Red, white and orange at Southbrook Vineyards

Southbrook Whimsy! Reds, Whites and Orange

She says she’s making a similar wine in British Columbia, but Ann Sperling will tip no varietal hat, will offer up no hints, will not reveal the make-up in her new, all-natural Orange wine. That’s right. Orange wine.

To arrive at this (nothing rhymes with orange) juncture, a bit of background on the winemaker and her Ontario employer, Southbrook Vineyards. Sperling is from B.C., where she makes Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and piercing Sparkling Wines at Pioneer Ranch, the family heritage farm under her eponymous Sperling Vineyards label.

Related – A cultivated tale of two Okanagan wineries

Southbrook as a winery and a vineyard is a leader in Ontario’s increasingly developing biodynamic and organic direction. Ann Sperling introduced proprietors Marilyn and Bill Redelmeier to the sprawling property in Niagara-on-the-Lake and it is there that their commitment to farming organically and biodynamically is managed in the vineyard by Scott Jones and in the winery by Brian Hamilton and Regan Kapach.

The Redelmeiers are no strangers to the concepts and the agrarian way. Who does not remember making necessary stops at their farmstead and pumpkin patch on Major Mackenzie Rd. between Dufferin and Bathurst in Richmond Hill. Southbrook defined that concept in the 80’s and 90’s, by bringing a distinctly rural Ontario feel to the edge of Toronto civilization. People came from all four directions for their farm fresh produce. Chappell Farms, Chudleighs and Whittamore’s all owe a major level of their success to Southbrook’s pioneering concept.

The Redelmeier cattle farm on the 19th century property in Richmond Hill morphed into that roadside vegetable stand in the 1980s. Winemaking came next and then in 2005, Bill and Marilyn relocated to Niagara. Having chosen to pursue certifications for both the vineyard and the winery – including LEED, biodynamic and organic certification, the Redelmeiers have been instrumental in the revolution.

Ann Sperling is a natural fit for their manifesto, to produce high quality wine from estate fruit under the strict O & B directive. The upper echelon Southbrook wines are bottled under the labels of Triomphe, Whimsy! and Poetica. That she has now decided to make an orange wine is, well, natural. I think a great deal of Ontario wine drinkers, along with those beyond these borders don’t quite get Southbrook. Gaining insight as to why the Orange wine should be made is no less difficult than acquiring an understanding as to what the Southbrook portfolio is all about. You need to spend time with the wine and the winemaker. This point is essential.

Winemakers are intensely focused individuals. Their wines live and breath. As a parent to their children, winemakers feel their every step. Their hopes and dreams rise and fall with every breath they take. Sperling had thought about it for years but the 2014 vintage allowed her to take the experimental, all natural plunge.

She is not the first to do the orange wine thing. In his May, 2014 Macleans article, Orange is the new white (wine), John Szabo reported on his involvement with making such a beast in Ontario. Together with Norman Hardie and François Morissette, they have fashioned one from Riesling in Prince Edward County. Szabo wrote, “Ontario vintners are experimenting with an ancient Georgian technique and a 500-litre qvevri. “With an imported clay vessel their wine currently rests in a 500-litre qvevri in Hardie’s cellar. Szabo had also discovered that Richie Roberts of Fielding Estate was the first orangista in Canada. Roberts made 400 bottles of skin-fermented Viognier in 2012, though not in clay. Szabo had previously referred to Stanners Vineyard Pinot Gris Cuivré 2010 as “the first orange wine made in Ontario.”

Ann Sperling in the Oak Room at Southbrook Winery

Ann Sperling in the Oak Room at Southbrook Winery

The natural/orange wine debate is hot right now and not because of the reasons you might think. The smoke and mirrors of discussing the merits of making such wines or to question whether it’s rubbish is clouding the discussion. Or as Alexandra Gill reports in her most recent Globe and Mail article, “fault-indulgent hippie juice as a major scam,” or the smell of “stale, mouth-puckering morning breath.” The technique and the practice is ancient and has been kept alive. The only questions need asking are “is it good, is it well-made and would I like to drink it?”

Then along comes the Hosemaster of Wine, Ron Washam who insists “don’t publish anything about natural wine on your blog in 2015.” Washam is right when he comments on the hypocrisy of “natural wine shipped in an ocean-polluting tanker…loaded on an exhaust-belching truck…and you feel good about it because the guy who made it didn’t spray Roundup?” This N-word wine story, however, is allowed. Here we are discussing an Orange wine made with attention to ancient detail, in our Niagara backyard, the one I travelled to the source to taste and you know something, it’s pretty fucking good? You’re a funny man and a really good writer but let me ask you something. You got a problem with that Ron?

