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Tawse – Winery of the Year


Ever since the first wines hit the bottle barely ten years ago, I have drunk and enjoyed the fine adult beverages produced by Tawse Winery in Niagara. Tawse is in the heartland of the Niagara Escarpment. As one ascends the incline on Cherry Avenue in Vineland towards the top of the escarpment, seeing the winery for the first time is impressive. It is a show stopper indeed. However, everyone knows that simply pumping large amounts of capital into a venture doesn’t guarantee an end product worth its salt. Most of us who have embarked on an escapade to a wine region have encountered multi million dollar facilities that can be fallacious and deliver mediocre wines with exorbitant prices to pay the bank for the monies borrowed on the building.

This is not the case at Tawse. When a winery is bestowed the title of “Winery of the Year”, it is never for the pleasantries of the building, or the meticulous detail of the landscaping, it is bestowed solely on the content of the bottles sold in the tasting room.

The Canadian Wine Awards, an annual event sponsored by Wine Access Magazine, chose Tawse as this year’s recipient because they won five gold, three silver and ten bronze medals at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. No other winery has won that amount previously in a single year.

Paul Pender - click to enlarge

I stopped by the winery last weekend just as the tasting room opened for business and I came face to face with a bunch of professional “Twitterers” who were invited for a tour of the winery and vineyards. Thanks to a friend of mine, Danielle, Sweet, who is one of the winery’s staff, I was able to join up with the group. The objective of the day was to demonstrate the difference in terrior found in two vineyards barely five kilometers apart from one another. Most of the twits were from Toronto and surrounding area. Armed with smart phones and cameras, the twits and I left for a tour of the Cherry Avenue vineyard, the flagship and home site of the winery.

Paul Pender, Tawse’s wine maker, hosted the tour. First task was to release the vineyard cleaning crew from their ramshackle quarters. The scruffy group of workers was eager to start their daily toils begin.  The lambs, ducks and chickens eagerly fought their way to the breakfast buffet to feast on the low growing foliage and the clover that grows rampant between the vines. Pender went on to explain that Tawse has now become officially certified as an organic winery and the biodynamic certification will follow soon.

Vineyard cleaning crew - click to enlarge

The Cherry Avenue Vineyard, a 21 acre plot situated on the Twenty Mile Bench VQA region is home to three sub appellations; all named after owners Moray and Joanne Tawse’s children, Robyn, David and Carly.

The vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot and Chardonnay.  The Carly’s block Riesling vines are some of the oldest in the region.

To see five different varietals in a vineyard at harvest shows one how atypical the ripening process is. Chardonnay foliage is yellow/brown and ready to drop while the Cab Franc is still quite green and showing only minimal signs of slowing down.

Cab Franc and Chardonnay vines - click to enlarge

Wines produced in this vineyard are generally richer and fuller than most. Tawse won the White Wine of the Year Award for its 2008 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay. The Chardonnay received a score of 93 out of 100 – the highest ever achieved by a table wine in this competition.

The twits and I then made our way to the Quarry Road Vineyard atop of the Niagara escarpment in the Vinemount Ridge appellation.

This forty three acre site presently has twenty acres under vine with some of the densest plantings in the region, following in the traditions of Chardonnay and Pinot planted in Burgundy.  A small section of the vineyard is planted with Gewurztraminer. Parts of the vineyard remain bare; due to the high demand nurseries are encountering for Vitis Vinifera. Once vines are available, the rest of the vineyard will be planted.  Quarry Road, as the name implies was at one time a quarry and consequently the land beneath donates a tremendous amount of mineral and limestone character to the wines. As it was a few degrees cooler up on the ridge and I was happy once we headed back to the winery where Mr. Pender had organized a blind tasting to show the difference between the two sites.

click to enlarge

Dodging the crowds in the tasting room (news was out of the recent accolades and winery of the year award), we made our way to cellar number three. Here glasses of barrel samples of 2009 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were poured for us from both sites to see if we could discern the difference.

Wine one: Cherry, leathery and mineral, very vibrant, red fruit on the palate and solid structure was the Quarry Road Pinot.

Wine Two: The Cherry Lane was more subtle and tighter on the nose, showing light cherry aromas with a floral background. The palate had more structure and complexity.

Wine three: Mineral jumps from the glass, slate, lime stone, pear and spearmint. The palate has that Chablis character although deftly administered oak does show through. This was the Quarry Road and again the Robyn’s Block proved to be rounder with perfume, mineral and a note of tropical fruit and lime zest.

Then two Chardonnays from the 2008 vintage were poured, also blind, from the bottle. I personally preferred the Quarry Road this time over the Robyn’s Block. It had an appealing note of mandarin, white tree fruit with lemon and slate driven mineral. The Robyn’s Block will be a wonderful wine; the flavours are distinctively cool climate Chardonnay and the texture of the mouth is creamy, with a roasted almond note and extremely rich structure. Give this a couple of years in the bottle and it should be divine.

click to enlarge

Tawse is a minimal intervention winery that makes full use of the five levels inside the building to use gravity when transferring wine from one receptacle into another. We made our way to the tank room were upon we sample the recently harvested 2010 Riesling.

The Weis clone, from Quarry Road, still with four degrees of brix, has typical citrus and apple flavours while the Clone Forty Nine also from Quarry Road, and still fermenting, showed amazingly powerful flavours of tangerine and ginger.

