The base of the Bench is where you want to be. A winemaker once told this theory claiming all the most interesting vineyard soils in Niagara lie not on the hillside but just below.
The thought process goes that when the glaciers melted, randomly leaving mineral deposits, they mostly collected at the bottom rather than higher-up. It may be a biased theory because that winemaker sources grapes from a vineyard near the bottom of the Bench, but it remains an intriguing one as I can think of a few different vineyards that seem to support it. One such vineyard is Marcus Van Bers' in the Creek Shores sub appellation.
You'll find Van Bers' vineyard on the north side driving along King St. in Jordan towards St. Catharines. It's just past Le Clos Jordanne's vineyards and twisty 17th St. you would take up to get to Flat Rock Cellars. The 48 acre vineyard, split equally between white and red varieties, is fittingly unassuming with a simple white barn out front. But walk out back and you'll be greeted by impossibly straight, uniform rows so long you'll swear you'll need a GPS get to the end of them. Van Bers grows highly sought after Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sémillon, Gamay Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for a number of wineries like: Angels Gate, Rosewood and Tawse. But it's his Cab Franc that stands out and it's what I went to see with Tawse winemaker Paul Pender.
Interestingly Van Bers took a gamble on Cab Franc when he initially planted the vineyard in the late 1990s. He knew he wanted a mix of red and white grapes and thought Cab Franc might work, but he was far from certain. That gamble seems to have paid off as not only does it seems to grow quite well, but much like Van Bers himself it's very modest in its needs and easy going.
For Pender this is the premier spot for Cab Franc in Niagara. The 15-year-old vines produce fruit with great flavours that the winery has bottled in an ultra premium single vineyard wine for the past few years. The public seems to agree, with it always easily selling out, even with a price that only results in small change from a Mackenzie King. Although Tawse is probably best known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the winery's initial plan was to only produce 2,000 cases with a focus on Burgundian-style wines, it's gaining a well-deserved reputation and cult following for its Cab Francs.
That's not a surprise to Pender, who regards Cabernet Franc as one of Ontario's best performing and most consistent grapes. “Consistency is the key to building a strong reputation for a grape in a region. Although it's still early and we're learning, we've already begun identifying some very good sites for Cab Franc. They're consistently producing fruit with great flavours. The same can't be said for Pinot Noir, which is still a bit of an unknown,” Pender says. Those are bold words from a self-professed Pinot-phile. Pender sites inferior clones in the early days, young vines and still searching for many of those ideal vineyard sites as reasons why Pinot Noir isn't quite up to Cab Franc's level of performance yet, but he remains hopeful. He believes it's still too early to either anoint Pinot Noir as an Ontario signature grape or to write it off.
That's not the case with Cab Franc, which he believes in the right hands and on the right site, seems to produce great flavours regardless of the vintage conditions. Walking amongst Van Bers vines, Pender recalls the cool wet vintage of 2009, the year which summer never came, and still seeing green berries at this time of year. By the time he harvested well into autumn the berries were only the size of peas, but they had thick skins with fantastic flavours. The warm dry conditions of this vintage have the berries much further along. When Pender samples them he remarks that you could harvest these uniform and deep bluish purple berries right now and they would produce a very good wine. But leave them on the vines to further develop, as he intends to, and they should make phenomenal juice. It's hard to argue. The flavours are so reminiscent of ripe raspberry and blueberry that blindfolded you might have trouble believing you're eating a grape.
Aside from consistency, transparency is also something Pender appreciates and values in Cab Franc. “With Cabernet Franc I can go through the vineyard, taste the grapes and know what kind of flavours I'm going to get in bottle, with Pinot I don't feel nearly as confident.” he says. He's seen flavours change from vineyard to crash pad to barrel and bottle with the heartbreak grape. That can be a little frustrating as a winemaker if the flavours change from what you initially liked about them.
