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Black Bank Hill’s first estate wines offer glimpse at exciting future

By Rick VanSickle

It’s heartening to watch a new(ish) Niagara winery emerge from the ground up with a clear vision that’s just starting to come into focus.

Also in this Niagara Wine Report: The recent Grapes for Humanity charity wine auction raised over $440,000, plus our pick from the Niagara wines released Saturday — an Estate Chardonnay from Westcott Vineyards.

Niagara wine

The front and back view of the completed winery and tasting/retail facility at Black Bank Hill.

When last at the Black Bank Hill winery in the fall of 2022, proprietor Taylor Emerson had no winery, no tasting room, and no estate wines to pour, other than an unlabeled rosé. There were hopes and dreams in the air, but the reality of starting from a blank blueprint awaited them out there in the vineyard on the recently purchased and planted 22-acre farm.

It would be two more years before we would see the fruit of their labour and get a true feel for the direction Black Bank Hill was taking with their young vines that included Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Gewurztraminer, Marsanne and Roussanne spread across four distinct blocks and planted to numerous clones in predominantly heavy clay soils which moderate vigour and increase quality but retain water and nutrients.

Winemaker Jonathon McLean.

Today, as I walk through the tidy, modestly appointed crush pad, barrel cellar and finally the tasting room, there is no doubt Black Bank Hill has arrived. I met again with Emerson and winemaker Jonathan McLean for a tasting of current and upcoming wines, mostly from their own estate grapes, with a few wines lagging a bit behind from trusted, key vineyards.

Emerson has found him here in Beamsville because he chose a new path in 2016, when at 45 years old he left a lucrative digital media career in London, England, to chase a new life in wine. He sought out WSET courses and enrolled in the two-year viticulture and oenology diploma at Plumpton College in Sussex.

He set his sights on starting a winery and ultimately decided to move back to Canada. Emerson zeroed in on Niagara to begin a new, somewhat scarier chapter in his life. “It was a combination of the craft itself, terroir, identity, and being part of a developing market that I could help move the needle on that sealed it for me,” he told Robbie Raskin, owner of Archives Wine and Spirit Merchants. His search led him to the old Trach family fruit farm located at 4247 Sann Road, just north of Old Highway 8 in the Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-appellation. Emerson purchased the 22-acre farm that was formerly planted to plums, grapes, and cherries, but sat fallow for a decade. He planted 19 acres of the farm to grapes from scratch. “I didn’t want to inherit a vineyard,” he told Wines in Niagara. “I knew I wanted to come home and do this.”

Black Bank Hill vineyard shown two years ago.

Once he had a plan, vineyards planted and his estate home built, it was time to think about a winemaker for the venture. Enter McLean, Emerson’s cousin, who was lured back to Niagara as Black Bank Hill’s first winemaker. He previously spent 12 years in the Okanagan Valley making wine at Culmina, LaStella, Le Vieux Pin, Tantalus, and Cedar Creek among others.

Emerson and Taylor work well together and have created an eclectic range and style of wines that focuses on the Burgundian varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Cabernet Franc, three varieties that produce world-class wines in Niagara, plus an added dimension that includes the superstar Rhone varieties — Viognier, Marsanne (I tried a barrel sample of this, and, wow, fabulous!), Roussanne (still awaiting VQA recognition) and Syrah.

“I didn’t expect Syrah to a big thing at Black Bank Hill,” said Emerson. “But I started tasting them and immediately planted more. We think people will come here for here for our Syrah.” It has the potential to emerge as the flagship wine at the estate, along with the Meritage blend called Égalité.

McLean is excited by the Rhone varieties, especially from the terroir at Black Bank Hill. “I come from a Syrah house in the Okanagan Valley (Le Vieux Pin). I believe it has immense potential in Niagara. It comes down to how much work you do in the vineyard.” It was my highest scoring wine at this recent tasting, and it’s only the first release from young vines. I also look forward to a white Rhone blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, which is already in the works from the 2023 vintage, and also the single variety Chenin Blanc.

There’s a little a bit of everything at this upstart winery, including a smartly priced “Runway” series all from estate grapes.

Here’s what I liked from the tasting:

The rosés

Black Bank Hill Runway Rosé 2022 and 2023 ($25, 2022 available now, the 2023 arrives his summer, 89 points for the 2022, 90 points for 2023) — The first three vintages of the estate rosés are constructed similarly with a Cabernet Franc dominated blend and just a dash of Merlot. The 2022 spent 24 hours on the skins. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with a pretty nose of red berries, fresh herbs, red currants, and subtle zesty citrus. There’s a touch of sweetness on the palate with earthy/brambly raspberries, cherries, currants, and herbaceous notes with a tangy, bright finish. With a similar blend, but with 48 hours of skin contact, this version shows a brighter pink colour in the glass with a nose of brambly red berries, rhubarb, a touch of blackberry/cassis and herbs. It’s quite expressive on the palate with ripe red berries, cran-cherries, cassis, herbs, subtle sweetness and electric acidity keeping it fresh and lively on the finish.

