Unwined: Making Your Own Wine
Alternatively: the month the writer went crazy.
October 2015 will be forever etched in my memory as the month I lost my mind.
Three of my friends and I decided it would be a good idea to make wine, but when 1000 kg of grapes arrived at Rosewood Estates, the enormity of our challenge over the next five weeks was clear.
I have often been asked about winemaking—have you thought about making your own? What do you think of the home winemaking shops? To which I always politely respond that I prefer to leave the winemaking to the professionals and leave the wine drinking to André.
So what changed? At the end of February 2015 I had the opportunity to meet Vadim Chelekhov, the talented winemaker from Kacaba, and Craig Wismer, who manages some of the best vineyards in the province. I asked them what it would take to make some wine. Not to produce so much that it would be cumbersome to manage, but enough that I could get an idea of what it entails to make a wine commercially and get it to market.
There’s a lot of time between February and October. I had nine months to put the pieces of the puzzle together to bring this wine to life. I couldn’t have done this without the help from Guillaume Frenehard, who previously worked in the retail shop at Trius, and Trish Woodford who helped us financially (making wine isn’t cheap).
The easier parts of making this wine involved finding a facility to work out of. We set this wine up as a “Virtual” label which means that we are a separate entity working out of another facility. There are a few wines being made like this in the province right now—most notably the North Shore Project wines being made by popular Sommelier Will Predhomme. I was fortunate enough to have Rosewood estates allow us into their cellar.
We then needed to find fruit. I think this part of winemaking is often overlooked by those of us who are too busy drinking the wine to think about much more than the label on the bottle and price we paid. So much of winemaking depends on the quality of your fruit. Needless to say it was a challenge to secure high quality fruit in a year where the growing season started late. But with the help of Vadim we secured fruit from the Wismer vineyards.
Once we had our facility, fruit and team in place we were able to relax for a little bit. This brings us to October.
I like to keep myself busy. Between tasting and writing it’s hard to maintain any sort of balance in life. So when early October rolls around and the grapes start to ripen you get to a difficult place. You don’t get a say on when your fruit is ready and it’s time to start turning it into wine. We were fortunate to have Vadim living and working in wine country to keep an eye on the grapes.
Despite this advantage, making wine means you’re on call. For two weeks every plan I made became tentative because I could get a text, email or phone call letting me know that it was time to harvest. I also had to tell myself that for the people who work at the wineries they do this every year with several different types of grapes. I was only doing this with one small batch of fruit. The night we processed our fruit the winemaking team at Rosewood was also dealing with their own Merlot. We both worked until after 11 p.m., and they started well before we did. In fact, when I spoke with the winemaking team at Rosewood they told me about previous harvests where they worked 24 hours straight to ensure the fruit was processed at its peak.
It takes a few things to turn a grape into wine. You have to wait the whole summer, and hope that nothing goes wrong. You can’t have an early frost or you won’t get any grapes. You can’t have any hail or severe weather or too much, or little rain for the same reason. If you do get grapes you have to hope that it doesn’t get too cold too early, and wait for them to ripen so that you have the right amount of sugar and the grapes are perfectly ripe. There are literally hundreds of moments between Spring and Fall where something could go wrong and you won’t have anything to sell. Now here is the crazy part … we haven’t got to the winemaking. This just gets the fruit off the vine and into your winery.
The type of wine I wanted to make is called Nouveau. It’s a style of winemaking that gained popularity in the Beaujolais region in France. It’s not as popular in Ontario as it is in France, but it’s a style of wine that I’m a big fan of—light and fruity, it makes for easy drinking.
For our purposes it allowed us to make a wine that goes from grape to bottle in a short time period. Most wines have to sit in a cellar either in a barrel or stainless steel tank anywhere from eight months to three years before they are bottled and sent out for sale. This is where I had my second realization about making wine commercially: once you’ve managed to get fruit off the vine and into your winery you have to hope nothing goes wrong from when your fruit starts fermenting to when you decide to bottle it.
This was the moment when we put our faith in Vadim to turn our fruit into wine. Put simply, you take yeast and you add it to your grapes and wait for the sugar to turn to alcohol. You have to keep an eye on the temperature of your fruit to ensure the grapes are fermenting at the right rate. We were shooting to release the wine in time for the traditional Nouveau day, which in 2015 was November 19. Making wine on such a short timetable isn’t the norm in Niagara but (spoiler) we managed to make it.
Coming up on November we finished the final steps to make the wine. This involved filtering and bottling the wine for testing and approval from the VQA, the regulatory body for the Ontario Wine industry.
We made 600 bottles of Gamay Nouveau and decided to call it Hair of the Dog. (The label is a tribute to my best friend and faithful pug-beagle, Henri.) Next time you open that bottle of wine that you love I want you to look into your glass and not think of it as just wine but think of it as all the things that did not go wrong.
Here are a couple of bottles in Vintages right now for you to ponder over.
2012 Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir – Vintages 997353 – $29.95 – ****+
Right away when you pour this wine you will get sucked in with floral aromas and bright ripe cherry. This wine is both intense and elegant at the same time. The flavours are tons of cherry with a finish that has a slight earth note but more spice mingled in there. This is the sort of wine that I say shouldn’t be paired with any food whatsoever. This is well priced and ready to drink.
2012 Gilmour Orus Chardonnay/Riesling/Pinot Grigio – Vintages 441915 – $19.95 – ****
This is the white counterpart to the wonderful Corazon which is made at Karlo estates with the help of former Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour. Easy-drinking and food-friendly, this offers soft flavours of apple, peach and citrus with perfectly balanced acidity. The finish on this wine does stick around for a while which would make this a great wine to accompany some popcorn and Netflix on a Friday night.
Photos by André Proulx