I sat down with Ann, Wines In Niagara writer Rick VanSickle and Paul DeCampo, Southbrook’s Director of Marketing & Sales on Sunday, December 28th to taste the new or yet released Triomphe ’13’s, Whimsy! ’12’s and Poetica ’12’s. A ’13 Cabernet Franc Icewine and the mysterious, ubiquitous and enigmatic Orange wine rounded out the tasting card. The experience went a long way towards adding Southbrook Vineyards to the loftier queue’s cerebral vinous database. Going forward, I’ll surely never look at these wines in the same light.

Southbrook Whimsy! Orange wine 2014

Southbrook Whimsy! Orange wine 2014

Whimsy! Orange Wine 2014, Niagara On The Lake, Ontario

“We’ve been waiting to do small batch, stem fermentation,” Ann Sperling tells us as we have a good look at the lustrous, foggy glass of orange-yellow colour more micro-described as either croceate or gamboge. “Now we have the infrastructure to do so.” Stems add architecture (and a preservative effect), something that is otherwise compromised in a sulphite-free wine. This nameless natural wine was biodynamically-raised, indigenously-yeasted and freed from the constraints of temperature control. No wood was used, only stainless steel and glass carboys. The orange and natural classification comes by way of the complex ebullition (closest in style to the Collio hills wines of Josko Gravner), in colour, weight, elegance and the dichotomy of skin fermentation. Sperling used acumen derived from the concept at Argentina’s Versado, where skins are employed in a similar way when making Malbec with husband Peter Gamble. This young wine is filled with terpenes and is highly, desperately aromatic. Lemon curd is up front and centre. It’s got a tart tang and at (approximately) 11.8 per cent alcohol, the gravity is impossibly beautiful. Sperling’s take is “a fair reflection on the vintage” and it’s the mouthfeel that sets it apart. What’s the varietal make up, single or a blend? If the latter, was it co-fermented? Ann will only tell us that it was harvested over a two week period in October. The big question is will it receive VQA approval. Viognier and Pinot Gris should certainly be options but I’m not aware of Southbrook ever having employed their use. Sperling’s Whimsy! Winemaker’s White uses Muscat so perhaps we could go that direction but the aromatics don’t jive. Riesling is the simplest road to take and if the Southbrook Connect Organic White 2013 is any indication, the combined effect with Vidal could certainly steer this Orange ship. But If I were made to guess, to have some fun with concept, I would suggest that it’s a blend of white and red grapes, but Southbrook does not grow Pinot Noir so that should rule out Chardonnay as well. So I conjure up a song. “Well I had a dream I stood beneath an orange sky.” With a union of grape varieties standing by. Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc feed my Spidey senses, so under the auspices of that marriage, what we might have here is an offspring, a Cabernet Sauvignon. A very natural one. An orange one.  Tasted December 2014

Triomphe Merlot 2013, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $22.95, WineAlign)

From 100 per cent estate fruit (so it’s organic and biodynamic), the accesibility here is immediate and gratifying. So ever-very raspberry, like berries and savoury flower dust rehydrated into a sweet yet tart and viscous tisane baked into a pie. That does not articulate a cooked component, but rather a concentrated vehemence. As far as Peninsula Merlot goes, this really finds both its varietal and vintage capitalized way. It’s both cool and critical, exemplary and snappy. Early thought leads towards a five to seven-year run.  Tasted December 2014

Triomphe Cabernet Franc 2013, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $22.95, WineAlign)

Still organic through and through, despite only a small portion of estate fruit contributing to the overall design of the Triomphe Cabernet Franc ’13. Contracted growers fuel and fulfill the Southbrook ideology, to seek purity in healthy berries. The red fruit here shines on with Daliesque impunity. Its agglomeration makes a juicy, gregarious offer to sip. The vanilla-lavender streak brings elegance, more so than in ’12, along with an elevated sense of savour and really compounded red, red fruit. A natural sweetness and long finish are easy on the gustatory senses. Will be available at VINTAGES in February 2015, when the ’12 runs dry.  Tasted December 2014

Southbrook Triomphe '13's

Southbrook Triomphe ’13’s

Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $22.95, WineAlign)