The white wines

Black Bank Hill Runway White 2021 ($25, 89 points) — The blend is 46% Viognier, 26% Gewürztraminer, 17% Chardonnay and 11% Chenin Blanc, all estate fruit, all hand-picked, with both the Viognier and Chardonnay components barrel fermented and aged in used French oak barrels. It’s highly aromatic with notes of ripe pear, apricots, white peach, honeysuckle, yellow apple, and spicy accents. On the palate it has a lovely, rounded texture, some viscosity, ripe stone fruits, juicy apricots, and spice with a fairly bright finish. A nice, food-friendly white for summer.

Black Bank Hill Chardonnay 2020 ($35, 93 points) — This is the last vintage from sourced grapes (Wismer Wingfield on the Twenty Mile Bench) for the Chardonnay. Note the late vintage release, which is a theme with this winery. “I like wines that are aged for a long time,” said Emerson, who prefers to hold back wines in bottle longer than most to show his wines at their best. The fruit is whole-bunch pressed, settled, and racked into second- and third-use French oak barrels for wild fermentation and 19 months of élevage (in used French oak barrels) on its lees. It’s ripe and concentrated on the nose with poached pear, yellow apple, lemon curd, stony/saline minerality, a touch of toasted coconut and creamy spice notes. It shows opulent, generous stone fruits on the palate, chalky/stony notes, a creamy texture, vanilla toast, lemon zest, caramel, and spice with enough juicy acidity to keep it in balance. Drinking really nice at the moment but can hold until 2028.


Black Bank Hill Viognier 2021 ($40, 92 points) — This first estate Vio was whole-bunch pressed, settled, and racked into used French oak barrels for wild fermentation and 18 months of aging on its lees. It’s nuanced, tightly wound at the moment, and then a floral note with ripe apricots, pear, white peach, nectarine, spice and orange blossoms. It’s rounded and opulent on the palate with a lush texture, lifted stone fruits, juicy apricot, some ginger and integrated spice with medium+ acidity on a long, lingering finish. Cellaring a bit will release the aromatics on the nose, or you can decant if drinking now.

The red wines

Black Bank Hill Runway Red 2021 ($25, 90 points) — You ready? Here’s the blend: 59% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 13% Pinot Noir, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Syrah with 17 months of aging in used French oak barrels. It shows a light shade of red in the glass with a minty/savoury nose of wild berries, herbs, cassis, dark cherries, red currants, and spice. There’s some structure and ripe tannins on the palate with notes of anise/fennel seed, black currants, savoury red berries, earthy bits, spice and a tangy, lifted finish. There are a lot of moving parts here, but somehow it all works. Drink or hold a year or two.

Black Bank Hill Pinot Noir 2020 ($35, 92 points) — This is the last of the purchased grapes before flipping over to the estate vineyard for Pinot Noir. It’s sourced from two Twenty Mile Bench vineyards — Glen Elgin and End-of-the-Road. It’s destemmed, lightly crushed, wild fermented and spends 18 months in neutral oak French barriques. It shows a profound perfumed/floral note on the nose with red currants, dark cherries, black raspberries, crunchy cranberries, and elegant spices. It’s a bold Pinot on the palate with fine-grained tannins and some structure to go with earthy/savoury red berries, a touch of anise, umami/mushroom notes, elegant oak spices and a tangy, lifted finish. Can cellar this to 2030.

Black Bank Hill Cabernet Franc 2020 ($40, 92 points) — This 100% Cabernet Franc, clones 214 and 327, are from the Black Bank Hill estate vineyard. It was destemmed and crushed prior to wild fermentation with 20 months of élevage in multi-use French oak barrels. Pure unadulterated Niagara Cabernet Franc here with a savoury, bright and ripe array of brambly red berries, minty herbs, anise, dried cigar leaf and fine oak spices. It has structure and weight on the palate with earthy black raspberries, dark cherries, anise, herbs, leather and spice with a long, vibrant finish. Can cellar to 2032.

