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Soar with the eagles, an odyssey of tasting at Niagara’s Two Sisters winery

By Rick VanSickle

I do not know of another Niagara winery that has an elevator, but if you want the best you need to take it to get to the inner sanctum of the Two Sisters Estate Winery for the Stone Eagle Experience.

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It’s a quick ride to the third-floor private room. It opens to a large tasting table, full wine bar, and a wine rack filled to the brim with back vintages and current top tier Two Sister and Stone Eagle wines. This is where estate sommelier Dieter Unruh uncorks the estate’s best cellar treasures and the ultra-premium Stone Eagle collection of wines. I am on this day of tasting with winemaker Adam Pearce, above, and Unruh and I just wasn’t prepared for what was about to follow.

It had been a minute since last visiting Two Sisters in January of 2022, and there was a lot of catching up to do, and catching up we did with a deep dive into library versions of the Stone Eagle wines, some of the most exquisite red blends being made in Canada at two levels — the Red Label and Special Selection wines — plus the Eagle Eye white, new bubbles (including the first one made with a dosage of estate honey), and a dizzying array of back and current vintage estate Chardonnays and red wines.

Many things struck me at this tasting, but most of all is how the portfolio has been constructed over time by Pearce. “One of our differentiating factors is that we hold back wines for two, two and half years before releasing them,” he tells me. And that’s a minimum. The top red Stone Eagle Special Selection current vintage for sale is from 2016 while the Stone Eagle Red Label’s current vintage is 2018. Even the Margo rosé gets that same treatment with the current vintage being 2021.

There is also an aggressive back vintage program to cellar at least 60 cases of all the wines Pearce makes (aside from the rosé) to be enjoyed by consumers at a later date for special taste and buy events, or curated dinners either at the estate or at the new 11th Post on Queen restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

There’s a lot going on at Two Sisters, not the least of which is the Stone Eagle sister winery that will house the top two reds and Eagle Eye wine, a new Cabernet Franc rosé and sparkling wine once the building, with winery, tasting and retail room, is finished, likely in the summer of 2025. There’s also a one-off Stone Eagle Chardonnay from 2019 in the works. One of Pearce’s top priorities is to make sure he has the Stone Eagle wines he wants to debut in the showy new digs put aside for the opening. He says that will likely be the 2020 reds.

As for the wines currently available, with a look back at an intriguing bevy of the back-vintage wines, I sat down in the private tasting room with Pearce and Unruh for a whirlwind tasting adventure followed by a look at current wines available in the downstairs tasting bar area. Let’s get to it!

There will be bubbles …

Two Sisters Blanc de Franc 2019 ($64, 93 points) — This is the final disgorgement of this signature and unique style of traditionally made bubbly by Pearce. It spent three and half years on the lees and is made in a “brut nature” (zero dosage) style. “It’s wildly popular for us,” said Pearce. It shows a nice light golden colour in the glass, and an elegant bead, with brioche/autolytic notes, toasted apple, poached pear, red currants, and lemon curd. It’s rich and creamy on the palate with red and dark berries, a lively bead in the glass, baked bread, flinty notes, pear/quince, currants and long, finessed finish. Can age this through 2029. Delicious!

Two Sisters Blanc de Franc 2020 ($64, released soon, 93 points) — This first disgorgement begins a new iteration of the Blanc de Franc. It’s made the same way as the version above, but with 24 months of lees aging. It’s waiting on labels. It’s more subtle and elegant on the nose with a vigorous bubble in the glass, fresh berries, red currants, subtle herbs, lemon/citrus, and brioche accents. It’s fresh on the palate with lively bubbles and notes of apple, red currants, subtle creamy/brioche notes, lemon oil, raspberries, lovely texture and finessed through the bright finish. Can cellar to 2030.

Two Sisters Lush Sparkling Rosé 2020 ($58, 92 points) — The Lush sparkling wine, also made in the traditional method, is a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend that’s aged for 24 months on the lees with a Cabernet Franc dosage to give it a ruby blush colour in the glass. It has an attractive nose of red berries, lemon zest, currants, red apples, and subtle bead in the glass. It’s more exuberant on the palate with raspberry/cherry notes, lemon, pear and ripe apples with good effervescence and vibrancy through the finish from mouth-watering acidity. Can cellar to 2027.

Two Sisters Millefiori 2020 ($65, wine club for now, 92 points) — The proprietors of Two Sisters, Melissa Marotta-Paolicelli and Angela Marotta, have started raising bees in a section of the estate vineyard and this sparkling wine uses the harvested honey for the dosage (because there is honey in this wine, it cannot be classified as VQA). Only 1,000 bottles were made for wine club members (for now). The blend is 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Quite a floral note on the nose with a robust bead in the glass followed by fresh apple, pear, citrus and subtle honeycomb. It has wonderful texture, a drop of honey sweetness and a vigorous bubble with pear, apple, touch of apricot, lemon, and a burst of juicy acidity on the finish. Interesting and unique sparkling wine here.

