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THE SUSTAINABLE STORY OF SOUTHBROOK VINEYARDS

Southbrook Vineyards
Photo credit: Southbrook Vineyards

Re-printing of an article published on JancisRobinson.com 

Bill Redelmeier does not believe in half measures. “When I was a kid, I loved collecting things like baseball cards and fossils. Now, I collect certifications” he chuckles. Indeed, Southbrook Vineyards, Canada’s largest organic and biodynamic winery, is certified by Ecocert Canada, Demeter, and Sustainable Winemaking Ontario. What’s more, the estate’s hospitality pavilion was built to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Standard.

A slow smile spreads across Redelmeier’s face when I ask what inspired this zeal for sustainability.  Telling stories is what he loves.  “I grew up on a farm” he says, settling back in his chair. “My father always told me: you have to work twice as hard as your staff. You have to learn all of the jobs firsthand, because you can’t expect others to do things that you are not willing to do.” For a young Bill Redelmeier, this meant long hours atop a tractor, spraying pesticides, and herbicides on corn crops.

Redelmeier’s watershed moment came with the birth of his first child. “My wife wouldn’t let me use the washing machine at home because she didn’t want to wash Andrew’s clothes in the same machine. This really got me thinking. I didn’t want to subject myself to the chemicals any longer and I couldn’t ask my employees to do it either”.

In 1991, Redelmeier established Southbrook Winery, a négociant-éleveur business making wine from grapes sourced in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The wines were a popular addition to the family’s bustling farm market north of Toronto. When, in the early 2000s, respected Canadian winemaker, and ardent biodynamic practitioner Ann Sperling became available for consultation services, Redelmeier leapt at the opportunity.

By 2005, Redelmeier was ready to move away from the family farm and devote himself to his passion project, establishing an organic and biodynamic estate vineyard in Niagara. Southbrook Vineyards found its home on a 75-acre plot in Niagara’s Four Mile Creek sub-appellation with Sperling on board as Director of Winemaking and Viticulture.

While Redelmeier and Sperling were equally convinced of the qualitative advantage of biodynamic farming, Sperling also valued its practical benefits. “Organics is a lot about what you can’t do, whereas biodynamics provides solutions” she explains. “It adds an awful lot to the toolbox when you think about all of the various teas, the compost preps, all the things that are building biodiversity above the ground and making healthier vines.”

In the interest of improving vine health, the duo took a radical decision. Diseased vines due to leaf-roll and red blotch virus are a widespread problem in Ontario, and throughout North America. “At Southbrook, we started re-planting our vineyards early, so almost everything that we are growing now is virus-free” says Sperling, adding that “it is like night and day in terms of how well the vineyards are responding.” Not only has she witnessed more resistant vines with earlier ripening grapes, but the results in the winery have also impressed her. “When everything is working well in the vineyard the fermentations are more successful, and the wines have better structure and balance.”

In 2006, alongside vineyard re-planting and certifications, Southbrook was also breaking ground on their LEED Gold Standard hospitality pavilion. As part of the overall vineyard eco-system, it made sense to Redelmeier that the building should be an equally important part of the equation.  With its white, reflective PVC roof, its highly insulated walls, triple-glazed floor-to-ceiling windows, automatic faucets, and dual flush toilets, the pavilion is a model of energy efficiency.

Just beyond its cheerful purple façade lies a 170MwH solar panel field that has yielded an 80% reduction in the winery’s net electricity consumption. Running the length of the pavilion is a large strip of bioswale, whose native wetland plants break down pollutants from storm water that drains in from the property’s paved surfaces. Further wetlands on the property treat wastewater and disperse purified water into the surrounding soil.

To enhance the property’s biodiversity, Redelmeier purchased an adjoining 75-acre parcel of land in 2008. “It has about 15 acres of forest, which serves as a biodiversity reserve, and 60 acres of pastureland” says Sperling. The pastures are now the site of Linc Farm, home to a thriving population of sheep, cattle, pigs and laying hens raised in non-GMO, chemical-free conditions. The operation is managed by Sperling’s daughter and partner, animal welfare specialists. The arrangement suits Redelmeier perfectly. “She pays me shit for rent” he says with a grin, referring to the excellent compost and manure the farm animals provide.

