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The pure joy of County-centric wine: The Last House and Rosehall Run in the spotlight

By Rick VanSickle

It was supposed to be the first “porch” wine tasting of the year, but the endless stormy, chilly weather this spring forced us inside where a party broke out.

Not the kind where you dance like Elaine, more of a rising crescendo of chatter brought on by good wine and good people. Such was the totally unstructured, unscripted tasting at Chez VanSickle with Last House Vineyard proprietor André Gagné, his wife and co-owner Debra Mathews (below) and a surprise visitor, my wife Maureen.

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Any serious talk of malolactic fermentation, hand riddling and titratable acidity gave way to that joyous jibber jabber of non sequiturs ranging from kids, photos of said kids, travel, and country living … basically anything but wine. Gagné and I powered through as best we could at what was another enlightening Prince Edward County-centric tasting of new wines from micro-producer Last House Vineyards.

It is the way of wine; it brings happiness, pure and simple. The intricacies of how it got there is for others to nerd out over in a much different setting. And so it was, Gagné and I happily bowing to the more vocal majority around the dining room table, as we proceeded to mix business with pleasure.

Last House Vineyard is one of the newer wineries in the County. The couple farms both grapes and apples (for cider) at their gorgeous lakeside estate in Hillier. There is not a lot of fancy equipment, only one farm worker, while consultant Geoff Heinricks offers his vast knowledge to Gagné, and the rest of the Gagné/Mathews family chips in where they can. The 100% estate wines are made from tiny yields and are crafted with minimal intervention and a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to oak aging. Each vintage is an expression of both the unique terroir of the County, and in particular, Hillier. Every bottle of wine reflects that terroir and what the harvest brings in terms of climate — good or bad.

It’s not easy work making wine on the margins, but when all things go right, magic happens.

We tasted three wines on this day, two Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir. And I re-tasted a Blanc de Noir from a recent disgorging a few days later at my leisure. This is my report on the new wines now available (or soon will be). You can purchase Last House wines here or, if you live in St. Catharines, try Archives Wine and Spirit Merchants here.

How it’s done at Last House

The Last House Vineyard is planted near the rocky shores of Lake Ontario in soil known as Ameliasburg clay/loam, which has a depth of 12 to 24 inches. The limestone bedrock and stony texture of the soil allows for excellent drainage in the spring and acts like a wet sponge throughout the growing season. This forces the vines to grow deeper during the hot summer months and produces smaller yields during the hot summer months with highly concentrated flavours.

Gagné believes the secret to great wine is healthy ripe fruit, which means it all begins with the farm work. All canopy work is done by hand. No herbicides are used, with weeds are removed manually and via cultivation. Sprays to combat insects, and disease are mostly organic. Conventional sprays are rarely used. Leaf thinning is kept to a minimum, with a preference for long slow ripening. Harvest is done by hand with small picking baskets. Fruit is processed without delay.

The focus for the winemaking style is on good farming. Gagné believes that if you begin with healthy fruit and then trust it, the winemaking will almost look after itself. Last House uses minimal intervention with the appropriate elevage for the current year’s conditions. So far into this new project, the fruit has allowed alcoholic fermentation to be achieved using only wild yeasts on the grapes and naturally present bacteria has resulted in malolactic fermentation. The wine team has not had to use enzymes, nutrients, colour, or tannin additions and hope to avoid all of these in the future. There is limited pumping, racking, and use of sulphur. The use of oak barrels is balanced to the wine style, and almost always used barrels. All wine is bottled without fining or filtration and is corked by hand.

The Last House “proudly” works with Heinricks, who shares many of the same beliefs in terms of both his approach to farming and winemaking in the County. “We are grateful for his invaluable contributions in establishing Last House,” said Gagné.

The wines

Last House Blanc de Noir Bonheur Traditional Method 2020 ($48, 93 points) — I first tasted this Pinot Noir-based, traditionally-made sparkling wine last fall at the Last House estate while sitting on the front porch of Gagné and Mathews’ home overlooking the vineyard. It was the first disgorging, unlabelled and awaiting VQA approval at the time. When first tasted, it spent 28 months on its lees but this iteration now has 48 months of lees aging as Gagné hand disgorges 24 bottles at time by himself as needed. The fruit was sourced from estate grapes planted in 2018, so third leaf Pinot Noir that was whole cluster pressed. It was wild fermented in stainless steel. There is zero dosage added and it’s bottled unfiltered and unfined. It shows a deepening golden colour in the glass with a much more flinty/bready/brioche nose before the ripe pear, green apple, lemon curd, salinity, white flowers, and savoury notes kick in. The bead is gentle and persistent in the glass. It’s about pure elegance and pinpoint minerality on the palate with savoury stone fruits, biscuit and brioche, flint, bright and zesty citrus all leading to beautiful freshness, an elegant flair to the bubbles and a lingering, lifted finish. It’s pure joy in the glass with robust bubbles tickling the senses. The fetching label is from a painting by artist Stewart Jones that hangs in the family’s home and brings a sense of happiness, as the name of this wine — Bonheur — joyfully suggests.

