One of the most interesting observations I've heard about wine is an axiom that states if you can grow green grass between the rows of vines you're in a cool climate with an ideal site to grow great grapes.
The reason for this is that grass needs a balance between moisture and heat to grow well. It's planted as cover crop between the rows because its tap roots aerate the soil, encourage microbiological activity and give the vines some competition for nutrients and moisture, forcing them deeper. Nowhere have I seen more perfectly lush, green grass between rows of vines than Malivoire's Moira vineyard.
The Moira vineyard was the first property winery founders Martin Malivoire and his wife Moira Saganski purchased in 1995. Their desire to own a vineyard had started over a decided earlier, but the couple loved their life in Canada and didn't want to have to leave in order to pursue that dream. The 1980s and early 1990s were still very early times in the modern Canadian wine industry with only a handful of wineries like Cave Spring, Chateau des Charmes Henry of Pelham, Inniskillin and Vineland Estates showing that european vinifera grapes, which are now the norm, could produce consistently great wines in Niagara. After talking to some of these local wine country pioneers, the couple was convinced of Niagara's potential and started the process of searching for an ideal site with viticulture experts from the University of Guelph's School of Agriculture program. When the search was over they ended-up with a beautiful but hidden site on the edge of the Beamsville Bench, which they purchased from the Hipple family who partnered with legendary winemaker Eddy Gurinskas to found Lakeview Cellars.
While there are exceptional older Chardonnay sites on the Beamsville Bench (the Lenko vineyard and Cave Spring's CSV vineyard come to mind), few sites have the combination of beauty, soil and ideal growing conditions of the Moira vineyard. The thing that separates the Moira vineyard from many other exceptional sites is a happy accident of nature caused by the last ice age. The vineyard sits in the centre of virtual “island” oasis as winemaker Shiraz Mottiar describes it.
Located a little further east of the winery and estate vineyard, there's no real sense that a great property lies ahead when you approach the Moira vineyard. To get there you must climb up a steep and nondescript dirt road that takes you up to the top of the bench. At first, you see the old barrel cellar, dug into the hillside and currently housing future Malivoire sparkling wine. Then you turn the corner and go through a clearing of trees and you're greeted with an immaculate and green triangular vineyard. Surrounding you is a beautiful forest. There's a hill, which some have remarked looks a bit like Burgundy's famed Corton Hill, to the west and a gorgeous tree-lined, but sheer, ravine to the south. It's that forest and ravine that creates an environment similar to an island for this vineyard. Visiting in mid-September on a fairly brisk and windy day, the Moira vineyard has more of a warm and gentle breeze blowing through its vines. In the winter and cooler months the ravine also helps pulls the cooler air down away from the vines, which is why Malivoire has never felt the need for a wind machine. The site also seems to possess a moderate heat which is warm but not quite as hot as it can be further north down on the flats. Overall it's a tranquil, moderate and comfortable site—exactly what you'd picture when you think of cool climate viticulture.
But all that wouldn't make much different if the dirt below wasn't something special too. Like many wine lovers, Martin Malivoire is enchanted by Burgundy, so that led to a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at his winery. The type of dirt those grapes tend to thrive in has a limestone base in Burgundy. It just so happens that some spots in Niagara have their unique dolomitic limestone base, thanks to the last glacial ice age. Malivoire was able to find some of that in the Moira vineyard. It's a mineral-rich site that's a mix of lighter sandier loam that provides good drainage, glacial till and a limestone-rich calciferous clay the stretches deep below the surface. In short both Martin Malivoire's wine preference and an ideal site magically aligned with the Moira vineyard. So when he purchased the property he quickly pulled out the existing labruscas and other crops to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Although it produces some fantastic Pinot, it's the Chardonnay in particular that seems to be thriving and producing exceptional wines for Malivoire. It has done so almost since its inception with the inaugural 1999 vintage—a wine that kick-started the winery's and then winemaker Ann Sperling's reputation of making serious Chardonnay—attracting great critical acclaim. Mottiar believes the reason for the success of the Moira vineyard is the combination of an exceptional site and the right grape. With the exception of the hot and dry 2007 vintage, which produced Chardonnay that was a little more tropical than he preferred, the Moira vineyard has been a pleasure to work with and a consistent top-performer on the vines and in the glass.