The winery’s culture of ecological and ethical production is something Redelmeier and Sperling work hard to instill in their staff. “It is a constant exercise due to routine seasonal staff turn over” Sperling admits, but they persist, taking every opportunity to bring the team out to the vineyards and winery to learn. They also derive comfort in the knowledge that they are providing a safe environment for employees, visitors, and the community at large. “Nothing leaves our property that is going to harm or negatively affect people in anyway” says Sperling.

Organic viticulture is far from the norm in Ontario. According to Redelmeier, only 1% of the province’s vineyards are farmed organically. To encourage local growers to convert, Redelmeier has established long-term organic grape buying contracts, adding wines from sourced grapes alongside his range of estate bottlings. For now, he has no plans to expand the estate’s plantings. Preserving vineyard biodiversity is integral to Southbrook’s philosophy. “To go out and walk along the edge of the vineyard in the late summer and suddenly you’re surrounded by Monarch butterflies, that is a delight” says Sperling, detailing the recovery of this absent native species upon planting milkweed in their meadows.

Southbrook’s sustainability commitments don’t stop at the winery gates. “We source most of our bottles from an Ontario manufacturer of light-weight glass composed of 80% recycled materials. The labels are from Ontario. The Stelvin capsules are from Québec” explains Redelmeier. Transport costs are also low. The winery sells the majority of its production in a 160km radius around Niagara. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Redelmeier and his son have even taken to hand delivering orders to clients around the province. “If one good thing has come from this situation, it is the closer personal relationships we are developing with our customers” he says.

Despite his positive outlook Redelmeier admits that, while Southbrook is on solid economic footing, turning a profit is a constant challenge. According to a 2018 industry-wide benchmarking survey rising land, labour, and input costs, coupled with poor gross margins through the province’s alcohol monopoly, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), are major limiting factors for Ontario wineries. Yields are also low, notably in Southbrook’s biodynamic model. “When I started the winery, Ann made me promise to never go over two tonnes per acre. We may get there someday” Redelmeier says, unfazed.

For Redelmeier, the estate’s low yields are integral to the high-quality wines they strive to produce. Quality wines made with respect for the land and the people involved, this was the dream when setting up Southbrook, and remains the estate’s vision for the future. The way Sperling sees it, “we are the mask wearers – to use pandemic terms – we are the ones that are thinking about the big picture, the long-term; making decisions that protect us but also protect others”.


Southbrook Vineyards wines can be found in select liquor stores across Canada. To get your taste buds tingling, here are my tasting notes from a selection of three wines that were generously provided to me by the winery’s Québec agent: Vertigo Vins & Spiritueux

bubbly   riesling   vidal

 

Southbrook Vineyards Bubbly Pét Nat 2018, VQA Beamsville Bench

Inviting aromas of spiced apple cider on the nose, underscored by hints of brioche and white flowers. Zesty high acid and fine, vigorous bubbles lift and shape the medium bodied, bone dry palate. Finishes with a touch of refreshing bitterness and flavours of digestive biscuit and tangy, dry cider.

Where to Buy: SAQ (27.95$), LCBO (29.95$)

Southbrook Vineyards Riesling “Laundry Vineyard” 2018, VQA Vinemount Ridge

Delicate aromas of ripe lemon, white orchard fruit and honey feature on the nose. The palate is equally engaging with its racy acidity tempered by just a hint of honeyed sweetness, its silky texture, light body and juicy fruit flavours. A very elegant unoaked white wine.

Where to Buy: Direct from the winery (2017 vintage. 22.75$), inquire with agent in Québec

Southbrook Vineyards Skin Fermented Vidal 2019, VQA Ontario

Pale amber in colour, with distinctive notes of quince, gooseberry, and orange zest perched above an earthy bass note. Lipsmacking high acid like a jolt of electricity on the palate, with a textural, grapefruit pith astringency, light body, and very dry, juicy finish. Packs quite a flavour and texture punch for its modest 10.7% alcohol.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$), LCBO (29.95$)

Reviews Wines

Drink Local Wine This Week-End

drink local wine
Photo credit: Stratus Vineyards

The imperative to drink local wine has never been stronger. Lock-down has deprived our wineries of two huge revenue streams: their on-site tasting rooms and their restaurant accounts. Sadly, whereas most country’s around the globe are proud to drink local wine, we eastern Canadians remain reluctant to embrace our growing wine industry.

