13th Street Winery: Giving a Voice to the Vines
A WineAlign Winery Profile
Written by WineAlign
Although long known for its coveted, small-batch production, by 2007 it was high time for 13th Street to take it to the next level. This is when Doug and Karen Whitty along with friends and partners John and June Mann purchased the old winery with the full intention of stepping it up a notch. From 1500 to now 13,000 cases, finally, the lineups of cult followers are satisfied and more than just select collectors and restaurateurs can get in on the game.
Although the winery has undergone change, most notably with new winemaker Jean-Pierre Colas bringing decades of Burgundian and Niagara winemaking experience, it has been able to retain its reputation as a small, artisanal winery with a highly coveted product. The wines have been traditionally rustic in character, full of charm and intrigue and have evolved into wines that are more sophisticated and express themselves more fully.
The 13th Street vineyards are a collection of older estate vineyards plus those new to the portfolio from Whitty’s farm and subsequent new holdings. They are varied parcels in age and in aspect but provide a complete tapestry of grapes on which to draw on for the winery’s various labels and levels. It is this collection of unique vineyards sites that makes the wines of 13th Street stand apart. (Following this report, WineAlign critics have included some top picks from a recent 13th Street tasting.)
This feature was commissioned by 13th Street Winery.
This mosaic of vineyards sites is responsible for the both the complexity, concentration and age-worthy character in the wines. Some of these sites are considered historic in Niagara, such as the original 13th Street vineyards yielding estate fruit planted as far back as 1976, some of the oldest working vinifera in the province. Here, limited quantities of riesling, pinot noir and cabernet franc are selected for premium, reserve level wines. Sandstone vineyard in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation in Niagara, planted in 1983, is managed by friends of the winery, Erv, Esther and Eric Willms and provides the fruit for the wild and unique reserve level gamay as well as chardonnay. The gamay in particular has notably contributed to the winery’s elevated profile, exposing the variety’s unique expression in Niagara. Along with producers such as Malivoire Estate and gamay’s long time champion in Niagara, Chateau des Charmes, the grape is seen as expressing unique character in our hot and cold Niagara climate. Our gamays have been subject to wide critical acclaim and have created and contributed to a significant cult following of the variety in the province. This has led to a much greater presence of gamay than ever before on more widely available commercial channels, such as the LCBO.
Jean-Pierre Colas, former winemaker at Peninsula Ridge, has leant a unique touch to the wines of 13th Street since his arrival in 2009. Striving to meet the expectations of the winery’s followers, the historic nature of the estate and improving quality while drastically increasing quantity has been the great challenge. He has been able to accomplish this task due to new facilities, but also through a singular goal – the respect for fruit, for terroir, for history and a zeal for the continued improvement of the wines of the portfolio. Jean-Pierre knows that this change cannot come about overnight and in his patient, French way, has developed a unique understanding for individual parcels and how best to facilitate the expression of the fruit in the bottle. In recent conversation with Colas, he has spilled some of his secrets and his hopes for his long apprenticeship with the unique terroir that makes up 13th Street. Colas tends to put all of himself, full–throttle into new projects and enjoys the challenge of new situations. Always learning and experimenting, he is fully invested in understanding the vineyard and adjusting practices to specific needs of the parcel. His work extends far beyond the cellar, into the birthplace of quality wine: the vineyard.
You have a breadth of experience working in cellars both in France in Niagara and worldwide. What is unique about your experience with 13th Street?
The story itself of 13th Street is unique – a little hobby winery shared by four different individuals open only on Sunday with a few special openings during the year. It was small with a good reputation and had consumers lining up at the door. It had old vines and a very special portfolio of sparkling, gamay, riesling and a little pinot noir. A little private gem, not known by a lot of people save the sommelier community and a solid reputation with the trade. So, I arrived here and was taking over a portfolio that I was not very familiar with. Although I had made gamay for a few years in the past in Morgon when I was a student, it was a long time ago and with different conditions. Besides that, I didn’t have big experience with riesling – I had only done one or two small batches in the past. Sparkling, I had no experience at all and no specific taste for sparkling, really, nor was I a consumer of sparkling. So it was a pretty big challenge for me, similar to when I started at Peninsula Ridge and had never done rosé in my life or sauvignon blanc. I decided to do it in my own way, to work on my feelings, my base and my experience to translate that to a different varietal without having made it before. It was a big, crazy challenge.
To develop volume at the same time while maintaining the quality was my task. I try to stay on the same wavelength and quality level while maintaining public and professional recognition. Even in 2009, when I arrived, we started with 4500 cases which was already twice the volume they were doing before, always with the same kind of flagship wine: riesling, gamay, sparkling. Now I have introduced more chardonnay. With pinot noir, I try to stay with the same spirit as they were doing before – of course, I reduced the sugar on the riesling, on the sparkling and on the rosé to remain true to my own taste and feeling but we try to follow what was done before. But, we need volume to be present in the market so things are a bit different now. They have planted the new vineyards but also have still been working with old Sandstone fruit. Now, much of the production is coming from younger vineyards.