Mottiar is quick to credit the limestone-rich site and a planting that included a mix of top clones spread throughout the vineyard. After that it's really just a matter of keeping yields low (one bunch per shoot) in order to express the vineyard's sense of place and also farming sustainably. That means never irrigating and using organic growing practices like compost and horsetail tea to boost the vine's natural immunity and protection against disease. Mottiar also considers the clonal diversity throughout the vineyard a huge asset. It allows him to take advantage of the vineyard's individual microclimates and to harvest by section based on when he feels the flavours are right. To preserve those natural flavours Mottiar aims for a wild fermentation on at least a portion using a pied de cuvee, a technique where a small amount of grapes are crushed shortly before harvest and then added to rest of the grapes once fermentation begins to help kick-start them. At harvest the grapes also get the white glove treatment with a hand-pick, sort and gentle whole bunch press. He then uses a mix of barrels, mostly second fill and older, from top French coopers to allow the wine to ferment and age for a year. The end result is something he hopes best captures how the Moira vineyard smells, tastes and feels that year.
Malivoire is currently in transition between vintages with its Moira Chardonnay, making it a good time to visit. Some bottles of 2008 still remain as the focus has switched over to the 2009. That's a great opportunity because the 2008 is drinking superbly right now. The nose has a delicate floral character to it with white flowers, tree fruit like apple, peach and pear and a slight tropical edge before it rounds off with some sweet cream and toasty notes. When you take a sip there's Golden Delicious apple, white peach, cantaloupe, white fig and a touch of tangerine. Supporting all that fruit is an intriguing, but subtle combination of cream, nutmeg, a bit of oak spice and a touch of that stony Bench minerality that comes through and lasts long on the finish. This wine has a beautiful texture that coats the palate and comforts without being heavy, think a well made vichyssoise—light on the cream. The acidity is just enough to keep the texture and cream notes balanced and the wine tasting fresh. Mottiar remarked that some people initially thought this moderate vintage, on the cooler and wetter side, might be a little too delicate to stand-up over time, but it certainly seems to have produced a fantastic wine.
The 2009 is very different, but equally good. It retains those great tree fruit notes and the 2008's elegance, but this vintage is more citrus-driven and has a more pronounced minerality. It's that compelling savory edge that's this vintage's signature mark on the wine. The first thing that strikes you when you swirl and smell is a chalky mineral aroma followed by white grapefruit, lemon and tree fruit with some tangy yogurt to close. Take a sip and that savoury citrus and mineral combination greets you. Then comes a second wave with Asian pear, the green edge of a Honeydew melon (near the rind), Cortland apple and apricot. As you approach the finish there's flavours of crème fraîche and touch of oak spice before it returns to that savoury and slightly saline mineral-citrus combination. The texture here is lighter than the 2008 and reminiscent of buttermilk providing a slight bit of richness without feeling too fat or round. The cool vintage, which Mottiar recalls as cold, wet and only really turning around as autumn approached, provides a racy acid backbone that you can feel in your cheeks. That should provide some great structure for those that like to cellar their Chardonnays and follow them as they mature.
Speaking of mature Chardonnay, Malivoire also currently has a very small quantity of its 2004 Moira, sealed under screw cap, available for sale in its retail boutique. From a quintessential Niagara vintage, which was Goldilocks-like (neither too warm and dry, nor too cool and wet), this is a great bottle to pick-up for those that love a mature Chardonnay or those that want to explore what they are like. It still retains some of the vineyard's signature tropical and floral tree fruit notes, but it also possesses beautiful mature aromas like: toffee, honey, baked fruit and spice. On the palate there's layers of flavour like roasted pineapple, baked bartlett pear, peach pie, butterscotch, buckwheat honey, beurre noisette, toasted hazelnut, marzipan and spicy-custardy bread pudding with a touch of clove. The acidity is similar to the 2008 Moira, but a little softer providing a great liveliness and spark to the wine. What strikes you most about this Chardonnay is the texture it has developed over time. It has a gorgeously creamy and slightly weighty vicious texture. It's similar to that satisfying mouthfeel you get from a rich Vietnamese coffee, complete with the condensed milk, or a well crafted Turkish coffee. As great as the 2004 tastes now, Mottiar thinks the version sealed under cork (just a small portion of the total production was sealed under screw cap to test how the wine would age differently) was even better at its peak a few years ago.
Although its past is rich, Mottiar is really excited with what lies ahead for the Moira Chardonnay. He thinks the vines, celebrating their 16th birthday, are just beginning to show the kind of wines they are truly capable of producing. Given what they've done so far that's certainly something that should excite local wine lovers. For the time being though, they'll just have to wait and see—glass of Chardonnay in hand. When it's this good that's never a bad place to be.
2008 Malivoire Moira Chardonnay
2009 Malivoire Moira Chardonnay
2004 Malivoire Moira Chardonnay
Availability: Very limited library re-release at the winery.
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.