Cool-Climate Wines of Beauty
Posted January 16, 2018 9:00 p.m. EST
JORDAN, Ontario — Although his wines are found in many natural wine bars around the world, please do not call François Morissette a natural winemaker. And although Pearl Morissette, his estate near this small town on the Niagara Peninsula, produces wines that are luminous and inspiring, it’s better not to call him a winemaker at all.
He prefers the term vigneron, a French word without an English equivalent, referring to a person who guides the grapes along their journey from vine to bottle. Indeed, shepherding is how Morissette sees his job, not so much manufacturing wine as helping the grapes realize their destiny.
Sometimes a wine never gets there. A 2009 chardonnay, one of Pearl Morissette’s early vintages, is still resting in the winery, unsold. Morissette judged the wine to be too tight and unyielding, and did not want to release it.
“It was telling us to go away,” he said. “Only recently has it become inviting.”
More often, though, the wines are captivating. The lineup includes savory, textured chardonnays; cabernet francs of uncommon depth and purity; fresh, joyous gamays and pinot noirs that can vary from a pretty, floral 2011 that is delicious right now to a spicy, smoky 2012 that manages to be both brawny and elegant. Like the ’09 chardonnay, it has not yet been released.
Many Americans may be surprised by the idea of any vignerons like Morissette working in Canada. Many think Ontario is simply too cold for making fine wine, although they might associate the region with ice wine, a rare delicacy made from grapes that have frozen on the vine, resulting in minute quantities of lusciously sweet, concentrated nectar.
Ontario is among the world’s leading sources for ice wine, with Inniskillin perhaps the most esteemed producer. But on the Niagara Peninsula, as the isthmus between the southern shore of Lake Ontario and the northern shore of Lake Erie is called, and particularly along the Niagara Escarpment, an east-to-west spine of dolomitic limestone that veers past Lake Ontario, the winemakers would like it known that ice wine is the least of it.
“Ice wine is the biggest misconception,” said Paul Pender, the director of viticulture and winemaking at Tawse Winery in Vineland, Ontario. “It’s the cold, frigid North. People don’t think we can ripen grapes.”
In fact, grapes ripen here beautifully. The Niagara Peninsula is more than hospitable to cool-climate varieties like riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. Surprisingly, grapes that require a longer growing season, like cabernet franc, also make exceptional wines.
Tawse, one of a handful of top peninsula producers, makes elegant pinot noirs; minerally chardonnays and moderately sweet rieslings that are superbly balanced. Thomas Bachelder, who also produces wine in Oregon and Burgundy, makes small lots of exquisite Niagara chardonnay and pinot noir. And Norman Hardie makes graceful chardonnays and pinot noirs that would seem almost fragile if not for their cohesive, tensile strength.
Hardie’s Niagara wines are excellent, but his best wines, with even more depth and character, come from vineyard sites in Prince Edward County, a more precarious region on the north side of Lake Ontario, where a thumb of calcareous limestone, like the bedrock in Burgundy, juts into the lake. On the Niagara Peninsula to the south, vineyards can survive the occasional blast of cold Arctic air because Lake Ontario, which is exceptionally deep, retains heat and warms the winds. If the vines are too far south of the lake, however, the effect is lost and vines cannot survive. In the summer, the cool waters temper the heat, creating a long, moderate growing season.
The summer heat in Prince Edward County is likewise moderated by the lake. But in the winter the cold winds hit the region directly. Growers are forced to take the costly, labor-intensive step of burying their vines in the warm earth so they can survive.
“I knew it would be extra work, but it is worth it because the calcareous limestone soils are so incredible,” said Hardie, who planted his first vines there in 2003. The payoff, for him, is wines that are both subtle and expressive.
Beyond the small group of top producers, a lot of wine is made on the Niagara Peninsula. Much of it, alas, is workmanlike stuff to sell to the many tourists who come in the summer to visit the lake and Niagara Falls.
“Producing plonk for Niagara bus tours, that’s the biggest problem, not the cold,” Bachelder said.
Morissette, whose wines are idiosyncratic and remarkable, never imagined he would be making wine on the Niagara Peninsula. He grew up south of Montreal in a family that did not drink wine. But he was inspired by novels and French movies in which joyful scenes set around meals always seemed to include wine.
After traveling in Europe and spending several years in New York, he returned to Montreal, where he learned to be a sommelier at Laloux, a longtime bistro with an excellent wine list. There he was introduced to the Beaujolais of Marcel Lapierre, the Sancerres of Vatan and Cotat, the Cornas of Clape and the Hermitage of Chave. “I call these wines my liquid mentors,” he said.
Tired of restaurants, he found work in Burgundy with Frédéric Mugnier at Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, known best for its ethereal Chambolle-Musignys. He also worked with Christian Gouges of Domaine Henri Gouges, which makes austere, long-lived Nuits-St.-Georges.
Morissette married, had children and learned about farming, working in the cellar and producing wines that were expressive, uncompromising and long-lived. Soon he was ready for another challenge.
By chance, he had met Mel Pearl, a Toronto developer who was ready and willing to finance a project. And while Morissette was not considering moving back to Canada, he changed his mind after tasting a pinot noir made by Bachelder from Le Clos Jordanne, a now defunct Niagara producer.
Inspired, Morissette moved to the Niagara Peninsula in 2007 with marching orders from Pearl to do as he thought best. First, they bought a vineyard where a layer of loam sits over bedrock of dolomitic limestone. In 2008, they bought another that, unusually for Niagara, sits over a heavy gravel bed, as in Bordeaux.
While Morissette rejects the label of natural winemaker, he embraces the classic, traditional methods of frugal farmers, who for centuries honed an innate, practical wisdom based on keen observation and a horror of waste.
“I wanted to learn the old methods before they disappeared,” he said of his time in Europe. Many who embrace current ideas that emphasize vineyard bedrock, and its influence on the aromas and flavors in the wine, may be surprised that Morissette rejects that framework.
“I care a lot more about soil and fungi and bacteria than I do about rocks,” he said. “Here, we have extraordinary soils in terms of the intact life.”
Even more important, he said, is the effect of the climate, which can be as cool as Chablis one year and as hot and damp as North Carolina the next.
In the winery, he collaborates with Svetlana Atcheva, a former sommelier in Toronto who found the Pearl Morissette wines so inspiring that she now works there. She is a sort of alter ego to Morissette, and they engage in a constant dialogue, questioning and debating each wine as it matures.
The wines have a vibrant life force that is felt rather than tasted. His chardonnays tend to be rich rather than lean, while the cabernet francs are pure and structured. His rieslings are bone dry and age-worthy. Pinot noir, he said, remains a code that he has not yet cracked to his satisfaction.
Morissette is deeply aware of the advantages he has with his partner, Pearl, whom he says has never wavered in his commitment to Morissette’s vision.
“It’s presumptuous to think you could do this without money,” Morissette said. “We’ve done in 10 years what would have taken a generation or two because we’re throwing money at it.”
The rewards are an uncommon sort of wines, whether from Ontario or anywhere else.
“There’s nothing natural about what we do,” he said. “But we are committed to classicism. If you don’t tamper with a wine and live with its moods, it will bring you to a place you couldn’t anticipate.”