I recently completed a series of interviews with Ontario wineries and almost all respondents mentioned the challenges they face convincing domestic consumers to drink local wine. “We’re still at that stage where it feels like our last worst wine is the one we get judged by” lamented one producer. Sure there are still poor quality wines made in Canada…just as there are disappointing wines from France, Italy, California and everywhere else on the winemaking globe. We do our winemakers a disservice when we stop trying local wines after one or two bad bottles.

Judging at the National Wine Awards of Canada last summer (article here) really drove home the excellent quality available from coast to coast. It also underlined the huge stylistic diversity of which we are capable – from racy, sweet-and-sour Rieslings, to elegant Sparkling wines, Chardonnay of every imaginable description, juicy Gamay, ripe, herbaceous Cabernet Franc….the list goes on and on.

While we pine away at home, looking for ways to stay apart yet come together, perhaps another gesture of solidarity could be making the choice to drink local wine.

Here are a few nice options in the 20 – 30$ range to get you started:

Domaine Bergeville Le Blanc Brut 2018

Located in Hatley, in the Eastern Townships, Domaine de Bergeville is one of Québec’s most respected wineries. Given the region’s icy winters and humid summers, their commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture is a feat of courage and skill. Dry and ultra-refreshing, this clean, taut sparkling wine features tangy green fruit flavours and fine, lingering bubbles. Look out for the rosé, also in stores now.

Where to Buy: SAQ (27.85$)

Stratus Vineyards Tollgate Chardonnay 2017

This voluptuous Chardonnay, with its heady notes of melted butter and crème caramel, its medium bodied and rounded palate, is nicely balanced by vibrant acidity, tangy red apple and ripe lemon flavours and a lifted, subtly toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ (24.95$), LCBO (24.95$)

La Cantina Vallée d’Oka Rosé du Calvaire 2019, Québec

You will have to move quickly to snag a few bottles of this little gem. Last summer the stores in my neighbourhood couldn’t keep it in stock.  Imagine the bright, tangy rhubarb and red berry notes of cool climate Pinot Noir, combined with the rounded, subtly textural mouthfeel of Chardonnay….all in a pretty pink package.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.95$)

Château des Charmes Gamay Noir ‘Droit’ 2017, Niagara, Ontario

Just a ferociously gluggable Gamay. The Château des Charmes”Droit” cuvée really showcases the St David’s Bench terroir nicely with its medium body, ripe dark fruit aromas and velvetty texture, all nicely balanced by really refreshing acidity and tangy fruit flavours.

Where to Buy: SAQ (19.95$), LCBO (19.95$)

Tawse Winery Unfiltered Cabernet Franc 2017, Niagara, Ontario

2017 was a rainy, tempestuous vintage saved by a long, warm fall that yielded some really top notch wines in Niagara. This is a lovely mid-way style for Cabernet Franc with rich, ripe blue and black fruit balancing out hints of bell pepper and sweet tobacco. Fresh and full-bodied on the palate with a suave texture, juicy dark fruit flavours and fine, chalky tannins.

Where to Buy: SAQ (29.95$)

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TASTING THE WINES OF CAVE SPRING CELLARS

Cave Spring Cellars
Photo Credit: Cave Spring Cellars (Beamsville Bench soil composition)

The end of the 1980s was a wild time for the Ontario wine industry. The newly signed General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT) signalled the end of protectionist measures in Ontario that put local wines on the shelf at substantially lower mark ups than foreign imports. Without these retail advantages, Niagara’s wineries knew that they would no longer be able to knock out the competition on price, and thus begun a remarkable quality revolution.

Among the intrepid pioneers that forged the path, replanting the Niagara Peninsula with noble vinifera grape varieties, were the Pennachetti family. The Cave Spring Cellars winery was established in 1986, though the first vines were planted some 10 years before. Riesling and Chardonnay were selected for the inaugural, Cave Spring Vineyard. This cool site on the Beamsville Bench, with its mineral-rich stony clay tills derived from escarpment limestone, shale, and sandstone (see picture above), rapidly proved its merit.

