The 2010 Canadian Wine Awards offered many superlative firsts that involved Niagara’s Tawse Winery on the Twenty Mile Bench. They were the first Ontario winery to be named Canadian winery of the year; they won the most gold medals ever (five) for 2008 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay, 2008 Quarry Road Chardonnay, 2008 Lauritzen Pinot Noir, 2008 Wismer Lakeview Vineyard Riesling, and the 2009 Tawse Riesling; and the Robyn’s Block Chardonnay was named white wine of the year and now the record for highest table wine score (93) at these awards. Last weekend I joined a group of Toronto wine food bloggers for an extensive tour of the fields and facilities at Tawse guided by winemaker Paul Pender and national sales manager Daniel Lafleur.
Tawse has practiced organic viticulture since Moray Tawse started the business in 2001 and has followed the tenets of biodynamic farming since 2006. This movement is based on the ideas set out in a series of speeches by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 that, in short, call on farmers to produce as many of their inputs on their own farm as possible; substitute a selection of organic preparations for synthetic fertilisers; and schedule farm activities to coincide with the appropriate phase of the lunar month. Corby Kummer wrote this outline of biodyamic winemaking for Techology Review.
At Tawse, biodynamic means that a cover crop of yellow clover at the foot of grape vines stands in for Roundup as a weed suppressant and horses (as well as tractors) are used to pull the implements needed for mowing, scratching, and cultivating.
The concept of biodynamic viticulture gets more slow nods of appreciation–instead of the crinkled forehead that develops when I consider the idea of burying a cow’s horn jam-packed with manure in a field for the winter–when we see Paul open the gates to let the sheep and chickens out to roam amongst the vines. The sheep eat the grass between the rows and help trim the vines of low-hanging, superfluous leaves. Chickens peck through what the sheep leave behind and lay some remarkably delicious eggs.
With each acre of corn, peaches or cherries in Niagara that is turned over to wine grapes the impression of monoculture becomes more distinct. Seeing food animals happily living amongst the neat rows of vines provides some balancing solace for my admittedly amateur observation.
Moving inside we’re reminded that no matter how much the phases of the moon control the schedule the process is still very much dependent on modern technology. At Tawse the grapes and resulting juice are treated gently and gravity is used to move them from one level to another.
We had the opportunity to taste still-fermenting wine drawn from the giant stainless steel tanks. The most remarkable difference was between two samples of Riesling made from grapes grown on two different clones–30 year-old Weis clone vines and the newer clone 49 from Alsace.
Tawse has recently installed a tasting room and event space in one of their cellars. This was the setting for our excellent lunch (which I’ll discuss in more detail in a separate post) and for an appetite building blind tasting competition. The point of the tasting was to compare the differences between wines produced from grapes grown at the Cherry Avenue property (all the Tawse wines that are designated Robyn’s Block, Carly’s Block, or David’s Block) and those grown at their Quarry Road property. We were given samples of each for the 2009 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and for the 2008 Chardonnay.
According to Paul wines from the heavy clay and moderate limestone at Cherry Ave. tend to be richer while Quarry Rd. wines are tighter, more linear and have a more pronounced sense of minerality. The two names make remembering the distinction easy, it’s spotting the differences in the glass that is more difficult.
For the first two categories (’09 Pinot and ’09 Chardonnay) most were on the money with their guesses. An interesting factor came into play for the third round. We were told that we were tasting the ’08 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay and the ’08 Quarry Road Chardonnay. Both won gold medals at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards but the Robyn’s Block was named white wine of the year and received a 93/100 score that is the best ever for that competition. When asked to pick a favourite between the two–before announcing our guess–an overwhelming majority of us picked wine #1. A slimmer majority guessed that wine #1 was the top-honours Robyn’s Block when actually it was the Quarry Rd. It’s noteworthy how the group’s preferences differed from the judges’ and also how blind guesses might be influenced by seeing which wine received the most raised hands to the preference question.
When I visited Tawse for a similar tour around Christmas 2007 their on-site retail operation was already sold out of all but two wines. Production has expanded but if the number of people crowding the tasting bar is any indication they will be hard pressed to keep wine in stock until this Christmas. I was happy to pick up a bottle of the 2008 Quarry Rd. Chardonnay and one of the 2009 Riesling and will see how my resolution to actually keep wines until they are at their optimal age holds up.