You have been well known for your work with sauvignon blanc and syrah in Niagara, in this most recent chapter, you take on chardonnay and gamay. Why are these varietals so important to you and to the region?
Riesling is renown and exhibits great behavior in Niagara, in Ontario and is a perfect fit. We have new vineyards and we have old, established vineyards that now have about 30 years of age. We have a traditional way of dealing with them. Of course, now I am working a little bit differently at managing maturity at picking, the amount of extraction and vinifying less sweet. Stewart Piggot gave us recognition for this 2012 [riesling] cuvée – he was totally crazy about it but we are basically continuing something that has already been done. We also have June’s Vineyard which is over 15 years old with very special soil. You don’t need to be a genius at winemaking to make riesling in Ontario. If you don’t screw it up, it should be ok. It is a bit more difficult to make it great but we have largely good results.
On gamay, I continue to work with the Sandstone old vines coming from Niagara on the Lake. I am still convinced that there is only one vineyard like that – it is very special, very unique. No clonal selections because it was planted from cuttings, we don’t know exactly what they are but the results are great. I think I have moved, changed the style a little bit with better control of the oak. They were not really oak people [previously at 13th Street], they were more focused on riesling and sparkling.
I remember that one of my best bottles from Niagara was an old Sandstone gamay when I arrived here in Ontario. But, I realized that with different choice of barrels, better selection, if we did better work on it we could refine and bring this cuvée to a different level.
Gamay is a naturally good cropper and it is working very, very well in Ontario. 13th Street has a good 15 years of experience with gamay and we continue to be able to deliver quality year after year. Between Chateau des Charmes and Malivoire, the top traditional producers of gamay, producers at large have been convinced that gamay can work and that it is working. We have to work in the vineyard for sure, it is a very productive, fertile, vigorous varietal but if you do the job in the vineyard, you can deliver very good bottles. This group of three producers was there before anybody but now, what a surprise, all the other wineries want to have gamay in their portfolio, everyone wants to produce gamay. Gamay at the LCBO, at Cellier at the SAQ is now more readily found. There is a buzz about gamay this summer buzz and for the last 2-3 years. Not only is it a varietal working well in the vineyards and in the wineries but the consumers are starting to realize that we can produce gamay and we don’t have to wait for the crappy Beaujolais Nouveau every year.
What is your take on the use of oak in wine? How did you bring oak culture to 13th Street?
You know, everyone wants to put chardonnay in oak but you have to have a special affinity with the oak barrels and have a bit of practice. Through my experience in Chablis, I have worked a lot with barrels, with different coopers, with different forest selections and I was dong lots of special tasting, calibrations with the coopers and colleagues. I have a pretty extensive knowledge of barrels, fermentation, treatments, etc.,. It has always been very interesting for me but even finding the right barrel is nothing more than finding a tool for winemaking. You have to find the right tool, the right barrel to fit with the wine you are going to make. The barrel has to be there to reveal the wine, to reveal the signature of the soil, the power of the wine and not to act as makeup. Too many people use barrels to put oak flavour in their wine.
For the Sandstone chardonnay, I have a brand new selection of barrels now after 2009 and because of the nature of the farm, the nature of the grapes, my choice of barrels will be used to bring the wine to lightness, to make it fresher, avoiding a fat and heavy feeling. To choose the right barrels, you have to understand your vineyard and your wines first. Oak shouldn’t hide the wine; it is there to help you to showcase your wine and not the reverse.
Firstly, the sanitary aspect – clean fruit and free of disease is the prerequisite for high-quality fruit. It is through maturity control, twice a week that you continue to see the evolution of the classic three: sugar, acid and pH, but also, the evolution of the flavour. You have to understand your vineyard, you have to understand your grapes and you have to taste your grapes.
The real key is that you have to understand your vines first and understand what wine the grapes can give you. You are going to make the wine that nature gives you; you are not going to try to re-invent something that the vines are not going to be able to give you. If you try to make a bold wine with big extraction and tannins when you have grapes at the limit of unripe then that it is a mistake. You don’t have to decide that you are going to make a wine in a certain way; instead you have to discover the real potential of the grapes. And the potential of the grapes is not what you want, the potential of the grapes is what nature and the field and the vintage gives you.
Could you describe, briefly, your sustainable production program?
The vineyard is pretty simple, we don’t have the pretention to say and to follow some kind of organic structure because I am not totally convinced – we need to be more clever than that. If you are just dogmatic, it is not going to help. We have to be more reactive. So we are not doing that [organics] but we try to be as clean and respectful as possible. I have always been convinced that you have to protect your own tool and your first tool is your vineyard. You have just to protect your vineyard, your soil to be in good shape so you have good growth and a good crop, not to saturate it with some pesticide or herbicide – you need to be efficient. We are just trying to do the smartest thing on different levels.
Blending and experimenting tends to be important to you. Can you share some of your current projects?
