I had: a great production facility as well as a way to reach consumers directly through a retail and tasting room experience,” said Rennie, whose background includes over 35 years in the investment management business and 10 years as vigneron and proprietor of Rennie Estate Winery. The winery operated as a virtual brand through the Malivoire Wine Company and is now one of the founding wineries of The Crush.
Virtual wineries can easily access winemaking facilities and retail exposure to allow them to focus on their craft and passion. The expanded, purpose-built facility includes space for a full suite of production technology, an appassimento drying room, and the latest in harvesting and grape processing equipment, as well as the latest in oversight technology to monitor each step of the process.
“This is a project that many people in the Ontario wine industry have been waiting for, and it’s finally … a reality.” said Piccoli, COO for The Crush. Piccoli has over 27 years of experience as a winemaker and witnessed the rapid growth of Niagara’s wine industry in recent decades. “We are able to offer a forever home to high quality, independent winemakers, and at the same time, help them connect directly with wine lovers through an exceptional on-site experience centre.”
These are exciting times at The Crush and as I toured the facility last week, just as the first grapes of the 2023 harvest were arriving on the new crush pad, there was excitement in the air. On this day Therianthropy winemaker Eiberg was processing some of his first grapes as shiny stainless-steel tanks, oak barrels in various sizes, and ceramic vats stood by ready to be filled by tonnes of fresh crushed grapes.
The 2020 Rennie vintage is historic, as it’s the first full vintage to be released at the new crush facility. Rennie couldn’t be happier with the wines from what many consider the best vintage ever in Niagara, especially for the Bordeaux varieties. “We all knew 2020 would be a big vintage,” Rennie tells me as we settle in for a tasting. “These wines are fairly well-bodied with a bit more tannin.”
Here’s what I liked from the release:
The Burgundian grapes
Rennie Estate Christine Chardonnay 2019 ($45, 92 points) — The Christine (named after Rennie’s wife) Chardonnay is the only non-2020 wine in the lineup. Rennie prefers to keep his wines in bottle longer than most wineries to ensure they are ready to drink on release. His style leans to bolder, denser wines, but his Beamsville Burgundian wines show a bit more restraint from the get-go. The wine is aged on the lees in French oak barrique for 19 months. This has a lovely saline/stony note on the nose followed by fresh pear, lemon zest, yellow apple, and elegant spices. It’s richer on the palate with an interesting vein of chalky minerality, pear/apple fruits, bergamot, and spice along a textured, long, and lifted finish.
Rennie Estate Paradox Pinot Noir 2020 ($45, 92 points) — The fruit for the Pinot Noir was 78% destemmed with the rest whole cluster for fermentation in stainless steel tanks. It was aged in French oak for 30 months. “We kept it in oak longer because the 2020 wines were so big,” Rennie said. It shows robust colour in the glass with an overt nose of black cherries, crushed black raspberries, cola, baking spices and a touch of cassis. It has a plush texture and smooth delivery with flavours of succulent red berries, brambly/earthy notes, black currants, and a lifted, long finish. You an age this for 5+ years.
The appassimento wines
Rennie has championed the dried grape style of winemaking in Niagara through innovation with his drying chambers and trial and error in what works best in the region. The reason these wines cost more is simple math. To get to the desired brix (sugar levels) of 29 it can take up to 80 days of drying, shrivelling, and gaining concentration in a custom chamber. That can amount to a 35% loss of grape volume at the highest end, but necessary for the kind of complexity Rennie wants in these big, bold red wines. The 2020 was the warmest vintage Rennie has worked with for the appassimento wines and the result is the biggest, most profound dried grape wines to date. They are long-lived, high alcohol (17% abv) examples that will need patience from consumers in the cellar or at the very least, decanting and served with a perfectly grilled steak.
Rennie Estate Garrett’s Block Merlot 2020 ($55, 92 points) — At long last, the oldest Rennie son, a lawyer who lives in Australia, has a wine named after him. Garrett joins his mom Christine, dad Graham (Super G), sister Colleen and younger brother Evan all with wines in the portfolio that have their names on the label. “Finally at the age of 36 he got a wine,” laughs Rennie. “He was quite pleased. His first question was: ‘How much is it?’ ” The Garrett Block is a 100% Merlot, 100% appassimento wine, dried for 60 days to 29 brix, and aged in 100% French oak (50% new). It’s finished at 16% abv and the fruit lost 25% of its weight from drying. With all that said above, this is the “medium” bodied wine in the 2020 trio. The nose is quite attractive right from start with notes of ripe black cherries, jammy cassis, brambly summer raspberries, black currants, and luxurious oak spices. It’s mouth-filling on the palate and turning more toward a dark fruit profile of ripe cassis, blackberry jam and macerated red fruits with a firm tannic backbone, a touch of smoke, rich spices, and a long, lingering finish. Can cellar 7+ years.
Rennie Estate Onyx Cabernet Franc 2020 ($60, 94+ points) — In my opinion, and Rennie disagrees with this, Cabernet Franc is the perfect grape for the appassimento style. I just love how it tames the rough edges in CF and accentuates the positive aspects so nicely. Rennie prefers his beloved Cabernet Sauvignon at the top of the table for his appassimento collection of wines. The Onyx is a 100% Cabernet Franc appassimento wine, dried for 82 days, aged in 50% new, 50% used French oak for 25 months, and finished in the drying chambers until the grapes reached 29.2 brix (27% of original weight). It was finished at 17 abv. This has a gorgeous earthy/spicy/perfumed nose of cherry/kirsch, cola, black raspberry and black currant jam, sweet herbs and savoury notes with charred cedar and toasty vanilla. It makes a bold statement on the palate with a wall of firm tannins, super ripe red berries, black currants, savoury herbs, campfire notes, underlying earthiness, lingering spice notes and an invigorating lift from tingly acidity through a long, finessed finish. It’s very tight now and you will need to wait on it to be rewarded. This will continue to evolve for 10+ years.
Rennie Estate Obsidian Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 ($60, 94 points) — In terms of hierarchy in the Rennie portfolio, there is only one wine that tops this, the Super G, which will be released at a later date. The Obsidian is a 100% appassimento, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, dried for 80 days to 29 brix and a loss of 35% volume, aged in 50% new oak for 25 months and finished at 17% abv. “This is still a baby in terms of life cycle,” said Rennie. It’s big, bold, and beautiful on the nose with a perfumed array of black currant jam, blackberries, super ripe black cherries, sandalwood, tar notes, a touch of earth and toasty vanilla and spice. It’s rich and full throttle on the palate with jammy currants and blackberries, anise/black licorice, brambly raspberries, a firm tannic structure, and an array of spices all leading to a long, echoing finish. Wow! Cellar 12+ years. If drinking now, decant for hours prior to consuming.