Megalomaniac Winery – The Gloves Are Off


If there’s one thing that is consistently brought-up when talking about the John Howard Cellars of Distinction’s Megalomaniac wines it’s the marketing. In particular it’s the labels that get most of the attention. So it is appropriate that over a weekend in mid-November Tanya Scholes was at the winery to sign copies of her book The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels. For Scholes, who worked in advertising and design, the key criteria for selection of labels in her coffee table style book is that the labels “had to speak to me”. To do that the labels had go beyond cutting edge design and slick marketing to the human element behind the wines. Over the course of the four years it took to research and write Scholes says winery staff and designers alike shared intimate stories behind wines and labels.

Niagara wineries that are included in the book are Five Rows Craft Wine of Lowrey Vineyards, Southbrook’s 2006 Poetica Cabernet Merlot label and John Howard Cellars of Distinction for the Megalomaniac line of labels. Scholes book isn’t the first time the Megalomaniac line of wines have been recognised. The labels from Vancouver design firm Brandever have won Best in Show for label design at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition in 2007. Cheeky touches like Narcissist Riesling written backwards so it appears right-reading in the mirror act not only as interactive wordplay but also play off of the grape’s reputation to transparently reflect the sense of place and vintage. But no matter how clever the label, marketing only buys an initial try. The wines have to please the palate or customers don’t come back.

The crux of the event was a tasting held at various tables in the winery, which if you’ve never been is essentially an underground barrel cellar that was carved out of the Vinemount Ridge limestone. When you arrive atop the dirt road that snakes its way amongst the estates 55 acres of vines you’re greeted with a stone arch, iron gates and two large wood doors. The tables, which represented rounds to mimic the boxing theme of the event and the now sold out 2007 Frank Cabernet Franc label had the entire   Megalomaniac portfolio open for tasting. In between wines attendees could nibble on fresh thin slices of the Pingue Prosciutto made in St. David’s. There was also spread of cheeses including a rich creamy Charlton Chevre from Northern Ontario producer Thornloe.

In addition to his Megalomaniac wines, Howard was pouring futures tasting of 2009 wines from select Bordeaux properties in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. These are Right Bank communes,named so because they are on the right side of the natural split caused by the Gironde River. Although Bordeaux wines are almost always blends and the composition varies, Right Bank reds tend to be predominately Merlot in the blend rather than the Cabernet Sauvignon heavy Left Bank wines.

Of particular interest was Le Conseiller made by Jean-Philippe Janoueix, who is a partner of Howard in Chateau Haut-Pontet located in Saint-Émilion. Available for order through the LCBO’s Vintages  at $60 for a minimum three bottle lot this Bordeaux featuring rich blueberry and clay notes is nicely balanced and is a great buy for those who want a Bordeaux from what has been critically described as potentially the greatest vintage from that region ever. The slightly more complex Pomerol Bordeaux La Croix St-Georges also from Jean-Philippe Janoueix stood out with notes of dark ripe plums and a hint of chocolate and spice. At $237 for the three bottle lot it’s a bit more of an investment but the great thing about futures is you’re only required to pay half the money up front when the LCBO accepts the order and the remainder when the wines arrive in 2012. Once those wines hit shelves in two years the price will likely increase significantly from those prices.

Vineyard manager Duarte Oliveira points out that Howard and Megalomaniac don’t see any money from any potential orders as a result of this futures tasting of Bordeaux wines, which during that weekend would have been passed on to the LCBO to process and complete. The tasting was more about giving the public an opportunity to sample good Merlot-based Bordeaux blends from a great vintage, he says.

The 2008 version of the Megalomaniac Big Mouth Merlot was also being poured at the event. Sourced from estate fruit in the cool wet 2008 vintage, Oliveira says he thinned a little more fruit than normal to maintain vine balance and healthy fruit over the long season resulting in a yield of 1.8 tons per acre. Violet and herbal aromas dominate the nose. There’s almost herbal and bell pepper flavours along with blueberry fruit on the palate. It’s certainly not a Merlot for those who favour the lush ripe black fruits that came with Bordeaux variety wines in Ontario’s 2007 vintage. But this wine is still a little tight and it would be interesting to see how it develops for fans of cool climate wines.

Although Jean-Philippe Janoueix doesn’t have a hand in making the wines at Megalomaniac his influence was ironically felt in another cool climate grape—the Burgundian variety Pinot Noir. This event marked the introduction of the Sous-Terre 2007 Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir which joined the infamously named Son of a Bitch Pinot Noir in Megalomaniac’s line-up. Winery workers encouraged people to try the 2007 Son of a Bitch Pinot Noir before the Sous-Terre Pinot Noir. Typical of the notoriously fickle and difficult to grow variety the Son of a Bitch Pinot Noir has flavours and aromas of cranberry, cherry and a touch of minerality which are hallmarks of Niagara Pinot Noir. Still a little tight and just a touch tannic this Pinot Noir has the good acidity and delicate flavors that make this grape versatile and food friendly.

The Sous-Terre 2007 Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir is part of the winery’s reserve series so named for its underground location. In this Pinot Noir winemaker Sue-Ann Staff has made a complex blockbuster of a wine with aromas and flavours of dark black cherries with hints of cola, tobacco and cocoa. The wine has strong acid and a good tannic structure which should mean some longer-term aging potential. The standout feature of the wine is the lush mouth feel with a weight that’s almost reminiscent of silky cream—the Son of Bitch is closer to partly skimmed milk in comparison.

That difference alone makes it like a completely different wine. But Oliveira swears the same fruit, cropped to 1.3 tons per acre, made both wines. The fruit comes solely from the winery’s inherited property of relatively old 15-year-old vines of clone 115, not a mix  777, 667 and 115 that can be found elsewhere in Niagara. The only difference between the Sous-Terre and the Son of a Bitch was the barrel and barrel alone.

The Sous-Terre was aged in unique elongated cigar-shaped barrels developed by the Janoueix family and French coopers. They provide more contact with the lees than a typical shaped barrel, which is something that’s desirable so long as you have healthy lees according to Oliveira. The winery’s sales coordinator for Niagara, Gavin King, says the relationship that Howard has with Janoueix gives the winery exclusive access to the limited supply of these barrels in Niagara. When asked he says these are not the same as other elongated barrels used by other Niagara wineries like Foreign Affair. These barrels, which housed the Sous-Terre Pinot Noir for 22 months will be returned to France when they are exhausted and new ones will be supplied. The winery is experimenting with the Janoueix family and the coopers trying barrels made from wood in different French forests and working with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the cigar-shaped barrels. So there may be more Sous-Terre series wines aged in these barrels to come.

Given the small number of cigar-shaped barrels there is a limited supply of the Sous-Terre 2007 Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir. Available in lots of six bottles it should be ready for pick-up or delivery before the end of the year when the packaging is finished and ready. For those that ordered on the debut weekend, they were sent home with a single bottle of the Pinot Noir to enjoy now—ironically labeled only by hand in silver pen.

Wines tasted
2007 Megalomanic Son of a Bitch Pinot $24.95 available at the winery or online through its website
2008 Megalomanic Big Mouth Merlot $24.95 available at the winery or online through its website
2007 Sous-Terre Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir $44.95 per bottle available in lots of six bottles. Contact the winery as availability is very limited.

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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.

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