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York Vineyards in Niagara takes sparkling wines to a whole new level

By Rick VanSickle

It’s been whispered about in Niagara wine circles for years, but now the first sparkling wines from York Vineyards are about to make a very loud debut this August.

York Vineyards is the pride and joy of Martin and Rachael Werner (below), a 20-acre site nestled against the Niagara Escarpment in St. Davids. Half the land is designated as Escarpment Natural Area and part of the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve.

It is also where the Werner family lives in the historic Silver Spring Farm home originally built in 1818 and renovated over three centuries by several families until the Werners bought it in 2016 and changed the name to York Vineyards to honour the road and sub-appellation where it’s situated. The stone for the striking home all comes from the escarpment behind the property where a quarry still exists today. The property’s roots go all the way back to James Secord as part of a 400-acre parcel purchased in 1780.

Let’s just say that York Vineyards stands on hallowed ground and it’s quite fitting that it is the first 100% sparkling house in Niagara as well as the first dedicated traditionally made sparkling wine house in the country. The only other two 100% sparkling programs that Wines in Niagara is aware of are Bella Wines in the Okanagan Valley, which makes traditional, ancestral, and fortified bubbles, and Hinterland in Prince Edward County, which makes traditional, ancestral and charmat bubbles.

The road from dream to reality for the Werners has been a decade-long adventure of twists and turns. Marty Werner’s family farm is on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the first vintage of York Vineyards sparkling program is from 2013 sourced from the Werner farm. Rachael Werner’s parents also have a vineyard near Chateau des Charmes on the St. David’s Bench, where they live. Planting at York Vineyards began in 2017 with six acres of grapes, all for use in the sparkling program, including Chardonnay (3.5 acres), Pinot Noir and Gamay (one acre each), and Aligoté (a half-acre).

The plan was always to have some of the first sparkling wines (non-estate) out into the world well before now but one thing after another stood in their way. Working with the Niagara Escarpment Commission look longer than expected, the first wines were shifted to various host wineries around the Niagara peninsula, and the wine was “trapped” at Millesime, a sparkling wine facility in Niagara, for a while when the sale of Kew Vineyards and Angels Gate (now Domaine Le Clos Jordanne) was being sorted through. Millesime is now owned by Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel, Cave Spring co-owner Len Pennachetti and Philip Dowell.

Consulting winemaker Peter Gamble.

“It’s been a testament of patience,” said Rachael Werner as we recently tasted the first five sparkling wines to be released mid-August last week.

It’s not as if the Werners have been sitting back and twiddling their thumbs while waiting on the sparkling wines to be released into the world. Rachael Werner has a career in real estate as senior vice president of sales at Sotheby’s International Realty Canada and is raising a young family with husband Martin.

Marty Werner grew up on his family’s 80-acre farm and worked in the vineyard each summer. Before he ever made a bottle of wine, Werner already had a lifetime of experience with grapes. He has made wine in Ontario (notably Ravine Vineyard as the winemaker and GM), New Zealand and California, runs a wine agency called Northern Wine Merchants, and owns or is a partner in several small-batch wine brands, including:

MW Cellars: The expanding portfolio of wines is now available at their own tasting and retail store located at Ironwood Cider in NOTL and through the Northern Wine Merchants website.

The League of Farmers (LoF): This is a collection of good friends and NOTL grape growers who decided to turn wine they made for themselves over the last decade into a business (to help pay for their homemade wine). The friends are Werner (who also makes the wine), Trevor Falk, Shawn Spiewak and Mark Lepp. These wines are also available at the new store.

BOTL from NOTL: The idea behind the new BOTL (Blends on The Lake) label from Werner and friends Lepp, Dustin Gill and Jordan Hernder is to produce a non-vintage red wine with “a bit more creativity.” Also available at the new store.

Northern Wine Merchants: A wine agency featuring wines from around the world featuring wineries that provide authentic wines and spirits for sales in Ontario through all available sales channels.

The York Vineyards sparkling program is one based loosely on the concept of grower Champagnes, which generally refers to wines from that region in France that are made and bottled by the same person who grows the grapes. This is different from wines produced by the big Champagne houses, which typically blend grapes grown by dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of individual grape growers from across the region. The Werners, with the help of consulting winemaker Peter Gamble, want to ultimately make their sparkling wines exclusively from grapes grown on the estate.

With the first vintage coming from 2013 and grapes at the estate only planted in 2017, the decision was made to only bottle the first vintages of York as NV (non-vintage) sparkling wines and a more generic “Niagara-on-the-Lake” appellation on the label. It will be another 6 to 10 years before we will see a full estate sparkling program with the sub-appellation St. David’s on the label and a revisit to the possibility of using a vintage date on the label at some point. The wines are on the premium and ultra-premium side of the ledger (both in winemaking and price) with long élevage in either oak or amphora (or both), extended lees aging and use of different varieties — think blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay), Pinot Noir sparkling rosé (with Gamay coming soon) , two Pinot Gris expressions, the Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, and also soon, a sparkling Aligoté, with a shorter time on lees to accommodate food pairings and freshness.

