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These Niagara grape growers are in a league all their own, plus NOTL’s Taste the Season

By Rick VanSickle

We are zig-zagging our way through the four gorgeous vineyards that make up the League of Farmers wine brand on a rather dreary day in November.

Marty Werner’s pickup truck seems to know the route all on its own as we glide past the vineyards, stop for the odd photo and marvel at the burst of colours in wine county at this time of the year. The vineyards are all within a kilometre of each other in the Four Mile Creek Road/East-West Line area in the Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-appellation, and all are planted north to south.

Niagara wine

The Cabernet Franc grapes are plump and ripe in the vineyards that are only a stone’s throw away from Lake Ontario. The first offering of League of Farmers, or LOF for the cool kids, from the warm 2020 vintage, was an instant hit with consumers who bought up the entire production in the blink of an eye.

The four friends, Werner, who makes the wine, with ahem, a LOT of input from, Trevor Falk, Shawn Spiewak and Mark Lepp, (aka, the Fantastic Four and seen in the very top photo), have always made wine from their own grapes, but decided three years ago turn the wine they made for themselves over the last 10+ years into a business (and keep a little for themselves, of course).

When they started, they had no physical space of their own to make their wine and relied on friends in the wine industry to help produce it but could only sell it online or through local bottle shops because they had no tasting or retail facility. The LOF founding fathers are now getting serious.

With production expanding to include a nifty new sparkling wine and the 2021 Cab Franc ready for the world, the team has found a new space at Ironwood Cider, not far from the four farms on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. LOF has leased space for an office, temporary tasting room and kitchen and a place to hang out for important meetings, blending sessions and, well, a convenient spot around a wooden table for a curious wine writer to listen in on the planning process and sip the wines.

Come this spring, an out-building on the Ironwood property will be transformed into the new home for LOF, a place to sell their wines and pour glasses for newfound fans of this laid-back, farmer-driven project that hits all the right notes with a growing consumer base.

The team has chosen a slow and steady route into brand management and are helping to fuel a bit a trend in Niagara — farmers branching out into the winemaking/retail game. Think Watchful Eye (run by grower Bill George’s children and nephew), King and Vic (two grower families combining to make their own wine commercially) and Liebling (the next generation making wine from vineyards owned by their father Matthias Oppenlaender).

It’s a fascinating trend that makes perfect sense. As grape growers, they can choose the grapes from their vineyards best suited to the wines they want to make. They have the pick of the farm and can grow to whatever standards they choose. They have full control from start to finish.

In the case of League of Farmers, the four growers contribute equal amounts of grapes (Cabernet Franc is the signature wine) to the wines they make. The two ripest lots are co-fermented first and the next two are co-fermented and later blended all together for the final result.

On this day of tasting at the ad-hoc tasting room at Ironwood Cider, Werner has brought samples of the 2022 Cab Franc press fractions, one combined sample from Shawn Spiewak and Mark Lepp and the other combination from Trevor Falk and Werner. The four farmers are tasting, discussing, arguing about the wine industry, get back on track, more wine industry stuff mixed in with politics, more tasting and oohing and aahing, wild gestures (see photos) … and then comes the all-combined “golden egg.” It’s a beautiful Cabernet Franc with black cherries, cocoa, florals, zippy acidity, and ripe tannins. The room quiets.

There aren’t many rules with the League of Farmers and the winemaking is fairly hands off — all fruit is hand-picked, with gentle pressing and made in super small quantities. Werner has always been an accomplished winemaker and has recently roared back onto the scene with LOF, plus his own MV Cellars wines and a well-aged sparkling brand yet to be released into the world.

The striking artwork on the labels 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.

The team has also just released a sparkling wine, a non-vintage rosé made with Vidal, Cabernet Franc and a pinch of Chardonnay. We review that and the just-released Cabernet Franc from 2021 below.

Note: These wines are only available right now at two local bottles shops, Barbea Wine Shop here or at two Archives Wine and Spirits shops in downtown St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie here. You can also order online through information on the brand’s Instagram page here or via Werner’s wine agency Northern Wine Merchants here.

Here’s what I liked:

League of Farmers Sparking Rosé NV ($19, 89 points) — This is a blend of all four farmers’ fruit including Vidal, a pinch of Chardonnay and “blushed with our token Cabernet Franc” for colour and made in the charmat method. Werner said this is a wallet friendly sparkling wine that “people can drink on a Monday by the pool.” The Cabernet Franc gives this pleasant sparkler its light salmon colour in the glass. It’s fresh and fruity on the nose with a vigorous bead in the glass and notes of peach, lemon, citrus zest, and apple. It’s bright and lifted on the palate with orchard fruits, a touch of earthiness and pleasant effervesce through a lifted finish.

League of Farmers Cabernet Franc 2021 ($42, 91 points) — As mentioned in the intro, this is a blend of the four farmers’ fruit all grown within a kilometre of each other. “It was tough year,” said Werner, “but we made it work.” It’s hard to follow a nearly perfect vintage like 2020, but the team here has produced a more classic Niagara Cabernet Franc with a floral nose of savoury black raspberries, dark cherries, plums, earthy notes, mulled herbs, and integrated spice notes. It’s mouth-filling and turns to darker fruits on the palate, showing anise, cassis, cocoa, herbaceous notes, savoury/earthy accents, sage, structured, grippy tannins, spices, and plenty of acid zip on a lifted finish. A touch tight right now, so a bit of cellaring or decanting is advised. Can cellar 4+ years.

Taste the Season all month in NOTL

One of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s signature events, Taste the Season, takes place on all four weekends in November.

Guests are invited to purchase a “touring pass,” visit and taste holiday inspired food and wine pairings at over 20 winery properties during four weekends in November. The event takes place Nov. 10-12, Nov. 17-19, and Nov. 24-26.

Guests can choose from an individual tasting pass ($75 plus tax and service fee) or a couple’s pass ($75 plus tax and service fee). These passes give you access to 20+ properties with a maximum of eight winery tastings in one day. In other words, both passes are for a maximum of 16 tastings.

A couple tasting at eight wineries in one day would use one couple’s pass completely. An individual would need at least two days to visit all wineries. But whether individual or couple, you can also spread your visits out over all three-day weekends and just visit two or three wineries at a time.

Tastings are available from 11 am to 5 pm. When purchasing your passes, indicate the wineries you wish to visit and on what date.

Taste the season passports are available here at the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake website (or by clicking ad on this page). Reservations close at 6 am the day before the event date. There are also designated driver passes available at a discounted rate.

Here’s a sampling of some of the experiences available at Taste the Season:

• Bella Terra Vineyards, Mulled Wine Chili: Enjoy crispy corn biscotti and mulled wine chili while sipping Cabernet Merlot Reserve.
• Niagara College Teaching Winery and Brewery, Pork on your Fork: Enjoy roasted pork and squash puree cornmeal muffin paired with Balance Merlot.
• Pillitteri Estates Winery, Warm Me Up Chili: Enjoy a bowl of hearty chili complete with six beans, sour cream, and chives paired with the Carretto Cabernet Sauvignon.
• Queenston Mile Vineyard, Un-beef-lievably Good Slider: Enjoy braised beef sliders complemented by the “vintage of the century” 2020 Mile Red.
• Byland Estate Winery, Gobble Gobble: Enjoy bacon wrapped turkey breast with sriracha maple with Byland Gamay.