One of the most astute observations I've ever heard about Prince Edward County wineries came via Dan Sullivan of Rosehall Run who relayed an anecdote about promoting the industry in an unproven region.
Tending to some of those early vines he was told by James Lahti of Long Dog, one of the first wineries in the region, “We aren't selling history, we're selling mystery.” As apt as that is for the young and emerging region as a whole, it's really fitting for Exultet and its winemaker and co-owner Gerry Spinosa.
Modest, quiet in a group and a bit of an enigma, Spinosa doesn't have the extroverted, magnetic personality of many winemakers. Instead he initially comes off as a little reserved, looking for your reaction to his wines and speaking with a measured tone and cadence carefully thinking of the precise words to say to you—perhaps that's his background as scientist coming through. But when you talk to him one-on-one that seems to melt away and his passion and philosophical approach really come through. Spinosa believes Prince Edward County is a special place for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “The proof is in the pudding. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir we produce in Prince Edward County is always some of the best in Ontario,” he says. His eyes light-up when you get him talking about the seductive, silky and romantic nature of county Pinot Noir, which when it's good, seems to capture a beautiful depth of flavour that transcends what should be possible from a light bodied wine and delicate grape.
Like many in the county, Spinosa didn't start his career there. He and his wife Lia left their jobs and moved from Toronto about nine years ago to pursue a dream of winemaking in Prince Edward County. The winery only opened in 2010 so it may seems like they quickly shot to fame when their inaugural vintage of 2009 Chardonnay won the gold medal as the best oaked Chardonnay over $20 at the Ontario Wine Awards. Last year they repeated that success, again taking gold for their 2010, which they named the Blessed as a humble tribute to their early success. But much like a band who seems like an overnight success when they get their first hit, there was a lot of hard, unglamorous and painstaking work behind it.
When they finally found the spot for their winery they planted in 2004 and waited the full five years before making any wine. It takes at least three years to get decent quality grapes suitable to make wine, but those fanatical about producing the best often feel that only after five years do the vines begin to hint at their potential with them truly blossoming after another five-ten years. During that time the Spinosas restored and renovating the disused Royal Street Cheese Factory, built in the 1870s, to house their winery. Aside from preserving some of the county's heritage, converting an existing structure rather than building anew also fit their plans to try and be as environmentally conscious as possible.
But the first step was finding the right site for the vineyard. It takes good grapes to make good wine and you need a great site to produce top-quality grapes. Gerry Spinosa looked around Prince Edward County, but took a particular liking to a site near Milford. There aren't as many wineries in this southeast corner of the county as there are around Hillier in the northwest, but he finds it's a little warmer near Milford. In a cool climate like Prince Edward County “I'll take all the extra heat I can get,” Spinosa explains. But it wasn't merely about the heat, the soil was critical. He spent a year digging with a backhoe and analysing the soil samples before he decided this was the spot. “You couldn't go down more than a few feet without hitting limestone,” he exclaims. That's what really got him excited about the potential for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there.
Spinosa has a former science background and he meticulously set-up his diminutive 6.5 acre vineyard based on his findings from the dig. One block actually has Pinot Noir flanking the Chardonnay on both sides. It's also angled to take advantage of some soil conditions that Spinosa finds special. He won't say exactly what the soil is because he feels that like a good story a bit of mystery is a good thing with wine. But if you read between the lines it seems like he gives a bit of a hint when he mentions that sandier clay loam soils are sometimes underrated and possess some special proprieties like the ability to heat-up quicker and reflect more heat than a heavier clay soil.