The first wines, presented in simple yet elegant label designs, differentiated by the colour of the labels, are some of the best sparkling wines I’ve tasted in Niagara and show what can be done with exhaustive blending and detailed work in the vineyard, visionary winemaking and long aging.

Here is what I liked from the five sparkling wines tasted. They won’t be ready for purchase until mid-August and consumers are urged to follow York Vineyards on Instagram here for updates and release dates.

York Vineyards Brut Rosé NV ($85, 93 points) — Even though the label says non-vintage, this 100% Pinot Noir sparkling wine is from 2017. It spent 24 months in neutral oak, 78 months on its lees and the dosage was 3 g/l of RS from its own base wine. All these stylistic sparkling wines from York Vineyards are marked by varying degrees of reduction and linear, laser sharp acidity. It’s part of the house style now and going forward. This Pinot Noir is pretty on the nose with strawberries, warm summer raspberries, leesy/biscuity notes, subtle reduction, rhubarb and flecks of lemon peel with a lively mousse. The bubbles turn more elegant on the palate with persistent red berries, a freshening saline minerality note, baked bread, nectarine, complexity and harmony through a long, fresh and finessed finish that makes your mouth water for more. A perfect sparkling wine to age in your cellar for a few years or enjoy its sizzling freshness now. Watch for a Gamay sparkling wine coming in the future from estate fruit.

York Vineyards Brut NV ($65, 92 points) — The Pinot Gris grapes for this traditionally made sparkling wine are from the Werner family’s NOTL vineyards from the 2018 vintage. One-third of the grapes were aged in amphora and two-thirds in French oak with 60 months of lees aging. There was a dosage of 5 g/l of RS of its own wine. Pinot Gris isn’t a typical grape to make sparkling wine with at this level, but Gamble suggested the “we give it a shot and see how it works. We love the texture.” It shows a vigorous bead in the glass with enticing aromatics of yellow apple, peach, lemon meringue tart, brioche, and flinty minerality. That lively bubble follows to the palate with persistent orchard fruits, a rich and creamy texture, stony minerality and laser-sharp acidity through a long and finessed finish.

York Vineyards Brut Nature NV ($95, 93 points) — This rendition of York’s traditionally-made sparkling portfolio also features 100% Pinot Gris with two-thirds of the wine aged in amphora and 72 months of aging on its lees. The fruit is from the 2017 vintage and, as the name implies, no dosage was added. The nose shows an intriguing brioche/autolytic note from the extended lees aging with flint and saline before the pear, apple crumble and lemon meringue pie kick in with an elegant bead in the glass. The wine has a creamy texture, some flinty/reductive notes, profound layers of orchard fruits, sharp citrus, toasted spice notes, a fine bubble and mouth-watering acidity keeping this well-aged sparkling wine poised and finessed through a brilliantly lifted finish that is long and steely. Such a beautiful wine that would be fun to age for a year or two. Watch for an Aligoté sparkling wine coming up down the road.

York Vineyards Brut Reserve ($120, 94 points) — The Brut Reserve is a select blend of 66% Chardonnay from 2016 and 34% Pinot Noir from 2017 from the best parcels available to Werner and Gamble. It was fermented and aged in French oak (20% new) for 24 months with a further 72 months of lees aging. It was given a dosage of 2 g/l of its own wine. Such a complex and contemplative nose of saline/minerality notes, baked brioche, fresh pear and apple, lemon peel, a lovely subtle reductive accent and a gentle yet persistent bead in the glass. Such wonderful texture and energy on the palate, combining stone fruits, minerality, crisp citrus, creamy/bready/brioche notes and toasty accents all leading to razor-sharp acidity on a clean, finessed and long finish that lingers for minutes. It would be a shame not to cellar a bottle for 7+ years.

York Vineyards Blanc de Blancs ($160, 95 points) — This is, of course, is 100% Chardonnay from the first grapes picked for the York project. It spent 24 months in French oak and 102 months on its lees with zero dosage (bone dry at less than 2 g/l of RS). This is a stunning wine, a tour de force for an extended lees aged sparkling that offers pure elegance and poise on the nose from the gentle bead in the glass to the toasted almond notes, quince, bergamot, lemon meringue, white flowers, flint and opulent brioche and biscuity accents. It turns more autolytic and textured on the palate, with deeper, layered, creamy notes of generous apple, pear and sharp citrus before showing flint, brioche and toasted nutty notes on a luxurious finish that is super long and vibrant. A stunning sparkling wine that will make even the most ardent fan of fine Champagne a believer in what can be done in Niagara. Yes, a big investment, but one worthy of your attention.