Make way for the Chardonnays …

Two Sisters Domenica’s Block Chardonnay 2020 ($64, wine club only for now, 93 points) — There’s a slightly cloudy appearance in the glass as the wine was bottled ‘sur lie’ (with its yeast). It underwent full malo, aging was in 100% new French oak barrels with lees stirring and bottled unfiltered and unfined. The nose shows yellow apple, rich pear, toasted vanilla, lemon curd and elegant spice notes. It’s creamy, rich, and textured on the palate with poached pear, quince, bergamot, savoury notes, fine oak spices, and waves of freshening acidity on the lifted finish. Beautiful Chardonnay.

Two Sisters Unoaked Chardonnay 2020 ($39, 92 points) — As Two Sisters moves to 100% estate Chardonnay beginning with the 2023 vintage, this ends up as a blend of 60% estate fruit and 40% Lenko Vineyard fruit from the Beamsville Bench. No oak here, obviously, but lees stirring accounts for the rich and viscous texture on the palate. The nose shows ripe pear, yellow apple, citrus zest and subtle stony minerality. It has lovely concentration and weight on the palate with ripe stone fruits and a touch of creamy lemon that’s balanced by finessed finish. The 2017 vintage of this wine that Pearce poured, was just as lovely but taking on a more elegant feel on the palate with a more rounded and lush profile. Drinking great right now. Can cellar the 2020 to 2027.

Two Sisters Chardonnay 2020 ($58, 93 points) — The oaked version of the Chardonnay is sourced 100% from Lenko, Canada’s oldest Chardonnay vineyard. It is fermented and aged in French oak barrels and puncheons for 10 months. The attractive nose is a riot of ripe stone fruits, lemon chiffon, bergamot, flinty/mineral notes, and elegant, toasty spices. It has a creamy, lush texture on the palate giving way to opulent poached pear, yellow apple, lemon tart, toasted almonds, and rich, vanilla-tinged spice with a long, lifted, finessed finish. The 2017 vintage is at its peak with all the attributes above in perfect harmony. Can cellar the 2020 to 2029.

In the eye of the Eagle …

Eagle Eye is the top tier white wine made at Two Sisters and will be the only still white wine available at the Stone Eagle Winery when it opens likely in the summer of 2025.

It’s an extraordinary wine, a tour de force blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon reminiscent of the very best white wines from Bordeaux. The 2020 below is the current vintage of Eagle Eye and the 2021 will likely follow in the fall. The 2022 version is being held for the new winery. The 2019 vintage was named to Wines in Niagara’s Most Thrilling wines of 2021 list.

Eagle Eye 2020 ($90, 96 points) — The blend for the 2020 vintage is 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon. Both varieties are barrel fermented and aged on the lees separately for 14 months and the final blend is a result of rigorous barrel tasting by the winemaking team. It’s a stunning wine from the opening notes of penetrating poached pear, baked apple, exotic tropical fruits, juicy grapefruit, lemon tart, savoury accents, mulled minty herbs and fine oak spices. It has weight and an oily, unctuous texture on the palate with ripe, harmonic stone fruits, lemon curd, grapefruit, minty herbaceous/chamomile notes, guava and a lifted, long, luxurious finish that lingers forever, or so it seems. A super-luxe, hedonistic white wine that will reward for 10 more years in the cellar.

Eagle Eye 2021 ($90, 94 points) — The 2021 vintage of Eagle Eye is made similarly to the 2020 vintage above, but the blend flips the switch to 55% Semillon and 45% Sauvignon Blanc. The result is quite different. The elegantly appointed nose shows pure pear puree, floral notes, melon, apricot tart, herbs, grapefruit, and lavish oak spice notes. It’s textured and nuanced on the palate with a touch of flintiness to go with ripe stone fruits, lemon curd, grapefruit, subtle herbaceous notes, integrated oak spices and again, that long, luxurious finish propelled by racy acidity that lingers for minutes. Wow, just wow.

A look back at cellared treasures …

As l headed into an odyssey of library red wines with Pearce and Unruh, it became quite evident that the winemaking team is not only focused on building long-lived wines with structure and finesse but also wines with a plush feel on the palate. “To me it’s about texture, I want them to be driven by texture, not necessarily just aromatics,” said Pearce.

We tasted three vintages of the Two Sisters estate Merlot and two vintages of the estate Cabernet Franc. The 2015 vintage was lovely with a rich, layered, integrated fruit and spice profile. It was still fresh and worthy of more cellar time. The 2014 vintage, admittedly not the greatest year for Niagara red wines, was disjointed on the nose but came together nicely on the palate. I suggest drinking these up if you have them. The 2013 was stunning, one of the better reds from this cooler vintage I have tasted with everything integrated, showing pure elegance and a lovely texture. Can drink these up with confidence or cellar a bit longer.

The 2014 Cabernet Franc had surprising concentration and depth with firm tannins. Will the fruit outlast the tannins? I would begin tasting these wines now to see how the fruit is holding up. We then tasted a barrel sample of the 2023 Cab Franc. This was interesting because it was the first red tasted from the third leaf Stone Eagle Vineyard on Niagara Stone Road. “I’m really pleased with the 2023 Cabernet Franc,” Pearce said. “It’s an ultra-long-lived vintage, I think.”