Last House Vineyard Hiller Rouge Daniel Block 2022 ($46, almost gone, 93 points) — Only a tiny amount of the Hillier Rouge was made in 2022 due to a low yielding half crop from a half-acre of vines at the estate. The single barrel of wine was 100% destemmed, hand-picked, wild fermented in totes, no pump overs, aged in neutral oak for 12 months with no fining/filtering and spontaneous malo. This is micro-lot farming on the margins, folks! It’s quite floral and pretty on the nose with sun-ripened cherries, fresh raspberries, rose petals, red currants, subtle wild blueberries, and a measured approach to oak spices. It’s fresh, floral, and penetrating on the palate with a luxurious texture in support of ripe red berries, small dark berries and red currants, subtle earthy notes, and spice with crunchy County acidity driving the finesse on a long, lifted finish. Lovely, pretty, site-specific Pinot here. Can cellar a few years but attractive right now.

Last House Vineyard Hillier Blanc Christian Block Chardonnay 2022 ($46, mid-May release, 94 points) — Gagné, whose palate is calibrated to Burgundy reds and white wines, first released the top tier Christian Block Chardonnay in 2019, and his first thought was “oh, we can do Chablis!” Then the second vintage, 2020, came along, and it reminded him of the whites from the Mâcon in Burgundy. There was no Chardonnay made in 2021, but the 2022s shouted Côte de Beaune Chardonnays from Meursault, he said. “It’s not Chablis, it’s not Macon or Meursault, it’s Hillier, it has a signature that you can see, that I can see,” he now realizes. The 2022 version is wild fermented, whole cluster pressed, aged in 50% stainless steel and 50% in second fill French oak for nine months with no fining or filtering. This consistently shows a certain savoury, saline nose pervasive in the County and amplified in Hillier with pear, yellow apple, quince, bergamot, white flowers and subtle toasty/flinty vanilla and spice. It’s remarkably fresh and lifted on the palate with interesting savoury/salty/briny notes to go with wet stones, a touch of reduction and flint then fresh pear, apple skin, lemon cream, a vibrant texture, elevated finesse, subtle elegant oak spice notes, mouth-coating citrus zest and a lifted, bright finish.

I was sent a note from Gagné offering up what legendary winemaker, grower and author of A Fool and Forty Acres, Geoff Heinricks (above with Gagné), thought about this wine. He consults for the Last House and has a hand in the wines, but I love his take on this wine. This is what he said:

“Bit of creamed corn on nose on pouring. Full, weighty, and packed with power and acid. Meyer lemon curd nose and attack on mouth. A wide stream and backbone of acid and flavour intensity … but its own flavours … not a fruit or other style/region. Takes about a half hour to start opening up to what I remember. About 45 minutes on, it opens up fully … very fine creme caramel, richness and softness spreads and moves the acid into a strong spine. Phenomenally long finish. Some white, small wildflowers, like Henri Goyard now. How I remember it now at bottling.” Note: Goyard was a “God” of the Macon Vire-Clesse.

Last House Vineyard Petit Hillier Blanc 2022 ($34, mid-May release, 93 points) — The label “Petit” is a “play on Petit Chablis,” says Gagné, which is a category in that French Burgundian region that’s not meant to be “lesser” or “second rate” but rather a different style due to soil and sun. Petit Chablis wines are fresher, lighter, and less complex. Gagne used the Petit designation for his newer vines and is retiring the name with the 2023 vintage. This is a departure from the more polarizing 2020 version (there was no 2021 vintage) that had a curious sherry/reductive note that stood out on the nose. The 2022 is still loaded with savoury/saline and flint notes but gone is the profound reductive qualities. It shows a bright, lifted array of pear, white flowers, yellow apple, bergamot, and integrated spice notes. It shows more concentration and weight on the palate than the Christian Block with a minerally/saline/briny thing going on with notes of yellow apple, fresh pear, grapefruit zest, subtle spice, beautiful finesse, and crunchy acidity through a bright, lifted finish. Lovers of personable, terroir-driven County Chardonnays will nerd out over this wine if tasted beside the Christian Block to determine their favourite style. So interesting.