Diminutive is actually an apt description for Exultet as a whole. The entire operation: barrels, press, bottles and all, for the 500 case winery fits in a few tiny rooms in the old cheese factory. It's also a true family operation with Lia providing the hospitality for guests out front, Gerry working in the vineyard or cellar and their young boys helping out where and when they can. Don't look for Exultet to expand much bigger, the small scale allows Spinosa to tend to the vines and wines personally and ensure they meet his exacting standards. It's also reflective of his belief that for the local industry to succeed and grow Prince Edward County wines should be 100% grown and made in the county with no grapes or juice coming in from elsewhere in Ontario. With its harsher winters that require vines be buried to survive, it's certainly more costly to make wine from Price Edward County grapes, but the connection of having the wine in the tasting room come from the grapes outside the window, is something he notices consumers asking for and appreciating.
Although Exultet has initially seen critical success for its Chardonnay, Spinosa is also very passionate about his Pinot Noir. He makes three of them: an entry level called Cru X, another simply titled Exultet Pinot Noir (made from a field blend of the clones he grows) and a third called the Beloved made from a single clone grown in the special spot in his vineyard. Although he has deep passion for all his wines, you can tell that the Beloved holds a very special place in his heart.
Spinosa believes that not only is Pinot Noir a signature grape for Prince Edward County, it also produces exceptional wine in his particular corner. He humbly admits “I'm a scientist, but we'll never know an exact formula of what makes Pinot Noir here special.” He believes it's likely a combination of soil, climate and good viticulture that is responsible for the unique and compelling Pinot Noir coming out of the county. More specifically he has begun to notice a certain signature from the Exultet vineyard itself. He finds there's a certain spicy character to the fruit. He doesn't like to say what the spice because everyone tastes differently and he prefers to let people taste his wine without influence. After detecting cinnamon, nutmeg and black cardamom, he responds with “cardamom is a first”. The spice is a characteristic that he's found comes naturally from that part of the vineyard and not the barrels. To prove it he pours a sample of the wine he uses for topping-up his 2011 in barrel, which has only ever seen stainless steel. As promised it delivers that same signature spice and tastes undoubtedly like his Beloved.
In a single word the current 2010 vintage the Beloved is beguiling. It's the type of wine that coaxes you into the glass with an alluring whisper rather than the grabbing you by the shirt and laying out how things are going to end like many bold wines do. The first swirl and smell reveals beautiful soft berry notes, the perfume of wild strawberry and kirsch. Underlying all that is a touch of cinnamon and some of that Prince Edward County minerality. Take a sip and you're greeted with layers of: strawberry, service berry, sweet cherry and pomegranate before a long spicy finish of cinnamon, nutmeg and wild berry. Tying it all together is the verve of that chalky county minerality and its electric acidity. It a very balanced wine with elegant weight and tannins that give it just enough support and structure without over powering its delicacy. What really impresses is its seductive and velvety texture. Similar to a cashmere sweater, it's delicate, irresistibly soft and light, yet it's substantial enough to give you a warm comforting feeling.
Although it drinks beautifully right now Spinosa feels it needs about another nine months in the bottle to come into its own. A barrel sample of the 2011, which Spinosa describes as a challenging vintage with hail and also some very wet conditions at harvest, also tastes promising. It has a beautiful floral aspect to it and an intriguing black cardamon note while still possessing a taste and texture similar to previous vintages of the Beloved. It's also very early in the life of the wine so Spinosa notes that it's bound to evolve as it has already. Still he remains cautiously optimistic and pleasantly surprised given the challenges of the vintage.
For someone who has seen great success Spinosa has a healthy dose of humility. “I'm not Babe Ruth. I'm not a magician. I'm not doing anything special or magic to the grapes,” he explains. He worries that some people buying future releases untasted might be disappointed if the wines don't quite taste like those he's crafted in the past. He remains committed to what he's in control of, which is using the same meticulous, quality-first practices and crafting a wine reflective of what his vineyard tastes and smells like that particular vintage. That's something wine lovers of cool climate, terroir-driven wines love to hear. After all wine is a living, breathing thing so it isn't so much about finding the definitive perfect wine as it is about finding the perfect wine for a moment in the evolving story that is our lives.
2010 Exultet “The Beloved” Pinot Noir
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.