The fully fermented Karly’s Block Riesling has a sturdy structure of acidity, a deep Red River grapefruit essence and carries 9.5 degrees of alcohol. The 25 gm of residual sugar is barely noticeable due to the streaks of acidity.

It was noon and I was hungry. I was about to excuse myself and bail when it was announced that we would return to the cellar where lunch was to be served. It was there I ran into two friends of mine, Paul Harding and Jason Schubert, the chef proprietors from London’s “The Only On King” restaurant who just happened to be catering the event.

Although delighted, I must confess at first to having mixed feelings about an out of town caterer working the event. Don’t get me wrong, I was overjoyed to be able to sample the foods of this dynamic duo without having to travel to London myself, but I wondered why no Niagara eatery was asked to feed us. Then it clicked, the Only and Tawse do have much in common.

Paul Pender and team produce their wines using organic and biodynamic methods farming. They have full control over any of the other vineyards where they contract the fruit. Consequently the end result is a pure wine free of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

The biodynamic influence incorporates long-standing farming practices based on the rhythms of nature many of which may seem odd to most (burying cow horns filled with cow manure in the soil for one), but as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the words of Moray Tawse “If you’re feeding your vines on chemicals and fertilizers, it’s like raising a human being on nothing else other than junk food.” And who has not seen Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me’?

The Only on King has a similar philosophy. They negotiate with local farmers and growers to bring foods to their kitchen on a daily basis that are pure and natural and grown or produced in the most natural conditions available. In other words, they shop the best farms in South Western Ontario that follow similar growing practices and beliefs as Tawse.

Their constantly changing menu is a true example of farm to table, back to basics cooking at its best, and coupled with the talents of the kitchen’s team, they are serving some of the best food in Ontario.

We sat down to enjoy the following foods:

  • Winter luxury pumpkin soup, “Thornloe” blue cheese and pumpkin oil.
  • Soiled Reputation Autumn vegetable salad, Farben Farms lamb bacon
  • Klondyke Farms potato gnocchi, charred leeks, brown butter Montorte goat Tomme
  • Field gate Organics roasted chicken, sauerkraut, mustard sauce.
  • Chocolate and walnut torte, Chantilly.

The wines selected to enhance the lunch were:

  • 2008 Cherry Lane Pinot Noir and 2008 Lauritzen Pinot Noir served with the first three courses.
  • 2005 99/1 Magnum.
  • 2008 Weismer Vineyard Riesling and 2009 Tawse Riesling served with the chicken.

A lavish lunch for a Sunday indeed, the robust soup with the Thornloe blue cheese – a Northern Ontario dairy- was most welcome after the blustery fall walkabout.

Soiled Reputation, is an organic farm northwest of Stratford, farmed by Welsh born Antony John, and was the source of the roasted vegetable salad. Simply drizzled with olive oil, it was a perfect match for the Pinots.

Paul Harding introduced the gnocchi course by stating Klondyke Farms potatoes have the perfect sugar balance to shape the deftly cooked dumplings, that also held their own with the Pinots.

Both Pinots were very good, both tight, but food helped tame the tannins. I liked the Lauritzen rendition as it has nuances of beet, dried herb and floral aromas on the nose.  The bigger structured Cherry Ave vineyard shows more fruit, but is really tightly wound and needs time to show its best.

Moray Tawse

Moray Tawse, who joined us for lunch, chose to open a Magnum of his 99/1. This started out as a bit of a protest wine against regulations that permit Ontario wineries to blend together 70% imported and 30% domestic and market it as a Cellared in Canada” wine. Back in 2005, to counter the lack of fruit due to severe winter vine damage, wineries in Niagara were permitted to produce wines using ninety nine percent imported wine and one percent local instead of the regular 70/30. These wines are still today controversial and are not permitted to carry the VQA symbol on their labels.

Mr. Tawse has never been a fan of “Cellared in Canada wines” and to make a point he purchased and arranged for nine barrels of Premier Cru Morey St Denis Clos de Ormes to be flown from Burgundy to Toronto. So add one percent domestic Pinot and bingo, 99/1 was created. 2005 was the one and only vintage that Tawse ever produced such wine.

In the glass it shows wonderful floral aromas backed up by hay, wild raspberry, mushroom and plum. The velvety texture is sublime and pairs wonderfully with the earthy leeks and brown butter that coats the Gnocchi.

Soon after, polished and shiny Riesling glasses adorned the table and were filled with the 2008 Tawse Riesling and 2008 Weismer Vineyard. I find the Tawse too sweet with the acidity of the sauerkraut, but the Weismer rocks. The wine already has a petrol note with lime and lemon grass, an oily texture, great acidity on the palate creates a superb match. What a treat this experience truly was. Tawse is rightly very proud of what they have accomplished. Terriorism is alive and evident in Niagara. Our wines in Niagara are truly are world class and hats off to Tawse for showcasing what they have accomplished thus far. Well done.

The five gold medals won by Tawse at the competition were for the 2008 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay; 2008 Quarry Road Chardonnay; 2008 Wismer Lakeview Vineyard Riesling; 2009 Riesling and 2008 Lauritzen Pinot Noir. These wines periodically show up in Vintages, but best to plan a visit or call the winery direct – 905 562 9500.  Shipping is under ten bucks to most of Southern Ontario.


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