Much like people doing the right thing in the right place, vines get better with age. Sure, they may not be as productive as they once were, but the depth earned from experience more than makes up for it. There are fewer Pinot Noir vineyards in Ontario with more wisdom than those of Lowrey Vineyards on St. David's Bench.
Old vines is a relative term in Ontario where the oldest vinifera vines are approaching their mid-thirties and the odd exception stretches back about 20 years before that. In fact the majority of the well established vineyards are now just in their mid-teens and arguably just beginning to show the kind of wine they can produce. But even amongst the oldest vineyards, which are mostly Riesling and Chardonnay, there isn't much Pinot Noir planted. The push for Pinot as a core grape in Ontario really didn't begin in earnest until the turn of the century when a few wineries with a focus on Pinot Noir like: Malivoire, Flat Rock Cellars and Le Clos Jordanne began to plant and open their doors.
Notoriously fickle to grow with its thin skin and small, tight disease-prone clusters, Pinot simply isn't the reliable, prolific workhorse most farmers would want to plant. Ontario's summer humidity and rain just as its ready to ripen in September and October, make it an even greater challenge to grow. But its ability to translate a vineyard's sense of place, as well as its ability to make delicate, but powerful wines with gorgeous texture, depth of flavour and aromatics, make it a favourite amongst many winemakers. That's why even with its increased profile most Ontario Pinot Noir still comes from the estate vineyards of wineries with a winemaker and owner who have a deep passion for the grape.
So with virtually no proven history and a long list of challenges it's hard to imagine exactly what compelled the Lowrey family to plant five rows of clone 115 Pinot Noir in 1984. As Wes Lowrey, fifth generation farmer of his family's St. David property and winemaker at Five Rows Craft Wine explains, it was all a happy accident. Back in 1984 with the looming pressures of free trade, it was becoming clear to his parents that the native labrusca grapes were Niagara's past. Labrusca-vinifera hybrids or even the peach trees many neighbours planted, looked to be the safe choices for those wanting to take advantage of government incentives to replant for the future. As the Lowreys were contemplating their future Inniskillin winemaker and co-founder Karl Kaiser happen to stop by and remarked that the soils reminded him a little of Burgundy. So he asked them if they would try planting a bit of Pinot Noir with the promise to buy the grapes if it worked out and a gentlemen's agreement to compensate them if it didn't. It turns out that Kaiser's intuition was spot on and they cautiously kept adding Pinot rows a handful as the vines showed promising results.
Inniskillin and Kaiser did their part too. The winery had developed a cult-following for its Pinot Noir by the early 1990s. As Inniskillin earned international fame for its Icewine the reputation for its Pinot spread amongst those in the know. That led to a collaboration on a wine with Burgundy Negotiant Jaffelin, who were looking for a local Pinot that would stand alongside its top-tier red Burgundies. What the two wineries chose was a barrel of Pinot Kaiser made from those vines he had the Lowreys plant. That Pinot Noir, under the Alliance label, was legendary amongst Ontario's Pinot lovers. It was that success that really cemented the Lowrey vineyard's focus on producing premium quality vinifera and led Wes Lowrey down the path to staring a winery of his own on the family farm in 2008.
Just like neighbouring Ravine, which was also part of the old David Jackson Lowrey farm (Niagara’s first commercial vineyard planted in the late 1800s), the Lowrey vineyard is the transitional point of the old glacial lake bed of ancient Lake Iroquois. That means there's a mix of clay-loam and limestone soil that was filled with “huge boulders and small pebbles“ from that ancient glacial till, say Lowrey. Although that type of mineral-rich, complex soil makes for interesting wine, it certainly made for difficult planting. Lowrey recalls being told the story of his grandfather driving the tractor with laser straight precision while his aunt and mother sat on the back trying to place the vines as evenly apart as possible during the bumpy ride. His father followed behind them and was responsible for adjusting and straightened the vines. Despite not having the modern advantages of laser guides and GPS, he's always impressed by how remarkably straight those original five rows of Pinot are when he walks them.
The Lowrey vineyard is very tranquil with a nice breeze coming off the escarpment in autumn, but Lowrey says it's actually quite still and warm during the peak growing season mid-summer. That extra warmth helps in a cool wet vintage like 2009. The gentle slope of the ancient lake bed towards Lake Ontario and the deep rocky soil also provides good natural drainage in a wet year while forcing roots to dig deep for nutrients and moisture in a warmer vintage. Aside from Pinot Noir the Lowreys also grow: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit is highly sought after and goes to wineries all over Niagara like Fielding and Creekside. One of the reasons the fruit is highly valued is that the vineyard has an ability to grow “elegant cool climate varieties, but also has the extra heat for later ripening varieties,” says Lowrey. It also helps that he's a very conscientious grower.
