The Goode Report: Harvest with Hardie

Dr. Jamie Goode’s Global View on Canadian Wines

Dr. Jamie Goode

Dr. Jamie Goode

We pulled the lid off a plastic fermenting bin. Inside, a mass of grape skins, floating as a cap. A whiff of red fruits and sweet grapiness. The cap looked quite soft, so we plunged our hands in, sinking the skins into a shockingly vivid red liquid mass. The fermenting wine was warm to the touch, and in the morning chill, some steam came off. This was pinot noir, beginning its journey into wine, and it was thrilling to make an intimate connection with the ferment as we pushed under the skins in folds of winey richness. A quick wipe around the rim, lid back on, and onto the next fermenting bin. This time the cap looked thicker, so MC jumped up and punched it down with a stainless steel tool, plunging the skins deep into the red/purple juice.

I was at Norman Hardie in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, and this was my introduction to vintage. I was to spend four days here, at the peak of harvest time, witnessing this, the most exciting time in the year. It’s also the most stressful time of year. I was a little reticent at first: an outsider coming into a tight team, two weeks into a month of intense vintage, when there was little sleep, and little life outside of work. The last thing anyone needed was interference from a journalist, and while an extra body could be useful, it could also be a hindrance because I’d have to be told what to do.

Norman Hardie is one of Canada’s most highly respected winegrowers. After a career as a sommelier and wine director with Four Seasons, Norm began working vintage around the world. He travelled to Burgundy, where he helped with the debut of Boisset’s new Domaine de la Vougerie with Pascal Marchand in 1998. He went to his home country of South Africa where he worked at Bouchard Finlayson. A stint with Au Bon Climat and Qupé in California’s Santa Barbara County kept him busy for a couple of vintages. And in 2001 and 2002 he worked with Dean Shaw at COWCO in Central Otago, New Zealand.

But when he set out on his own in 2004, Norm decided to base himself in Prince Edward County. His focus was on chardonnay and pinot noir, and as well as sourcing grapes from the County, he also wanted to draw on privileged sites in Niagara. The draw of the County was its soils – classic clay/limestone – and also the cool climate. While Niagara is also thought of as cool climate, it actually has more of a short, slightly warmer climate, with high summer temperatures. The County is just a little bit cooler, which suits pinot noir in particular really well.

But farming grapes in the County is challenging, with winter low temperatures enough to kill vines most years. The solution is to trellis the vineyards low, with a low head. Each autumn the canes for the next season are tied down low, and the vine is then earthed up to protect it from freezing temperatures. This is incredibly labour intensive; the results justify the effort. But it doesn’t always work. In 2015, he only harvested 9 tons from 50 acres, because of a devastating frost in late May.

I’d been here before. Back in 2013 I visited with his agents in Ontario, Lifford. We tasted through a retrospective of Norm’s wines, then swam in the lake, dined well, and stayed over in the bunkhouse. I was stunned by the wines, which showed an unusual elegance and balance, and so tracked them intently over the following years. In May this year, Norm reached out to me and asked me to come out for some harvest experience. I gladly accepted, and so was back, staying in the bunkhouse. This time the bunks had been replaced by single beds, and there were just five of us sharing. Fortunately, no one snored. We all slept well.

The idea was that I should try as many winemaking tasks as possible. I experienced punching down red ferments, sorting pinot noir on the vibrating table before it was destemmed and crushed, filling the press with chardonnay, basket pressing the reds, measuring the Brix (sugar levels) to monitor the progress of white ferments, stirring the barrels that were fermenting (battonage), and putting wines to barrel. With grapes coming in all the time, there was a lot of activity.

Harvest is a bustling, intense time, and a lot of the work is simply logistics. With new grapes arriving, space has to be found for fermentation. And with other fermentations finishing, barrels have to be ready to receive the wine. Norm likes to work with small batches: the reds are fermented in plastic bins that take just one ton, while the whites begin in stainless steel dairy tanks and then finish off in 500 litre barrels. With 300 tons coming through the winery in a good vintage like this, shifting things around is one of the main winemaking tasks.

One of Norm’s key people is Mark Gilbert, who comes from a farming background. Mark has a robust attitude: he just gets stuff done, when it needs to be done. He’s invaluable to the operation, because he can fix just about anything. On the first evening the crusher destemmer ground to a noisy halt in the middle of processing a lot of pinot noir. Mark opened it up and fixed it. The next day, the press doors came open in the middle of pressing five tons of chardonnay, because they hadn’t been closed properly. They jammed open: it would have been a disaster if the press was out of action for a day. With a hammer and a block of wood, Mark fixed it. A pallet jack broke the next day. Mark fixed it. During vintage you are never far from disaster, and so it helps to have someone like this around.

Work goes on until it’s done. While I was there, we worked until late evening every day. Then, the best bit of day. It’s the evening meal. Norm feeds his team well, and the food was excellent. There were quite a few wine geeks on the crew, so some nice bottles came out. But it’s not a big drinking culture: with a 7 am start, and lengthy days, sleep is valued highly.

During my time here, I followed Norm around quite a bit, and learned a great deal. He knows each ferment (and there are lots of them), and misses nothing. With his international experience, his understanding of terroir, and his ability to recognize early in a wine’s life its inherent quality, he has done a great deal to put Canadian fine wine on the map. London is an extremely crowded market, and there aren’t many times that we are surprised by wines, because we see pretty much everything here. But Norman Hardie has surprised a lot of very experienced wine journalists over here with the elegance and balance of his wines. As I write, I’m on a plane to South Africa, to lead a tasting of South African and international chardonnays at the Elgin Chardonnay Symposium. Norm’s chardonnays would easily fit in this high quality lineup, and I reckon would be a complete surprise for any of the blind tasters. It’s an exciting time for Canadian wines, and Norm is leading the way. Normtastic!

Photos: Jamie Goode

 

The Goode Report

Dr. Jamie Goode is the first international member of the WineAlign team, and one of our core judges for The National Wine Awards. He completed a PhD in plant biology and worked as a science editor before switching careers to wine writing. He’s a book author (The Science of Wine and Authentic Wine), writes a weekly wine column for a national newspaper (The Sunday Express), freelances for international magazines and blogs daily at wineanorak.com, the site he founded in 1999 and one of the world’s most popular wine websites. A sought-after speaker and experienced wine judge, he has judged wine in the UK, South Africa, France, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. He tweets as @jamiegoode and is on Instagram as @drjamiegoode.


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