For Pender the secret to Van Bers' vineyard and what makes it so well suited to Cab Franc is its heat and soil. When we visited it was a fairly warm day in the lower-twenties, but walking the rows you could feel the sweat develop on your brow as it seemed a few degrees hotter than Tawse's Cherry Ave. Vineyard. Pender also thinks the heavy clay of Van Bers' property is ideal for making a complex wine. “With simple soil, you only get simple wine,” he quips. Cab Franc vines are known to be vigorous growers, so he thinks the heavy clay of this vineyard helps keep that growth in check and allows the vine to focus on ripening the berries. It's also forces the vines to dig deep for nutrients and moisture. Anecdotally Pender's hypothesis looks sound. The only real indication that this is a warm and dry year is a slight bit of crunch to the earth as you walk the rows. The vines are green, healthy and producing nice uniform bunches—even the grass between the rows is green. In short everything looks balanced and textbook which is not something you often see in Ontario.
Pender is very particular about the way he grows grapes at Tawse because he believes the wine is essentially all made out in the vineyard and the winemaking is simply about translating what was grown into the bottle. In this case Pender leaves the vineyard in Van Bers' capable hands. He describes his approach as balanced—neither too fussy nor too lax. For Cab Franc, he aims for a single bunch per shoot, leaf plucks on both sides for maximum sun exposure and doesn't fertilise or use a heavy hand with thinning the vine growth—both of which can be detrimental to the fruit's quality. Like a good solider Cab Franc tends to respond well if it's treated in kind and given a well thought out plan to execute. That means keeping yields down to express fruit flavours and mitigate any vegetive greenness; keeping the vine growth in check and then just having the patiences to allow it to ripen.
Once Pender calls in the vineyard team to hand harvest and hand-sort Van Bers' fruit at the winery it's given the the white glove treatment. He keeps berries whole, never crushing them, before they go into the oak fermenters and the yeasts begin their magic. For Pender, who never crushes reds, it's especially important to be gentle with Cab Franc and to not over-extract flavours and tannins with a strong crush, excessive pump overs or punchdowns. He finds aggressively treating Cab Franc brings out unpleasant, bitter and undesirable flavours in the wine. “It's the Pinot Noir of Bordeaux [grapes],” he says. “Let's celebrate its elegance.” So trying to manipulate the grape into a big, bold, showy wine when it doesn't have that kind of personality, really misses the mark.
Although he stresses that the story of Cab Franc in Ontario is still at its beginning, Pender is seeing a unique signature emerge. It's blueberry. That's a flavour he has noticed across Tawse's line-up, which features Cab Francs from lighter sandier soils up to heavy clay like the Van Bers. It's also something that's rarely seen in the wine world and could be celebrated as unique to Ontario's terroir. Ontario is also able to deliver a whole spectrum of intriguing flavours in Cab Franc from herbal such as tobacco and roasted herbs to fruity like raspberry and plum. That range of flavour and its bright acidity also make it a versatile and ideal partner for food.
The 2007, the previous vintage of the Van Bers Cab Franc, was one of the few wines from that hot and dry vintage which delivered elegance along with power. Sure there was deep, rich, dark berry notes and bittersweet chocolate hints, but there was also a purity and grace in their delivery, as those flavours spoke the right words, rather than shouted for attention.
The current 2008 vintage has even more of that elegant character. Just like a sleek black sports car stopped at a light, looking at the deep ruby juice of this Cab Franc you know you're in for a little excitement with your elegance. The nose shows a great balance between the berry fruit and the darker more brooding notes supporting it. An undercurrent of graphite, fresh pencil shavings and sun-warmed freshly tilled black earth creates great tension against black raspberry, blackberry, currant and plum. As you approach the finish blueberry, tobacco, cocoa and oak spice come through before it finishes on a long lingering note of black raspberries. It also possess great balance with a silky and satisfying medium body and fine, well-integrated tannins at the medium level. The bright level of medium plus acidity also keeps this wine feeling fresh and lively. Just like the 2007, this is a wine you could lay down for a few years to enjoy on a special occasion. When you do I'd recommend a dish up to the task like a herb crusted rack of lamb, cocoa dusted Magret duck breast or even something a little more exotic like bison with a berry compote.
2008 Tawse Cebernet Franc Van Bers Vineyard's
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.