Black Bank Hill Syrah 2021 ($50, 94 points) — This brilliant Syrah was wild fermented and sent to multi-use French oak barrels for 17 months of aging. Watch for the 2022 vintage and going forward, a little Viognier will be blended. The barrel sample of the blend I tasted gets a lovely floral lift for added dimension and complexity. The 2021 Syrah shows a dense red velvet colour in the glass and has a meaty nose of dark berries, wild black raspberries, anise, black and red peppercorns, cedar plank and savoury spice notes. Such a beautiful Syrah on the palate, with concentrated blackberries, black currants, sour cherries, roasted meats, umami, generous pepper, anise, grippy tannins and structure all leading to a juicy, long, vibrant finish. “It’s a very cool wine from a difficult vintage,” notes McLean. If you want some of this, and you do, act fast … only two barrels were made (47 cases). Can cellar to 2030.

Black Bank Hill Égalité 2021 (not released, not labeled, not priced yet, 92-23 points) — This 100% estate-grown and hand-picked red wine is equal parts, or one barrel each of, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The grapes were vinified separately, wild fermentated and barrel-aged for 17-months in mostly neutral French oak then blended for bottling, unfiltered. This is the first in what will eventually be the top tier at Black Bank Hill. Such an inviting and perfumed nose of ripe red berries, cassis, plums, subtle earthy notes, and elegant spices. It’s a bold blend with an elegant disposition and shows a nicely harmonic mix of red and dark berries, earthy/savoury notes, fine grained tannins, chalky minerality, anise and that fine, spicy edge that only the best French oak barrels can impart. Such verve and finesse on the long finish. Can age confidently until 2032 and beyond.

Grapes for Humanity charity
wine auction raises $441,000

Grapes for Humanity board member Steven Campbell announced that $440,881 was raised for climate charities after feverish bidding during a recent wine auction conducted by Waddington’s.

“The culminating hour of the auction unfolded as a spectacle, with fervent participants engaging in spirited bidding wars until the end,” noted Cambell.

The money will go to “three exemplary charities” — Tree Canada, Nature Conservancy Canada, and The Halo Trust, ensuring the continuity of their impactful endeavours with the battle against climate change.

“Whether it was through donating wine from your personal or corporate cellar, hosting a tasting, tour or dinner at your winery, providing a meal at your restaurant or stay at your winery, or participating as an active bidder, it is your generosity that enables us to accomplish such remarkable feats,” Campbell said.

Campbell also had a special thank you for the “incredible” Ontario winemakers behind the From the Heart micro lot wine project: Thomas Bachelder, Mackenzie Brisbois, Erin Carroll, David Everitt, Erin Keast, Casey Hogan, Adnan Icel, Dean Stoyka, Ilya Senchuk, Matt Smith, Elisa Mazzi, Jeff Moote, Jessica Solanki, Kelly Mason, Jessica Otting, Ann Sperling, Charles Baker, Gabriel Demarco, and Emma Garner.”

There were seven “micro-lots” of Ontario wine, each featuring 120 bottles only. The wines were created by the superstar winemakers noted above from Niagara, Prince Edward County and Nova Scotia to create an aromatic white, a Riesling, a Chardonnay, a red blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Pinot Noir, and a Gamay.

As well, there were 36 mixed cases of seven with one bottle of each cuvee followed by 70 lots each featuring a case of a single variety, said Campbell. The labels featured photos of the participants.

In addition to the new collaborative wines made from different teams of winemakers, the auction also featured the last of the Cuveé From The Heart wines, made for a previous Grapes for Humanity auction, that included wines from B.C. and Ontario in small quantities.

Our pick from the Niagara wines being
released Saturday at Vintages stores

Westcott Estate Chardonnay 2021 ($30, 92 points) — The fruit for the Estate Chard comes from two Westcott vineyards — the home vineyard on Vinemount Ridge and Butlers’ Grant on the Twenty Mile Bench. The fruit was hand-picked, whole bunch pressed with no sulphur added at the time of crushing. It was wild fermented in oak and aged for 10 months. Quite an impressive nose of yellow apple, fresh pear, lemon zest and stony/saline notes with toasty vanilla and spice. It’s rich and creamy on the palate with pear/quince fruit, a touch of savouriness, lemon tart, flinty/stony notes, subtle butterscotch, spice and a zesty, lifted finish.

Also released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara (a whole lotta Featherstone!):

• Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling 2023
• Featherstone Sauvignon Blanc 2023 ($18)
• Featherstone Reserve Cabernet Franc 2021 ($30)
• Featherstone Rosé 2023 ($17)
• Stratus Wildass Red 2019 ($22)
• Marynissen Heritage Collection Charmed Rosé Sparkling 2022 ($25)
• Riverview La Gatta White Blend 2021