Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tasting at Pearl Morissette Estate Winery

Last year, I attended an event hosted by ApéroChic to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau. And yes, today's Nouveau is actually drinkable. Seems so long ago, but time does fly don't it. The event was held at Toronto's Spoke Club, where I met its sommelier, Ludo. Ludo insisted that I needed to visit Pearl Morissette and have a taste. "They are very interesting wines," he said.

After tasting with Wes Lowrey, I made an unannounced stop at Flat Rock Cellars to take a quick look at their latest releases - the wines remain fresh, vibrant, and fun. But the main event was my appointment at Pearl Morissette, to taste with Francois. The history, the beginnings, all that about Pearl Morissette can be found with a Google search, but what you really need to know is that Francois has pretty much free reign to do things his way. And whatever industry you're in, that's an incredibly enviable position to be in. Master of his domain, a fearless leader in full command.

And he's quite a character too. Strong personality, which sensibly enough, also explains his wines - after all, wine is as much a reflection of its maker as the land and climate it was born in. I had no idea what to expect. Ludo of the Spoke Club first brought my attention to these wines - he described them as natural wines but not quite. Having a hard time understanding what that meant, I went into the meeting still thinking that these were biodynamic wines made in that fresh, vibrant style typical of most other producers in the area who make those same claims.

I was so fucking wrong.

The wines are unlike anything I've ever tasted. Yes, they're biodynamic. Yes they follow the principles of natural wine. But at the same time, they're neither - they defy all categorizations, all sorts of tidy groupings of what I thought wines were. They were at once pure and focused, elegant and full of finess; yet suddenly turning wild and untamed, a formidable caged beast. I had a tough time wrapping my head around them. Still not sure exactly how to even describe what I tasted. Francois took me around the property. They also raise cattle and chicken here, although the focus is clearly on pigs - look at those beauties. A litter born just weeks earlier, fed entirely on vegetables and grape pomace, zero animal protein. These are a hearty breed, able to withstand the harsh winter with nothing more than a n open wooden shed for shelter. They live a happy, healthy life.

Also at the tasting was the chef of Toronto's Splendido restaurant, and one of his former cooks. A windy day, we were led inside the geothermic-powered cellar, where we saw a few legs of ham hanging (an experiment at 1 years of age), including some of the equipment brought in. A new cement egg, as well as a 60+ year old oak foudre from Alsace. Once bottled, the wines remain unlabelled, resting in the perfect environment until they have a buyer (the labels are customized for each order). Francois' assistant, Ryan, then began pulling samples for us to taste.

They work with four varietals here: riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet franc. As we tasted each, across multiple vintages, Francois kept a running commentary going as we tasted, and I furiously tried to scribble down every word - as is the case when you're in the presence of an eminently quotable person, the wit and wisdom come at you like machine gun fire. I managed to catch a few - managed to get in a bit of tasting too. Some of the gems Francois dropped included:

Non-doctored wines allow for a level of mobility in the mouthfeel. 

Extended lees aging brings salinity, which with the acid makes it very food friendly.

Since we add no adjuncts, the only thing we can control is temperature.

We are enzymatic beings. If you slept a certain way, if you fucked your girlfriend today, your body will react a different way to the wine.

You never say THE or THE ONLY WAY for anything - there is no #1. There are several #1's!

Your preference is undiscussable.

Francois was adamant that he wasn't trying to be the top wine of Niagara, or the world - he dismisses the very thought of a 'best wine' as folly, since there is no such thing. Wines can only be different from one other, and that difference is what makes wine beautiful. The same goes for personal preferences. We don't need to justify what we find pleasurable, or distinctive. It is simply the wine that shows the best or most noticeable to us that day, in that moment. It may change the next time we taste the wine, because WE change. As Francois says, my mother and my daughter are both alive, but they're clearly very different.

So, the wines.

2012 Riesling: From cask, those Alsatian foudres. Really bright here, lean, slightly leesy. Pinpoint acidity, focus and elegance. Cheesy aroma, great extract. 20% of production kept back to see if they can age.

2011 Riesling (tank ferment): So much citrus fruit, extract like all hell breaking loose on your palate. My goodness, so much focused energy. Ripe lime aromas like you wouldn't believe, stony minerals, tight and linear. This was MY most outstanding of the tasting, and I asked to retaste it at the end. Mind-blowing in texture, energy, tension, and character. Riesling as I've never tasted.

2011 Riesling (barrel ferment): More subtle, some minerality, fresh but slightly closed. Palate is creamy, great acid, good fruit with the citrus coming up big on the finish.

2010 Riesling: Leesy here, bit richer, but acidity and minerality very present. Stainless steel ferment, went through full malolactic fermentation. Really high acid on finish, formidably extracted.

2012 Chardonnay: From cask. Bit closed, creamy but lean; good energy. Citrus and some of that oily citrus peel coming through on the dry extract.

2011 Chardonnay: Bottled 2 months ago. A more classic varietal nose here, creamy and round, lots of citrus. Lean and extracted.

2010 Chardonnay: More subtle, but oaky. Sweet with high acid, slightly less weight on the palate.

2009 Chardonnay: Not released. Elegant and fragrant, very subtle chardonnay, really extracted. As Francois says, a more 'vertical' wine as opposed to the horizontality of the 2010.

2011 Pinot Noir: So sweet and candied in aroma, but paradoxically, fruit is pure and fresh on the palate. Clean, fresh cranberry and rose petal character, finely structured and very tight.

2012 Cabernet Franc: Francois calls this 'a crawling toddler'. Bright fruit, ripe but very balanced. Pepper in the mouth, good fruit and very tight.

2011 Cabernet Franc: Francois calls this 'the best pinot we ever made in Niagara'. Ripe jammy fruit here, sweet and very round, extracted and tight, but fruit is quite open.

2010 Cabernet Franc: Fuller, riper, rounder and with more depth. Great concentration, ripe fruit, very dry and extracted.

So, as you can see from my notes, the hallmarks of the wines are great purity and focus in aroma, extract and structure on the palate. The older vintages have an incredible depth and expressiveness. Some of the wines have noticeable volatile acidity notes. The wines are, in Francois' words, made in a hands-off, non-interventionist way. I think that's actually the best way to describe them. Other than temperature and aging container, they do surprisingly little to the wines. They've built their own library of indigenous yeast cultures, and really let the wines go off on their own - in fact, there's a few barrels of 2012 chardonnay that's still not through with its primary fermentation (after 12 months!!).

Like the man, rule-breakers all around, but the wines have depth, they have soul, they have the spirit and strong will of the man behind them. It's simple to spout your ideals - it's far, far, far more difficult to actually bring them to life. Francois and Ryan make it happen. My mind is blown, my learning expanded - as always, gaining inspiration in Niagara.

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