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Flat Rock Cellars puts on a showy debut for top tier Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

Most Niagara wineries don’t do enough big, showy wine releases, especially when promoting their top expressions from benchmark estate vineyards.

But that’s not the case with Flat Rock Cellars and the larger-than-life owner Ed Madronich, below. He just has that joie de vivre, that flair for the dramatic that’s always contagious, even in a room full of wine writers who have seen and heard it all.

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Seated at tables of two in “The Observatory,” Flat Rock’s new brightly lit and expansive VIP tasting room that Madronich vows “will elevate hospitality in Niagara,” I am mesmerized by the new space. The Observatory boasts floor to ceiling windows that stretch the entirety of the room with spectacular 180-degree views of the sloping vineyards, Lake Ontario, and the Toronto skyline in the distance.

Madronich says it’s primarily about education in The Observatory, an opportunity to “sit down, slow down and enjoy a more intimate experience.” It is here that guests can expect “world-class service” in the new space. “Everything has been meticulously considered, from varietal specific Riedel glassware to the selection of music and food pairings — there’s intention in every detail.”

The Observatory builds on the tasting experiences at Flat Rock. The “Foundation Tasting” is tailored for those touring the Wine Route looking for a quick, casual experience, while the immersive Observatory tasting caters to those looking to engage on a more intimate level. Wines by the glass are featured on the Green Roof Patio while the “Backstage Tours” of the winery round out the offerings.

For Madronich, it’s all about educating consumers about Niagara wines, particularly those from the estate vineyards at Flat Rock Cellars on the Twenty Mile Bench. “I’m a wine geek at heart,” Madronich tells us, “I just want to make the best wines possible.”

We gathered at Flat Rock to taste the new vintage “Capstone Series” wines, the top tier Gravity Pinot Noir, Rusty Shed Chardonnay, and Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling from 2021. Madronich took the event to another level by tasting the new 2021s alongside barrels samples from the 2023 vintage and a look back at the 2014 vintage all from the Capstone Series. It was an interesting juxtaposition of vintage variation.

Also in this report, we review a selection of Foundation Series and Twisted wines from Flat Rock. But first …

Flat Rock’s Capstone Series Wines

The 2021 vintage: It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride in Niagara during the 2021 growing season. All was going well in the spring and summer with above average temperatures before levelling out. But trouble began in the fall when the rains came and didn’t want to stop. Flat Rock’s early ripening varieties were harvested before the worst hit and produced a large crop with “good concentration and fresh acidity.” It should be mentioned that Marlize Beyers is the consulting winemaker now at Flat Rock and brings a strong track record of making wine in both Ontario and South Africa and has her own Niagara brand called The Long Way Home that is made at the Niagara Custom Crush Studio.

Flat Rock Gravity Pinot Noir 2021 ($40, coming soon, 93 points) — This is a multi-block blend from the estate’s Pinot Noir vineyard with aging in a variety of French oak barrels (14.7% new oak). It has a pretty, floral note on the nose with brambly red berries, cassis, earthy/savoury accents, and integrated oak spices. It’s mouth-coating on the palate with persistence and vibrancy to go with ripe black raspberries, violets, dark cherries, pomegranate, black currants, elegant spice notes, and a smooth texture all leading to a long, lifted finish. A beauty of a Pinot that you can cellar to 2032.

Flat Rock Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2021 ($35, coming soon, 93 points) — The Rusty Shed is a multi-block blend of the best barrels of Chardonnay at the estate. It’s aged in a variety of French oak barrels, 17.1% of which are new barrels. This site-specific Chardonnay has a nose of savoury/smoky notes to go with yellow apples, bergamot, baked pear, flint, and an array of barrel spices. It’s concentrated and rich on the palate with ripe stone fruits, saline/flinty minerality and lemon curd in a creamy textured style that’s bright and lifted on the long finish. Can cellar to 2030.

Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2021 ($33, available now, 94 points) — The Nadja’s Vineyard is one of Niagara’s most important vineyards for Riesling. It’s a three-acre block that was planted in 2001 with shallow clay loam soil and visible veins of glacial deposits resting on a thick layer of fractured dolomite limestone. Always one of the more minerally-laced Rieslings in Niagara, this is rife with stony/saline notes to go with lime, grapefruit, green apple, ginger and just a subtle note of petrol emerging. It’s juicy on the palate with a playful tug of sweet and tart and persistent notes of lime sorbet, green apple, lemon zest, white peach, wet stones, and lanolin that ends in a rush of mouth-watering acidity keeping everything balanced. A beauty of a Riesling that can age until 2032 if you prefer a bit more of that petrol note.

The 2014 Vintage Capstone wines

We were treated to a look back at the 2014 Capstone wines to see how they were holding up. 2014 wasn’t thought of as one of the finer vintages in Niagara, but the Flat Rock wines we tasted were still going strong. The Pinot Noir had pretty florals, red berries and integrated spice and showed youthful flare. The Chardonnay was surprisingly a bit closed but with swirling opened to poached pear, bergamot, tertiary notes emerging, lovely texture and just a touch of reduction. It’s ready to drink if have any in your cellar. The Riesling was fresh and rocking with citrus and green apple notes along with that vein of stony minerality, ginger and gushing acidity on the finish. It’s still going strong and can be aged a few more years.

The 2023 Vintage Capstone wines

The Nadja’s Riesling wasn’t presented in this tasting and both the Pinot and Chard were barrel samples. A bit hard to judge how these wines will show once in bottle after oak aging in complete, but the Pinot had a lifted nose with ripe red berries, earth/savoury notes and a silky feel on the palate. The Chardonnay had generous tropical notes, pear, citrus zest and stony mineral notes in a rich and elegant style.

A surprise wine

Madronich had one more trick up his sleeve from the quirky experimental Monolith Series where anything and everything goes. He presented an unlikely Pinot Noir (80%) and Chardonnay (20%) blend that was co-fermented (so picked the same day) and put to barrel for aging. Quite an interesting wine with a basket of red fruits and a floral lift from the Chardonnay. It was smooth and round on the palate with lovely saline notes and vibrancy through the finish. Looking forward to seeing the end result.

Other Flat Rock wines

The Foundation Series of wines from Flat Rock Cellars consist of the estate’s classic variety-focused wines from the grapes they champion — Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “These are the varieties we believed were best suited to the Niagara Escarpment and our site on the Twenty Mile Bench,” said Madronich. “This focus has allowed our wines to consistently punch above their weight-class.”

We review two Foundation Series wines and one from the Twisted Series. Here’s what we liked:

Flat Rock Foundation Series Pinot Noir ($25, Vintages, 91 points) — This Pinot Noir was barrel fermented and aged in 100% French oak. It has a complex and beguiling nose of brambly black raspberries, dark cherries, cassis, earthy/savoury notes and fine oak spices. It’s rich and meaty on the palate with earthy red berries, integrated spices, firm, grippy tannins and weight with a tangy, lifted finish. Great price for what you get here. Can cellar to 2029.

Flat Rock Foundation Series Riesling ($20, Vintages, 91 points) — This is a textbook Flat Rock estate Riesling with tell-tale stony minerality, bright citrus and all that lovely summer fruit that grows in Niagara’s plethora of orchards. It’s unabashedly off dry and shows off the ripe peach, pear and apple fruits with plenty of zesty citrus and saline notes to keep everything in balance on the vibrant finish.

Flat Rock Pink Twisted 2023 ($18, LCBO, 89 points) — The Twisted Series is where the Flat Rock winemaking team can get a little nerdy and step outside their comfort zone. This is a variety-laden blend of Gamay (59%), Riesling (13%), Pinot Noir (9%), Chardonnay (8%), Cabernet Franc (7%) and the rest Gewürztraminer. It shows a deep pink/magenta colour in the glass with lifted aromas of summer strawberries, red Twizzlers, wild raspberries and cran-cherries. It’s a touch off-dry but nicely balanced between the ripe red berries, citrus and mouth-watering acidity. Twisted, indeed.