Listening to Flat Rock Cellars’ winemaker Jay Johnston rattle off the numbers and particulars of his 2013 Pinot Noir harvest you can’t help but survey the odds of something preternatural. Vintage speculation for 2013 in Niagara has met with tempered interpretation, a play down on the effects of weather and generalizations that it was just another normal meets classic year. Nothing to see here. You sure about that?
This according to VQA Ontario. “2013 was an interesting year with some significant weather variations through the growing season…weather conditions during the 2013 season were quite variable…with some isolated late frosts in Niagara…temperatures through September and October were slightly higher than normal but October was wet putting pressure on harvest schedules and many wineries worked long hours to optimize harvest strategies around the weather.” Sound the alarm?
Flat Rock’s vineyard is a wondrous bit of topography. Peer out from the conclave tasting room and witness a rolling set of undulating and breaking waves, ascending, descending and demarcating the landscape. Let Ed Madronich point out individual plots and blocks. Imagine each sub-section of the vineyard as its own little hermetic world, with its own soil biology and guided by its own little set of rules. Now taste Pinot Noir tank samples from 19 disparate parcels. Internalize, disseminate, deconstruct and reconstruct. As if you were the master of single varietal assemblage. Mind blowing actually. Nerdy, but mind-blowing.
House and Home Food Editor Eric Vellend and I sat down with Johnston and Madronich at the winery for a comprehensive look at those ’13 Pinots, fresh out of their infancy and just beginning to offer a glimpse of what they will be. A total of 185 tonnes were harvested at a more than modest 24 to 24.5 brix, a sugar quotient effectuated by timing as much as sunshine. Nineteen chapters delineate the story, in 160 barrels and in the end there will be two wines. The 2011 Block Series experiment will once again go unrepeated, though Jay notes a return could be considered for 2014.
The tank room was very cold on this last day of February 2014 (you don’t say) so Johnston brought up the samples in what can only be described as a highly classified, secret society of winemakers, high-tech way; in plastic water bottles and Erlenmeyer Flasks. The goal was to offer a representation of the fingerprint of the vineyards and the fermentation management through full composite blends of each batch. We tasted through eight of the 19. The first three are from batches that end up in the Flat Rock Estate Pinot Noir. Clonal selections are noted in brackets.
Tang at the forefront, a mineral streak, red berries and a lingering whisper of citrus squeeze from recent (X-mas) sulphuring.
Dusty and also juicier, from an icy, polar beginning to come back around, calm down and seek a softer, common (to South) end.
Beastly, meanest sucker of the three, speaking with the most rock. The only one (of the first set of three) with some funk.
Monster (A blend of clones)
Funkadelic funky but also the fresh maker. Cherries and high-toned perfume, a feral hint in a leafy, good compost way.
Most like cousin Monster, with increased ferrous activity and striking as the most recognizable to be Flat Rock Pinot Noir, even at only four months of age.
The darkest hue yet, with more smoke, heavy rock and a fuller structure.
Bottom and top of the (west) vineyard collide with a mineral tie connecting the two. Grit and toughness here, depths of Mordor and Prunus Serotina, cherries gone black. The combo effect confuses the fruit, rendering the B/S the least subtle and distinctive.
Back to dust but also tang and bigger tannins. Vines with less vigor and smaller berries to thank.
These eight samples all begin in antipodal and far away places but come together to seek common ground. As a window to the outlook for 2013 I can say with unequivocal doubt that if these wines were in bottle they could all be enjoyed right here and now. Pinot Nouveau. They are possessive of a computation in complexity to each tell an individual story. It would be hard to figure Jay and Ed waiting a full 12 months to see them into bottle, especially from the showy blocks. Look for Flat Rock to knock some off to racking in late spring to preserve their amazing level of freshness. The 2013 vintage looks to offer immediate gratification. Its longevity remains to be seen.