Lowrey doesn't rely on a formula or numbers when he's working his vine. Instead he uses intuition and feel. “Everything I learned about working with the vines I learned from my mother,” he says. Growing-up he watched her in the vineyard, and now as the one primarily working with those same vines, he has come to appreciate the touch she had with them. Lowrey finds that the old wines with their thick, withered and gnarly trucks are actually full of life and have a personality of their own. Just like with people, some are easygoing and need very little guidance, while others are a bit more suborn and ask that you earn their trust before they take heed of any help you offer. But the main points are to ensure the bunches aren't touching and that they get enough sun so they ripen and stay dry, but not too much that they get sunburnt. After that it's a matter of being out there daily and watching and listening to the vines. If they're unhappy they'll let you know, but treat them well, with care and respect, and they'll do so in kind, he notes.
Another rewarding aspect of working with Pinot Noir is that Niagara is beginning to show it has its own distinct take on it. “I think it's one of our core varieties. I've seen some amazing winemakers do fantastic things with it. For instance what Thomas [Bachelder] has done with it at Le Clos Jordanne,” Lowrey says. Seeing what others have done with his family's fruit, he had a yearning to showcase his own expression of the vineyard. It helped that he had some school training and practical experience as a winemaker to put to use, but ultimately nothing could match the feeling and satisfaction of making wine from the vines he grew-up alongside. That was and continues to be what drives the small one-room operation that is Five Rows Craft Wines. He doesn't have a desire to expand beyond the three reds, three whites and nano production of 125 cases of Pinot Noir each year. That level allows him to be hands on in all aspects while also allowing him the pleasure of being amongst the vines and growing grapes—something he finds deeply fulfilling.
He has also done some great work of his own with Pinot. At this year's Charlie Palmer's Pigs & Pinot in California, Five Rows Craft Wine was one of the few wineries outside of California and the only Canadian winery to be featured. Master Sommelier Fred Dame tasted Lowrey's 2007 Pinot Noir at Canoe restaurant and immediately said he had to have it for the Sommelier Smackdown competition at the event. Although Dame's impassioned pitch for the wine fell short of winning the prize, the feedback the Lowreys received at the event was positive with people very impressed with its quality.
It's essentially every winemaker's dream be able to craft a great wine with a distinct sense of place, the kind that can come from nowhere else. That's something the Lowrey farm seems to be showing. “There's a smokiness and meatiness to the aroma and flavours. That's what makes it a little different,” Lowrey says. Those distinct flavours mainly come from the older vines. The younger ones, from 1997, provide more fruit to the older vines' earthy, smoky, meaty base. This year Thomas Bachelder and Ilya Senchuk, who have their own labels Bachelder Wines and Leaning Post, purchased fruit from the Lowrey farm. Both winemakers have connections and reputations for making top-quality wines in Niagara, so they could source fruit from all over the region. The combination of the vine age, the fruit quality and Lowrey's attention to detail in the vineyard make it a top choice for their Pinot. Lowrey appreciates their trust in his fruit and likes to give them a mix from older and younger vines to give them a complete flavour profile of the vineyard. Those wines probably won't be ready for a couple of years, but it will be interesting to taste the different interpretation the three winemakers have of Lowrey Vineyards' Pinot in 2012. In the mean time you can get a preview of Wes Lowrey's take on the 2009 vintage.
2009 was a cold wet vintage until September came around and brought some much needed and appreciated dry sunshine and warmth. In fact Lowrey recalls feeling sorry for Senchuk who was taking the fruit for the first time because the Pinot wasn't looking close to ripe when September started. By the time October rolled around and it was time to harvest, the Pinot was healthy, ripe and full of great aromatics and flavours. That certainly shows on both the Leaning Post 2009 and the Five Rows Craft Wine 2009 Pinot Noir.
Lowrey's crafted a bit of a debonair and masculine Pinot with the 2009 Five Rows. Just like Roger O. Thornhill it's smooth and soft when it needs to be, but it is its underlying edgy charm that really sticks with you. Deep, rich notes of the hallmark Niagara sour cherry and beetroot pull you into the glass. Then the secondary earthy notes of wet forest floor and mushroom slowly come-up alongside the fruit. Supporting all that is an intriguing smoky and meaty bassline that lies just below the surface. Once you take a sip the sweet-earthy combination roasted beets and dark sour cherry are joined by the meaty and earthy flavours of portobello and porcini mushroom. A smoky undertone ties it all together before a pleasant hint of wet leaves, vanilla and oak spice comes through on its cherry-forward finish. There's an exciting edge to this wine with some grippy tannins and a refreshing acid backbone. But what is really impressive about the wine is its texture. Like a well-worn pair of denim it's irresistibly smooth and soft, but there's still just enough grit and character to give it some taut structure. I could see this wine completing dinner starring a perfectly seared and medium rare Magret duck breast a couple years down the road.
Lowrey admits that growing Pinot Noir in Ontario isn't easy. “You're always playing a game of chicken. You have to push things a bit with the fruit.” Push things too far and the breakdown is spectacular and swift. If you don't push it far enough it will be pale and watered-down without great depth of flavour. Unless you hit the sweet spot you're haunted by what could've been. At least the challenge is well documented so you know what you're getting into when you start, according to Lowrey. But most importantly there's also comfort and reward knowing that when you do get it right the wine is truly sublime.
2009 Five Rows Craft Wine 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.