And … just one more

My contribution (among so many great wines) at a multi-course, spectacular dinner at a friend’s house last weekend, was this Last House Hillier Rouge Daniel Block 2020 in magnum. The dinner was prepared in the “slow food” style, so lots of little plates that came at us one after another. It was an Italian themed meal with wine friends. The Pinot magnum with just a bit more age than originally tasted, was a delight and a perfect match with the pork belly dish. It has evolved from the review below, and you can still hold it if you are lucky enough to have some in your cellar. I just couldn’t resist. Here’s the original review:

Last House Vineyard Hillier Rouge Daniel Block 2020 ($100 in magnum, 93 points) — This 100% Pinot Noir was crushed and destemmed with 25% whole clusters added. It was wild fermented and aged in 85% neutral French oak, lightly sulphured and bottled unfined and unfiltered. It shows a beautiful garnet colour in the glass and has an expressive, perfumed nose of wild black raspberries, macerated dark cherries, blueberries, red currants, and a subtle Christmas spice background. It’s just gorgeous on the palate and more open knit than the 2019 version with a cherry/raspberry explosion, some earthy/savoury notes, cassis, soft, silky tannins, just a hint of pepper and a lifted, finessed finish. Can cellar a bit longer, but my impression is that anytime now is perfect. 

New wines from the County’s Rosehall Run

There has been a of couple of key changes at the benchmark Prince Edward Country winery Rosehall Run, not the least of which is co-founder and co-owner Lynn Sullivan (above) leaving the winery to take a job in marketing at the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario.

I have worked with Sullivan for years while covering County wineries and she is the epitome of professionalism in all that she does. More importantly, she’s passionate, detailed and one of the nicest people you will ever meet or work with.

“I am so proud of the work that Dan and I have been able to accomplish both at Rosehall Run and within the Prince Edward County wine region,” she said. “We have been so fortunate to work with amazing people who have made this region a unique and exciting place to live, work and visit. The wine industry is constantly changing and full of new challenges every day. I look forward to continuing to dedicate my efforts to the promotion of Ontario wine.”

J.J. Syer has been appointed as general manager at Rosehall. After 13 years as sales and hospitality manager, Syer is partnering with winemaker Dan Sullivan to lead the Rosehall Run team. “J.J.’s experience, wine knowledge and contacts in the industry have been key to developing our product offerings, sales and marketing in the licensee and LCBO streams,” said Sullivan. “Her commitment to our team, support for Prince Edward County and vision for Ontario wine make her the ideal GM to guide Rosehall Run into the future.”

Wines in Niagara tasted a selection of wines from Rosehall recently, including two new sparkling wines, both of which are now vintage dated. You can purchase Rosehall Run wines here. Here’s what I liked:

Rosehall Run Blanc de Blancs Ceremony 2019 ($39, 93 points) — This traditional method Chardonnay was previously released as a non-vintage sparkling wine. It is one of the most popular releases at the winery. Its name, Ceremony, is a nod to the band New Order (Sullivan loves his music and often leans on favourite bands or lyrics when naming his wines). The fruit is 100% from the estate in Hillier and begins with a mighty and persistent centre bead in the glass that amplifies on the palate. I was hypnotized by that tiny stream of energy, even two days after it was opened. It has a toasty/biscuity nose with fresh pear, a floral nose, saline minerality, lemon zest and apple. It has a creamy texture on the palate but is fresh and lifted with tangy Meyer lemon, green apple, pear, those crazy persistent bubbles, more subtle brioche and beautifully lifted and finessed on the finish.

Rosehall Run Brut Rosé Rosebud 2021 ($36, released on Mother’s Day, 92 points) — Previously released as a non-vintage sparkling wine called Loveless, this has moved to a vintage bubble with the new name Rosebud, a reference to Citizen Kane. The 100% Pinot Noir was held for 22 months before disgorging with elevage taking place in 500 L neutral French oak puncheons for six months. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with pretty red berries, biscuit, cran-cherry notes, citrus and a gentle, persistent bead in the glass. It’s lively and has a bit more of a robust bubble on the palate with fresh raspberries, cherries, subtle herbaceous notes, and lemon zest in a steely dry and vibrant style on the finessed finish.

Rosehall Run JCR Rosehall Run Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($36, winery and at a handful of boutique LCBO stores, 93 points) — The 2021 vintage marks the 10th edition of the JCR series, named in tribute to the winery’s co-founder, partner and family member John Campbell Reston. The wine spent 16 months in French oak with periodic lees stirring. It’s quite elegant on the nose with pure pear, golden apple, stony/saline minerality, bergamot, subtle savoury notes, and integrated spices. The chalky/salty/savoury minerality really struts its stuff on the palate with ripe apple/pear/quince fruits, zesty lemon, harmonic spice notes and a bright, long, lifted finish. A lovely, personable Chardonnay that will just get better with some bottle age. Can age to 2029.

Rosehall Run JCR Rosehall Run Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 ($45, winery and a handful of VQA boutique LCBO stores, 92 points) — This estate Pinot was aged in French oak barrels (40% new, 60% second fill) for 16 months. The nose shows ripe dark cherries, summer raspberries, red currants, a touch of cassis with mocha and spice. There’s some weight on the palate with floral notes, punchy red berries, anise, fine oak spices, and juicy, mouth-watering acidity providing lift on the finish. Can cellar to 2030.