The VINTAGES Essential is fashioned from mostly estate fruit (making it mostly biodynamic) save for a tonne or two grower’s supplementation. The 13’s are just beginning to hit shelves as ’12 stock depletes and in many ways the new vintage excels and exceeds the success of the split decision ’12. Where the ’13 lags is in showy complexity, though I’m not sure that is the Triomphe Cab Sauv’s most distinguishing or valuable asset. The new year brings a darker, pitchier, heavier brooder and as a second thought, a slower build to complexity. If ’12 was the rare marble, this is the braising cut. The triumph is now an impression as a sum of parts, not outwardly obvious and live. Not so easy to disseminate, the ’13 could likely have benefited from a less urgent rush to market. The drive to appease the sellers may inhibit a quick response understanding of its fruit intent so consumers should be aware of the need to exercise just a half-year or so of patience.  Tasted December 2014

Whimsy! Sémillon 2013, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($34.95)

A getable Sémillon of plenary indulgence, of deep-seated intent, already blessed and blissful of honey. From a two-barrel lot, fermented in stainless steel with lees contact. This is an Ann Sperling special, both biodynamic and unfined, so it serves public notice as a Southbrook affiche in promotion of naturalism. And then it really begins to rock. Sulphites are present and perceptible but so are the more panegyrizing notes of salinity, mineral and rocks with ideas. Single-varietal Sémillon is an amazing thing, possessive of a clarity few can match. It ages with ease and it knows it. “When you know that your time is close at hand, maybe then you’ll begin to understand.” The ’13 Whimsy! Sémillon is an iron maiden, luminescent metal intense with even more honey on the back-end. Sémillon, hallowed be thy name.  Tasted December 2014

Whimsy! Chardonnay ‘Minerality’ 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $34.95, WineAlign)

Slated for release in January or February 2015, “Minerality” as sister to “Richness” is the wilder of the two, less weighty (though up there at 14 per cent alcohol), possessing nothing in any discernible or palpable, tropical void. This little sister is “shakin’ like a tree. rollin’ like a log, shakin’ and a rollin’ now, that ain’t all.” Minerality occupied (40 per cent new, 12 per cent one-year and 48 per cent older) French oak barrels for 12 months, then sat in bottle for 12 more. Until now. Ray of power here unleashed, like a rock ‘n roll genie, finger-picking god ranging all over the map of scales. Though her sulphur edges to watering eyes, the aqueous emulsion from barrel selections leading to tight, reductive early life tendency will one day be forgiven. In fact, Minerality was rejected by the VQA panel on her first go round, bad girl as she was, but she’s now settling into her band-aid skin. She’s now a release away from being almost famous. The rigidity in redux has stirred through, having trod beyond pyridine freshness, though you can still feel the ghosts. Acts seemingly evolved but it manifests as an aromatic nougat. “Reduction is an indication of aging potential, or verve,” says Sperling. A comparison might be made to a 2000 Mosel, which was untouchable early on, but is now a classic. Could Minerality stand the weather? It has a very particular profile, a tactile mouthfeel and great, sweet length, from soul to soul. So yes, this is 2012 Chardonnay on the Peninsula.  Tasted December 2014

Whimsy! Cabernet Franc 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($34.95, WineAlign)

Slated for a January/February 2015 release, the 100 per cent estate (organic and biodynamic) ’12 Whimsy Cabernet Franc spent time in (41 per cent) new wood. The significance of the barrel imprint is not lost on territorial influence as related to texture, more than anything else. A warming trend is balanced by a layering of savoury savoir faire and citrus (or the thought of). A repetitive drumming tang drives this tome with trepidation in reserved activity and acidity. Lacking any discernible tobacco, currant or notes of piquancy, this will request consumer patience before it comes into its own and out to the party. Though quite elegant and possessive of better than good length, I prefer the freshness and personality of the (’12 and ’13) Triomphe, for the money. Here I am reminded of some Tuscan CCR’s. Like a time-clocked, sui generis oaked and stately Chianti, this Whimsy will offer more charm when it reaches middle age, at least five years down the road and it will display plenty of caramel, wood polish and charcuterie cure at that time.  Tasted December 2014

Whimsy! Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($34.95, WineAlign)

In a warm year like 2012, the perfect Southbrook synoptic storm for Cabernet Sauvignon gives cause for thought. Awash in agriculture (organic and biodynamic), of fruit (100 per cent estate) and from barrels (nearly half new and just Four Mile Creek shy of two years), this winemaker’s vagary palavers on verve, torpid integration and inevitable aging. The rich berry and earth weave is a veritable, variegated loaf of aggie layering. But it’s more than that. The centre is filled with cool runnings; mint, eucalyptus and chains of pyromorphite. All tolled you can feel the showiness of the vintage in this Whimsy’s emphatic overall statement.  Tasted December 2014

Whimsy! Petit Verdot 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario (Winery, $34.95)