Cave Spring Cellars quickly became known for the high quality and consistency of their Riesling. Over thirty years later, Riesling remains a focal point for the Pennachetti family, and long time Cave Spring Cellars’ winemaker Angelo Pavan. “They are wines with structure; wines of substance. I pour verticals and people are shocked at how well they age” says Pavan. “They are approachable young. You can drink them today or in 20 – 25 years”. Indeed, in their youth, Cave Spring Cellars Rieslings show all the pretty aromatic brightness of well-made Riesling, yet over time, develop layers of beeswax and lanolin notes, adding complexity and depth.

Today, the Cave Spring Cellars range includes a variety of cool climate white and red cultivars, as well as Riesling Icewine and traditional method sparkling wines. “Our goal” explains Thomas Pennechetti, “is to let our cool climate style shine through”. The focus is on healthy, balanced vines yielding optimally ripened fruit. And with that result achieved, minimal intervention is needed in the cellar. The wines are fermented with indigenous yeast and aged in neutral vessels. The objective? Wines with pure, site specific, varietal character.

Curious to learn more about the taste profile of Cave Spring Cellars’ wines? Lucky for you, I ended my visit with a quick stop at the tasting room to check out the latest vintage releases:

Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Brut NV Sparkling

This excellent Niagara cuvée regularly adorns my list of great value sparkling wines. Very elegant, with alluring toasty aromas, underscored by lemon, green apple, and floral hints. Mouthwatering acidity and fine, vigorous bubbles and an initially tightly knit structure give way to a smooth, creamy mid-palate. Lots of finesse on the finish. Blend of 60% Chardonnay, 40% Chardonnay Musqué. Ontario Price: 29.95$

Cave Spring Pinot Gris 2018, VQA Niagara Peninsula

Delicate aromas of melon, stone fruit and spice feature on the nose and palate. The palate is fresh and light with a smooth, rounded texture. Really easy drinking as an apéritif and quite a food friendly choice as well. Ontario Price: 16.95$

Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench

Bursting with yellow apple, ginger, and white floral notes on the nose, this lovely Riesling drinks well above its 20$ price tag. The palate just sings with vibrant, lip-smacking acidity, a taut, light bodied frame, and pleasing depth of flavour. Very focused and pure, with just a faint hint of balanced sweetness. Ontario Price: 19.95$

Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench

Similar aromatic range to the Estate Riesling; the CSV really shows its pedigree on the palate. The racy acidity, firm structure, and very textural mouthfeel combine to create quite an elegant, dry expression of Riesling. The finish is long and lifted with layers of stony mineral, juicy yellow fruit, and delicate honeyed notes. Cellar 5 years + or decant an hour before serving. Ontario Price: 29.95$

Cave Spring Gamay 2018, VQA Niagara Escarpment

Really pretty, aromatic nose featuring violets, crushed black pepper, and just ripe dark berry fruit. The palate is bright and juicy, with a silky texture and soft, rounded finish. Ontario Price: 16.95$

Cave Spring Dolomite Cabernet Franc 2017, VQA Niagara Escarpment

Intense, fragrant aromas of ripe blue and black fruit are underscored by hints of sweet tobacco and bell pepper on the nose. The palate offers crisp acidity, medium weight, and moderate concentration of juicy cassis flavours. Ripe, velvety tannins frame the finish. Winery only: 24.95$

Cave Spring Estate Cabernet Franc 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench

The Estate Cabernet Franc shows all the perfumed fruit of the Dolomite cuvée but with the added complexity of dark chocolate, tobacco, and hints of cedar on the nose and palate. Medium weight, with a dense, concentrated mid-palate, and fine-grained tannins. Vibrant acidity reigns through out, lifting and lengthening the finish. Ontario Price: 39.95$

Where to Buy Cave Spring Cellars wines: Cave Spring Cellars on-line, a wide selection at the LCBO, and the Niagara Peninsula Dry Riesling 2017 at the SAQ (enquire with Québec agent: Séléctions Oeno for private import listings)