Over the past few years the Ontario wine market has seen the emergence of virtual wineries. Instead of buying a piece of land, waiting at least 3 years before the grapes are ready and putting-up a building to turn them into wine, a virtual winery in Ontario buys grapes, rents space in an existing bricks and mortar winery and makes its juice under that winery's license. In essence they're wineries with only the most basic essentials of a winemaker and his/her wine in bottle.
Many of these virtual wineries have been started, with the blessing of the wineries they work at, by winemakers and assistant winemakers looking for a label of their own to express their personal passion and take on a particular grape. With excess capacity at some wineries and a significantly smaller capital investment it's a win for both parties.
Although the virtual winery is not a new concept and exists in Europe, New Zealand and Oregon it's relatively new to Ontario. It's also one that makes sense at this time. With the wine industry in Niagara maturing, the cost of sites to plant grapes and build a winery has increased significantly as the availability of prime land becomes more scarce. We're also at the point where the first generation of high-skilled winegrowers and winemakers to be educated locally have a decade of experience. Combine those two situations and you begin to see why a community of virtual wineries is forming.
So we at Spotlight Toronto thought it was a good time to bring together a group of Niagara's virtual winery owners/winemakers for a discussion and record it for our second 30 Days of Local wine podcast. We talked about a variety of topics including what motivated our participants to start their virtual wineries, some of the joys and challenges of being a virtual winery and what they think is the needed step to take virtual wineries to the next level in Ontario.
Below are brief bios of our participants and their wineries, as well as a tasting note for one of their wines. If the podcast raises any questions or piques your interest these winemakers/winery owners are a dedicated and passionate bunch. They would be happy to continue the discussion with you on Twitter or via their website.
Winemaker & co-owner of 100 Marks Wines
The former restauranteur and sommelier followed his passion for wine and became the winemaker at Marynissen Estates in 2007 after receiving his winery and viticulture education at Niagara College. There Jeff Hundertmark was entrusted with the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Canada and has continued to make critical and crowd pleasing red and white blends. With 100 Marks Wines he is focusing on Pinot Noir, a variety not grown at Marynissen, and has plans for a unique white blend in the future.
2010 Pinot Noir (barrel sample)
Hundertmark is set to release the inaugural vintage by 100 Marks Wines, a 2010 Pinot Noir from Steve and Vivian Murdza Vineyards on St. David's Bench, in the spring of 2012. He gave us a barrel sample to taste. The nose was full of red currant, black raspberry, black cherry, and sandalwood with some oak and vanilla on the back end. The palate delivered on those currant, raspberry and cherry flavours before finishing on sandalwood and an earthy forrest floor note. With a medium feel and medium plus acidity I'm curious to see how this wine comes together and evolves over the next few months.
Steve Byfield decided to pursue his passion for wine a little over 10 years ago. He really got immersed in the Niagara wine industry after working the 2001 harvest at Southbrook and taking viticulture and winemaking courses through the Ontario Agriculture College at the University of Guelph. That led to an assistant winemaking position at Southbrook and various other wineries over the next ten years. In 2008, Byfield took the opportunity to start his virtual winery, Nyarai, using the license and winemaking facilities of Calamus, where he is the cellar master. Byfield is building a reputation for consistently producing critically acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc and reds like his 2007 Veritas blend—Best Red Wine at Cuvée 2011.
2010 Sauvignon Blanc
Byfield has a passion for the Niagara expression of Sauvignon Blanc and it really shows in Nyarai's 2010. It's bursting with intense passion fruit, guava, gooseberry and fragrant floral citrus aromas. Taking a sip is like being transported to the tropics with layers of passion fruit, guava and gooseberry before finishing on a creamy lemon custard note. The wine has a pleasant round feel—8 percent barrel fermented juice adds a touch of richness—while still retaining the crisp acidity that makes Sauvignon Blanc such a refreshing food-friendly wine.
Kevin Panagapka was curious about wine from a young age often helping out his father, who was a noted amateur winemaker. He decided to pursue a career in wine by studying winemaking and viticulture at Niagara College and then gaining experience at various wineries in the 2000s. In 2007 he started his own virtual winery 20-27 (the grower number for his plot of Pinot Noir) with the philosophy of trying to capture the uniqueness of the single vineyard. Although he's most noted for his Riesling, his 2009 from the Fox Croft Vineyard took best Riesling at Cuvée 2011, he also has a passion for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
2008 Falls Vineyard Riesling
This single vineyard Riesling from just outside of Jordan on the Vinemount Ridge has an enticing nose of freshly zested lemon and lime. Underneath that bright citrus are layers of white peach, honey dew and wet stone minerality. Those aromas come through on palate with the lemon and lime zest and that minerality really lingering on the finish. It's a dry well-balanced Riesling with a strong high-acid backbone and structure perfect for food and for those that like to age their Riesling.
Over the past decade Ilya Senchuk has been quietly making celebrated wines in Niagara. Most recently he was at cult favourite Daniel Lenko and now currently makes wines at Foreign Affair, where he uses appassimento (grape drying) to give the wines a unique flavour and mouthfeel. This year Senchuck declared his own virtual winery label open for business with a Pinot Noir and Riesling from 2009. As a Pinot lover the plan is to make Pinot Noir the flagship with another wine that showcases the vintage to round out the portfolio.
2009 Pinot Noir
Leaning Post's inaugural Pinot Noir comes from the renown Lowrey vineyard on St. David's Bench, so it'll be interesting to see the similarities and differences when friend Wes Lowrey releases his 2009 under his Five Rows Craft Wine label. Senchuk's has classic Niagara Pinot Noir aromas of sour cherry, cranberry, beet and earthy mushrooms. When you take a sip the first flavours you notice are the sour cherry and beets. Then comes an intriguing savoury combination of smoke, meat and wild mushroom before finishing with a cranberry note. It has a very silky mouthfeel and is balanced with medium plus acidity and medium tannins.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.