Welcome to the new world of single-varietal junkets and Four Mile Creek Petit Verdot. Cabernet Sauvignon (13.3 per cent) and Merlot (1.3) offer up contiguous Bordeaux support for this Southbrook first (under the full varietal name – this used to be called “Who You Calling Petit”), slated for an April or May 2015 release. Culled from the estate’s biodynamic and organic vineyard. Musty, dusty and undomesticated, Sperling’s take is a swirling mistral of wild berries, sauvage, herbs, garrigue and even mushroom. It has yet to recede from its barrel play, showing nary a sign of evolution. Big tannins, high concentration and abrupt ministrations are the crux of its personality. It seems that it will stride out in two years, score early and often, then retire to the bench. The late candied flavours indicate a successful, if short career. Less than 70 cases were produced.  Tasted December 2014

Southbrook Whimsy! and Poetica decanted

Southbrook Whimsy! and Poetica decanted

Poetica Red 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($54.95, WineAlign)

The Poetica Red ’12, slated for a Spring 2015 release, is amazing and intriguing on many levels. But for the fact that Petit Verdot (26.5 per cent) plays such a major varietal role, what must first be declared is the disseminated learning applied to this application. The dos and don’ts of previous (only produced in) warm vintage Poetica Reds will see a shedding of those don’ts in this 2012. Ann Sperling ushers in a new era for Niagara Bordeaux assemblage and if this wine is any harbinger, others will follow suit. Here celebrates a love for the land (environment), poetry and more specifically, Canadian poets. Chief Dan George, he of North Vancouver and the Hollywood screen, penned “Words to a Grandchild.” In it he wrote, “in the midst of a land without silence, you have to make a place for yourself.” Poetica Red ’12 will have done that when viewed retrospectively, 10-15 years from now. It will have grown old, but also wise. As for now it’s brooding, melancholy even. It’s all of that and this; endemic, entrenched, crenellated, ensconced and indoctrinated with Niagara knowledge. Has a dusty, earthy, even funky poetry. More depth than many, much realized acumen and will live long. Given 30 minutes of air it showed the ribbons of classic Niagara reds. All these concepts combine to see Poetica Red ’12 not so much as huge, but with depth and complexity.  Tasted December 2014.

Poetica Chardonnay 2012, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($49.95, WineAlign)

Whole cluster pressed, all estate fruit spent 18 months in only 15 per cent new (100 per cent French, mainly 300L) barrels. Indigenous yeasts saw more rotation than stirring and classic Chardonnay fermentation, which is code for “they always stick.” As a result, there was no need to impress a finish on fermentation. As per the Poetica practicum, poetry sidles up to the Estate’s flagship white, joined in ’12 by Chief Dan George, the Burrard Inlet, B.C. Tsleil-Waututh Nation chief. The Little Big Man (Old Lodge Skins) academy-award winning actor and poet penned “Keep a Few Embers From the Fire.” The final line “for a new life in a changed world” alludes to the Poetica’s destiny, affirmed by the success of this vintage. When it is released in the Spring of 2015, it will strike an immediate accord with tasters and consumers alike because it is markedly more accessible than previous vintages. Rich and unctuous, it is neither as tropical nor as misunderstood as Poeticas that have come before. Focus is laser sharp, balance is key and integration realized. The level of osmosis in its parts is just awesome. Though reductive, power will propel this Poetica to parts native and familiar, with élan in evolution. Tannins are great but certainly yet spun by sunburst. In 20 years time, words will describe this Poetica as best ever. That much is certain.  Tasted December 2014

Southbrook Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013

Southbrook Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013

Cabernet Franc Icewine 2013, VQA Niagara On The Lake, Ontario ($69.95, WineAlign)

An all estate, indigenous and inoculated Icewine, even if it were not thought possible to do so. Spoons out pure raspberry and apricot distillate, this Cabernet Franc is a product of happily fermented yeast because of a clean, natural and healthy vineyard. Bacteria neither takes a prominent seat nor dominates in the fermentation. Plenty of nutrition (or just enough, depending on the angle) is available in the fermentative state and then again in barrel. No trouble will come running. No Brettanomyces nor acetic negativity can survive. There is orange, pomegranate molasses and cinnamon stick in here. Goes straight to the cavity, with sugars and acidity set on high, along with structure and length. Really as good as Cabernet Franc gets in the idiom and finishes alternatively, distinctly dry. Will not turn Bretty like some older vintages. A thinker of clean, clean Icewine thoughts, from a desert of fermentation to realize a dessert garden of eden. I took a sip and “I got taken away, by a heavenly host, to a heavenly place.”  Tasted December 2014

Good to go!

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