The soaring Stone Eagle wines …

The Stone Eagle series from Two Sisters is the top tier at the estate, with ultra-premium, Bordeaux-variety blends that push the boundaries of what is possible in Niagara. There are three levels — Estate Reserve, Red Label, and the flagship Special Selection. Our recent tasting focused on back vintages of the both the Red Label and Special Selection. Pearce said that “we want to make age-worthy red wines. These are showing that those who bought them will be rewarded if they are in their cellar.” The current vintage available of the Red Label, is the 2018, while the current available wine from the Special Selection flagship wine is the 2016 vintage, with the 2017 vintage to follow. Here’s what I liked from the current vintages, plus a look back at the 2013 vintage Special Selection.

Stone Eagle Red Label 2018 ($150, 93+ points) — The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant (55%) with Merlot (23%) and Cabernet Franc (22%). It’s finished with 14.7% abv. Such a beautiful wine with a profound and penetrating nose of ripe blackberries, black currants, anise, glycerin, dried tobacco, and leather notes with rich and savoury oak spice accents. It’s layered and structured on the palate with a concentrated array of dark berries on the palate, gritty tannins, savoury herbs, toasted vanilla, cedar plank and elegant spice notes that culminates on a long, luxurious, and echoing finish. Can cellar this beauty to 2034.

Stone Eagle Special Selection 2016 ($185, 94 points) — The blend for this version of the top red wine at Two Sisters is 38% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Cabernet Franc that was aged for 36 months in 100% new French and American oak (15%). The flagship wine is a careful barrel selection of each vintage’s most complex, elegant, and age-worthy wines. The name is taken from the two Italian stone eagle carvings that stand proud at the entrance of the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery. “This is the wine Benny (Marotta, winery owner) challenged me to make … but it’s Niagara,” Pearce told me when I first tasted it years ago. Marotta likes his reds big and bold (a hint might be found in the name … the “special selection” used by Napa’s Caymus Vineyards), and Pearce has done that while keeping the integrity of its Niagara roots (which shows in the finesse of his bigger red wines). This is the third or fourth time I have tasted this exquisite wine that just keeps getting better as it ages. It has a power-packed nose of crushed cherries, brambly raspberries, crème de cassis, currants, plums, cocoa, roasted espresso bean, earth, dried cigar leaf and an intriguing array of sweet baking spices. It’s highly structured on the palate with a cacophony of flavours ranging from cassis, black currants and blackberries to rich red berries and earth with lavish oak barrel spices all propped up by grippy tannins, that starting to integrate, all leading to a long, echoing finish. Such power and grace with at least 15 years of beneficial cellaring ahead.

Stone Eagle Special Selection 2013 ($95 points) — The Stone Eagle Special Selection was named the Most Thrilling Red Wine in 2018 by Wines in Niagara. I swore out loud when I first put my nose in the glass of this red, and the same urge overcame me all these years later. Such incredibly beautiful aromas of sweet raspberry, cherries, crème de cassis, graphite, roasted espresso bean, integrated herbs, sweet Cuban cigar leaf and then the full range of extravagant oak spices kick in. Drawing in a big gulp, I am pleasantly surprised to find a much more supple, silky feel to this bold wine. The fruit rises above it all — ripe red berries, cassis, and currants — followed by such gorgeous spice notes and underlying herbs and tobacco accents. It is really quite extravagant, with a velvety smooth delivery and both power and finesse through a long, long finish. Now, not everyone can wait five years to release their wines, but here, from the coolish 2013 vintage in Niagara, it was crucial to soften the sharp edges and let this wine show its full potential. It is a wine that is showing perfectly from the bottle now but will age gracefully at least until 2030 and beyond.

And two more, just for fun …

We were three hours into this fascinating tasting, most of it in the Two Sister’s exclusive third-floor perch far from the madding crowd below, before we moved down to the elegantly appointed main floor tasting room. Our final two wines were from the estate tier at Two Sisters. Here’s what I liked:

Two Sisters Margo Rosé 2021 ($35, 92 points) — The blend for this more substantive, and late-released, rosé is 83% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. It’s hand-picked from estate fruit and sent direct to press with light lees stirring. It has a forward nose of fresh red berries, watermelon, red currants, citrus zest, and subtle creamy notes. It has beautiful creamy texture on the palate with integrated raspberries, cherries, red currants, and citrus in a more substantive style of rosé, but still retains a zippy, lifted a finish. Pearce calls it Provence style using Bordeaux varietals and says he puts as much effort into the rosé as he does with the top red. And it shows. Good to drink with the aging already taken care of.

Two Sisters Eleventh Post 2018 ($48, 92 points) — This is a ‘vineyard blend’ of the three red grapes grown on the estate. So, 44% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Franc, and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon with aging in French oak (15% new) for 36 months. The 2018 vintage was cool but long to allow maximum flavour development. The aromas jump from the glass with ripe, black cherries, cassis, anise, a subtle floral note, and integrated/elegant oak spices. It’s built in a more elegant style with smooth tannins, layered red and dark berries, dried tobacco, anise/licorice, and fine oak spice notes on a lifted, long finish. Drinking really nice right now but can cellar to 2028.