Notes on (not yet released) 2012′s and 2013′s
Nearly 4000 cases will be available of this nearly-unfiltered, very established and always well-thought out Pinot Noir. A consideration of the plots and barrels micro-management that determine the crasis of this Estate wine demands an extrapolation in full-on assessment. The medium-coarse Chinois filtering lends to a tannic chain of texture thick in grain and chalk. A heavier Estate because when the weather gives you heat you make a climate appropriate wine. This monkey is not a product of arctic air and it “got too deep, but how deep is too deep?” Thermal vintage melt, ritzy ripe cherry stuff in 2012. From the Ritz to the Rubble, if you like, or the Flat Rock. 88
There will be 660 cases of this barrel cherry-picked, now iconic Bench Chardonnay. The warm vintage called for a combo-malo approach, part batch all in, part arrested development. Gravity influenced top down blending also work to seek a svelte elegance and this ’12 really straddles the humid line. Thinks to be ribald but remains chaste, only allowing a kiss from the barrel and a caress from the rocks beneath the soil. Accept immediate but know that deferred gratification is the hallmark of this bottling. 89
From a sample just pulled from the tank. Jay Johnston’s concept for Nadja is to create many fermentations together, using 2000L tanks and some barrels. The ferments are arrested when they achieve balance and then blended. Nadja still has her young fizz on and she’s exaggerated in Metallica meets a wondrous kind of sour. Already showing an unfurling of (mostly citrus) fruit but also spice and hurried depth. Frantic Riesling, will she “stop to warm at karmas burning, or look ahead, but keep on turning?” 89-90
Tasted from a tank sample. The 2013 Rosé marks a change in direction and approach. No longer a one-dimensional, typical method blush made by saignée, bled off cold soaks, the ’13 goes at it half and half through skin fermenting. As soon as the skins dry out they are removed. The result (though not really apparent four months in) will be aridity with the sweet balance arriving by way of a six to seven percent sulphured dose of Gewürztraminer. The sample swims both upstream and down, through waves of salinity and dulcitude. Will lay claim to being one of the more interesting Rosés from the vintage. 87-88
Tasted from a barrel sample, this singular Bench brew of Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir. After 14 months in barrel, all separated at birth, the varieties were blended in mid-January and will be bottled this March. Yet unsettled, there is a level of unctuousness and cake layering. A big red for the believers, for those who lust for big reds. Currently showing its wood, freshness, acids and potential for balance. 87-88
Tasted with proprietor Ed Madronich at the winery. This was Flat Rock’s first ever Sparkling wine made in a challenging vintage. The base wine was fermented dry and sent to neutral barrels. Sugar and yeast were added after eight months and it then entered the bottle. Newer vintages may see time stretched to 20 months. At this stage it is very much alive, showing the whole orchard and nothing but the orchard, albeit with some fallen fruit. Some sugar lingers but not enough to pull it from dry. With time the orchard gives to grapefruit. In the end it’s big and biscuitous. Says Madronich, “Our wines can go 15 years, no problem.” We’ll see about that. 89
Tasted with proprietor Ed Madronich at the winery. Six and a half years have done this unoaked Chardonnay six and a half years of wonder. Green herbs and apple jam spread on a whole wheat cracker. To believe there is not a day of oak on this wine is to bury one’s head in the sand and begin again. It’s that stubborn Bench limestone doing the fooling. “We have great soil,” grins Ed. A few minutes and a few more swirls in it begins talking in the vernacular of Chablis, in a matchstick tone. It’s also fleshing as it goes. Six plus years and $17? “It’s crazy.” 90
Rusty Shed Chardonnay Vertical 2011-2006, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula (1552, $24.95)
Barrel fermented, barrel aged, gravity fed. No other Niagara winery can offer up a vertical like this, in this price range. If there is another, let me know and I’m there.
2011 (WineAlign) Conspicuous by its texture from a mild to middling vintage “when you picked before or after the rain.” Though combined, the antechamber of acidity and good cheer trumps the mudroom of funk and doldrums. A Guns ‘n Roses vintage, a pull in two directions, with a potential for breakdown. “Ev’rything was roses when we held on to the guns.” A soft, buttery note tempers the tang and yet that tang lifts the fruit. The tension is what sets the ’11 up for a classic run. 91
2010 (WineAlign) Increased sugar from a hot year with early ripening. Picking decisions played a crucial role, the prudent winery avoiding the heat of the day. This was key to preserving freshness and acidity. Though the aromas are soft and muted, the palate is lush and plush with a mid-section of adolescent body fat. 89
2009 (WineAlign) A slow and even ripening season culminated with a warm and dry harvest. Ideal harvest conditions. This ethereal ’09 has that late harvest come of age feel but is unwavering from a dry sense of humour. Acting as fresh as the day it was bottled, ole’ blue eyes is in ownership of the best of all the surrounding vintages. It was a very good year for the old Rusty Shed, like “life as vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs and it poured sweet and clear.” A classic crooner, with wood now neutral and supportive, that will last alongside fruit, to the autumn of its years. 91
2008 (WineAlign) From a cooler, wetter, “Burgundian” vintage. Noticeable terpenes and delineated streaks in the aroma, palate continuum. Like mild cider in a diluted but not watered down way. A matter of elegance and refinement. The oak integration may be the most calming yet and the wine has maintained its freshness. A vintage to measure with clonal ancestors and distant cousins if not Flat Rock siblings. 90
2007 (WineAlign) From a very warm and dry vintage with low yields. Dichotomous, with clean fruit working with and against some barrel and earthy notes. Was a tough year to “manage acidity and freshness,” a fight that was paramount to success. Flint and matchstick also work this ’07, as much like Riesling as Chablis so in that sense this is reminiscent of the Unplugged. In another way, the earth says this is as much of a Brett-influenced vintage as any. 89
2006 (WineAlign) Like the 2007, this has that golden hue so it appears that seven to eight years is the marker for the apogee of consumption. A vintage tough on reds, good on whites. Though not high on opulence, the ingot sheen is like fool’s gold and the trickery works to great effect. A fortune is won in patience because this elegant ’06 eventually sheds its rust, gives up fresh apple and palate cleansing acidity. A show of age and propriety. 90
One more for the road.
Pinot Noir 2003, VQA Niagara Peninsula (WineAlign)
Less than a case is left of this first Pinot Noir made by Ed Madronich. At the time Flat Rock made just 500 cases, including two Rieslings (Estate and Nadja) plus two barrels (43 cases) of Chardonnay. From a cool vintage, 11 years on this Pinot is reddening to maroon, with sour cherry flavours submitted to earth. A hint of soy and toffee. Herbaceous, young vine minted, accented by dill and mushroom. Holding on and showing that older vintages had (not known at the time) depth and structure. Creamy texture if not the cleanest Pinot ever made. First world problem. 88
Good to go!