Monday, April 2, 2012

Tasting at Fielding Estate Winery

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Fielding represents the best of what is happening in Niagara wine, that spirit to experiment and explore and shake off the status quo because to say that's the way things were always done simply isn't good enough. Easier said than done, but they've got a great team here, and as this year's Cuvée Awards proved, people are starting to recognize the results.

I got the opportunity to meet winemaker Richie Roberts for the first time. Richie kindly took some time to show me around the winery, as well as take me through quite a comprehensive tasting of the 2010's and 2011's in barrel and bottle. Take a look at the stainless steel tanks: double tanks, one stacked on top of the other, controlled using one wall-mounted touchscreen panel. Right, and if he wanted it to, the system could send mobile alerts if something in the tanks changed. Impressive indeed. Fielding also owns its own bottling machine. During my last visit, in November 2010, they still had a fair proportion of wines under cork. That has dramatically changed in the year and a half or so since, with Richie now bottling around 90% under screwcap.

What's even more interesting, and my first indication that Fielding was looking to push boundaries, is their experiments with screwcap liners. As Richie explained, screwcaps contain two layers of liner: one of plastic and the other metal (to put it simply, and because I frankly can't recall their exact names). The liner inside the screwcap dictates how much oxygen is allowed to permeate through the closure. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, screwcaps still need to allow miniscule amounts of air through because yes, oxygen is needed for wine to develop. Richie is playing around with different liners, to, as he put it, have a greater degree of control in how much air gets in.

The cellars are beautiful. Barrels mounted over loose stone a few feet deep, which rest directly on top of exposed earth, allowing humidity to be naturally regulated. Going through the 2010 and 2011 barrel samples was an interesting exercise in seeing how oak and oxidation affects the same wine. Richie experiments with different barrels of different ages/grains/toasts, using French, American, and Hungarian oak. Lots going on here, but the samples we tasted were genuinely exciting. The 2011 chardonnay, from the Jack Rabbit Flats vineyard showed typicity and balance, with a lovely stream of acidity rising up. The 2010 and 2011 syrahs, sourced from vineyards owned by the Lowrey family were beautifully pure and varietal, dense and structured. The 2010 and 2011 cabernet francs, also from the Lowrey's, showed lots of spice and depth. With the extra year of age, the 2010's are already showing some polish and elegance. The 2011's are a bit coarse now, but their (high) potential is obvious.

We then moved back upstairs to the lovely tasting room upstairs, looking right over Lake Ontario. Bright, clear day, which offered a view of the Toronto skyline - the first time I've seen downtown TO from Niagara. We started with a new wine for Fielding, an NV Traditional Brut, just disgorged. Racy and lean, some autolytic character, the sort of oysters and shellfish kind of love. We moved through some of their more popular wines, the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2011 Rock Pile Pinot Gris, and 2010 Viognier all showing a lovely purity of fruit, being friendly yet retaining good amounts of acid. The sauvignon, by the way, made more in the spirit of Sancerre, showing bright fruit, with only a touch of wood to round out the texture without imparting oakiness. The 2010 Estate Bottled Riesling was lovely, all lanolin cream and racy acidity, nicely balanced with just a hint of sweetness to round it out. That clean, pure style of riesling that I think sings of the best of Niagara. The 2010 Chardonnay is a bit weightier, bit richer, finishing with a lovely stream of acidity. And yes, it's all about the acid.

The red wines, in my opinion, were more clearly defined. Wines always show the hand of the people crafting it - upon reflection, these wines seemed more sure of themselves, that delicate balance of making an impression on the palate yet remaining balanced and pure. I'm so fucking full of it. But some of the red wines were really exciting. The 2009 Pinot Noir showed the elegance I associate with the vintage, but with a structure I've yet to see in any other '09 pinot. The 2009 Red Conception, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah, showed a lot of primary cabernet characters at this stage, that sort of graphite, road tar earthiness. Needs time to integrate. The 2010 Cabernet Franc was wonderful. Dense and quite expressive considering its youth, with lots of structure. A big wine for the cellar. Then, ending with the 2007 Meritage, a blend of about 60% merlot, 35% cabernet sauvignon, and the rest cabernet franc. Showing quite nicely at the moment, though I suspect it needs at least another 5 years to really come together. Alcohol comes up a bit, and the oak juts out just a bit. Patience required.

To make any sort of definitive judgement on these wine is pointless, and frankly, I don't do that shit because it doesn't mean anything. The wines are clearly well made, but what's interesting to me isn't to try to define or label them. I want to share with people the spirit of experimentation and adventure going on here, that excitement of blazing an original and innovative path to discover not just what good wine is, but what a true Niagara wine is.

Richie said something that was really inspiring. Paraphrasing (slightly), but he says Of course it's important that the wines express a sense of place; we, however, can't dehumanize it. Whether it's the people farming the grapes, to the people harvesting, to the people crafting it all into wine . . . we can't overlook the human element that brings it all together. Many thanks Richie, hope to see you soon.

DF

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