When I arrived, I was given a big project of creating an aromatic white blend that became “White Palette”. The blend is riesling-based and we have included a few other varietals like gewürztraminer, chardonnay musqué and pinot gris. My biggest challenge in terms of blending right now is more on the sparkling side, with work on the base wines – the pinot and the chardonnay with a little bit of gamay on the cuvée rosé. I am working with the percentages of reserve wine integration, how to work the reserve differently and even working the base wine with oak.
Experimenting for the sake of experimenting doesn’t make any sense – it is just a waste of time and money. I am still doing new experiments and am taking some risks but those risks have to be calculated and the results anticipated. Temperature, yeast, length of maceration, so many things, the kinetic of fermentation on the reds, the combination between delestage and pumpover along with experimenting on different equipment are day to day life. Now on riesling, I have clones with enough production now that I can keep them separate. New single vineyard definition based on individual clones leads to a better understanding of your farm (this side of the block is reacting differently, how are you going to work with these specifics during growing and after in the winery.)
Finally, could you share some thoughts on the 2015 vintage?
First, and you are not going to be surprised, it is a short crop. It was a cold winter and the outcome is dependent upon location as the cold hit Niagara inconsistently. Around us and going west to Beamsville, Jordan and Vineland, is one of the worst spots in Niagara this winter. We are seeing a great deal of inconsistency in the vineyards, even among one varietal in the same block, from clone to clone and from year of planting. Even riesling and gamay have been badly hurt. Adjacent areas can be as different as 25% crop loss to a full loss. We don’t really have an explanation for that at that moment. It is too early. After two years in a row of bad winters, the vines are getting weaker and weaker. If you take the example of merlot which is an area at the corner of 7th Street and the North Service road, a 15 year old vineyard – last year it was just devastated by the winter, we have no crop, nothing. But, on the vineyard that we rebuilt from the trunk, coming from the suckers that we rebuilt from 2014 winter, we will probably have 80% crop on the same block this year even if it was colder. We are going to pick the grapes and we are happy to have some but I don’t have the explanation. It is a little bit surprising.
The old vine gamay at Sandstone farm was picked this year in September – never before has it been so early. That is pretty surprising. You also have varietals that are later than usual and some that are just reacting totally differently. Mother Nature decided to do what she wanted and sometimes we cannot plan for it. It is not because this one is ready early that this one is going to be ready too.
Besides that, the grapes we do have are pretty good. It is not going to be crazy maturity but we have good flavours, good balance. There has even been a bit of botrytis due to a recent rainy weekend. If we don’t have the crop or yield this year, at least we variation and surprising quality.
This feature was commissioned by 13th Street Winery. As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign.
Click on the links below for complete, multiple reviews by WineAlign critics for recent 13th Street Winery releases:
“Nicely structured, with ripe fruit and fine tannin-acid balance. Some earthy-clay notes add depth and interest. Great depth.” – Platinum Medal winner at The Nationals
“Rich and nicely ripened with freshness and traditional old world appeal. Clean and with notable focus, this well-structured wine shows a progressive layering of flavours showing off complexity and elegance rather than power.”
“…delivers fresh, crisp, red apple, strawberry leaf, red cherry fruit, light cinnamon spice…a fine range of aromatics, and bold, densely concentrated palate.”
“Loads of freshly cracked black pepper and black fruit… This makes a good argument for syrah in Ontario, in the right places it certainly matures very well.”
“This is a quite intense yet elegant, nicely maturing cabernet franc with fine, complex aromas of forest floor, tobacco, leather and fine strawberry/raspberry fruit nicely framed by oak.”
“…creamy texture and outright tuber vigour and backbone…a slow-simmered chalk breathes limestone and then ginger…”
“A lovely traditional method rosé from pinot noir and chardonnay with a maturing colour. Notes of strawberry and cherry on a palate that is clean and rather rich.”
“This ripe, rich pinot gris from the warmer 2012 vintage is showing some of the opulence of Alastian styles.”
“There is beautiful colour to this rich and delicately matured chardonnay. Notes yellow apple, pear, brioche and honey.”
This feature was commissioned by 13th Street Winery. See below for more details provided by the winery.
More from 13th Street Winery
Located in the Creek Shores sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula, 13th Street Winery is devoted to the creation of world-class wines that provide an authentic expression of our local terroir.
Our boutique winery, set among 25 acres of estate vineyards, is located just minutes west of St. Catharines and minutes from the QEW (exit at 7th Street).
Don’t have time for a visit to the winery but want to restock some of the fabulous wines you tasted on your last visit? Or perhaps you enjoyed some 13th Street wine at one of the many fine restaurants that feature our products and would like some for home?
Ordering online is easy and convenient!
Join one of our WINE CLUBS and enjoy the convenience of having 13th Street wines automatically sent to your home or office plus many other great benefits including access to our Member’s Selection exclusive bottlings and two complimentary tickets to all our Wine & Food Seminars!
Explore 13th Street Winery and awaken all your senses!