Cave Spring Cellars – A Winery Profile

Cave Spring Hits Reset, and It Is All About the Vineyards
by David Lawrason

My re-visit to Cave Spring Cellars in Niagara in late September reaped more “news” than I expected from a winery in its 32nd vintage.  It’s a winery that has consistently delivered very good quality and value for that length of time, and it’s a winery that has become a signature for Ontario riesling and other wines from the Niagara Escarpment.

The wines are all about freshness, firmness, prettiness and elegance. When WineAlign reviewers assembled earlier in September to taste the current portfolio, there was consensus that Cave Spring is at the top of its game. See our comments below.

But back to the big news! Cave Spring has sold its Inn on the Twenty, and On the Twenty Restaurant, as well as its entire building in downtown Jordan. The purchaser is Vintage Inns, which owns several prestige hospitality properties in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“Nothing will change for guests at the inn or restaurant,” assured Tom Pennachetti. “In fact, Vintage Inns has the resources to enhance the customer’s stay in ways that we could not, while retaining the connection with our winery that makes Jordan so unique. And it frees us to be even more focused on what we do in the vineyards and cellars.”

“The sale of the hospitality business provides the capital and time to focus on the next phase of development in the vineyards,” said Len Pennachetti.

Angelo Pavan, Len Pennachetti, Tom PennachettiAngelo Pavan, Len Pennachetti, and Tom Pennachetti

In the Vineyards

The sale comes at a critical time in the life of one of Ontario’s pioneering wineries. The hard, cold winters of 2014 and 2015 forced a re-think and focus on viticulture. That, plus the fact that some of the original sites, now over 40 years of age, are approaching replacement.  Some of the original vines are beginning to suffer from omni-present leaf-roll virus, a slow-moving disease that eventually inhibits ripening. Nonetheless, the team assures me, the oldest Riesling vines remain productive and show no sign of needing to be replaced anytime soon.

I toured all 180 acres of owned and leased vineyards and came away with two observations. The level of new plantings and re-plantings is impressive. I sensed a level of engagement in viticulture un-diminished since I first toured the original vineyards in the late 1980s. Secondly, they are now planting and re-planting smarter, with focus.

Henceforth, Cave Spring will only be growing and making six varieties. In order of importance they are riesling, chardonnay, cabernet franc, pinot noir, gamay, and most recently planted pinot gris.  Gone due to difficulty in colder winters, ripening, or both, are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and semillon. One long row of gerwurztraminer remains out of sentimentality.

“We are not here to be a hospital for vines that don’t belong,” said Len Pennachetti. “We have had to go through the learning of what works year in and year out. Some varieties may have good sites that work in some vintages, but we need to build Niagara based on what it does consistently well.”

The majority of the vineyards (150 acres) lie in a contiguous patchwork of three vineyard sites below the Niagara Escarpment wall in the Beamsville Bench appellation, with the best sites on clay-limestone soils beyond the north-facing escarpment shadow, some with a slight western tilt that gets more evening sun. The red and white varieties seem somewhat randomly interspersed, although most reds are planted further down grade.

Not contiguous but nearby, there is a newly acquired 10-acre plot that was formerly planted to native concord grapes, and it is right in Cave Spring’s wheelhouse. The labrusca vines have been razed and it is ready for replanting next spring.

Cave Spring also possesses two other “estate” designated sites – the Myers and Tufford Road vineyards – much closer to Lake Ontario in Lincoln Lakeshore that are planted almost entirely to riesling. The former is on a long-term lease and the winery has been farming it now for 3 years, while the latter is owned outright. They are in an area with shale-based sandstone and limestone, as opposed to sandier soils common near the lake edge, and they are supplying about 60% fruit for the higher volume Dry Riesling, as well as some of the fruit for late harvest Indian Summer Riesling and Riesling Icewine.

Cave Spring supplements with some purchased fruit but the goal, according to Tom Pennachetti, is to use 90% estate fruit going forward.

In the Winery

The winery is situated in ‘downtown’ Jordan, about ten kilometres east of the vineyards, and lying below the row of elegant offices, tasting rooms, shops and the restaurant that are the lifeblood of this hamlet. The cellar is a large, almost post-apocalyptic, concrete bunker that was once the home of Jordan Wines. Very utilitarian if not very romantic. A newly-renovated indoor/outdoor crush pad and inventive system to bio-filter waste water are recent modern touches.

Elsewhere there are rooms and alcoves full of barrel and case-lot storage. But on closer examination it is obvious that the barrel regime is in transition, with larger puncheons and some very large European foudres in the mix. The use of new, smaller French oak barriques is now less than 3% a year. There is a clear shift away from smaller barriques to larger format cooperage, with just enough new oak purchased annually – about 10% –  to replace the oldest, expiring barrels.

“That’s it, I am done with any excess in the use of new oak,” said winemaker Angelo Pavan. “That said, there can be no gimmicks, no short cuts. Just use the best quality, older oak with the goal of achieving texture and harmony without adding external flavours or aromas. It’s all about respecting our terroir.”

Along with reduced oak is a growing reliance on indigenous yeast fermentation, which imparts more textural richness and flavour complexity. Tom Pennachetti says the winery currently ferments about one-third its production with indigenous yeast, including many of the entry level wines, and this figure is growing every year and across all varieties. But in order for this risky procedure to succeed, the fruit needs to be whole and clean. He said that improved viticultural practices are making this possible.

The Core Whites

Cave Spring is ‘the house that riesling built’ – a rare phenomenon in the New World. With 80 acres of riesling planted on three sites, and some minor additional purchase of fruit for non-estate wines, riesling accounts for over half (55%) of Cave Spring’s production. And it is spread over eight labels from the “entry-level” Riesling all the way up to Riesling Icewine – with a couple of less well known “winery exclusive” bottlings like Dolomite and single vineyard Adam’s Steps in the mix. Our reviewers were very impressed. Please see some of their comments below.

Cave Spring Riesling Dry 2015  ($15.95)
John Szabo – I loved this simple riesling, showing that even at the entry-level Cave Spring excels with the grape. It’s dry, fresh, ripe and fruity, with impressive depth and breadth for the money”

Cave Spring Riesling 2015  ($15.95)
David Lawrason –  It is off-dry but superbly balanced with fine, juicy lime acidity.
John Szabo – A solid regional classic.

Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2015 ($18.95)
David Lawrason – From maturing estate vines on Beamsville Bench, this is a quite rich, well balanced, dry riesling.
Michael Godel – There truly is this delicate vapour and a quick burst of electricity.

Cave Spring Riesling Dry 2015Cave Spring Riesling 2015 Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2015

Cave Spring Csv Riesling 2015 ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – This complex, dynamic riesling offers an impressive dichotomy, feeling both weighty and ethereal at once.
Michael Godel – CSV 2015 is one of the finest rieslings ever made from Ontario grapes!
John Szabo – Once a classic, still a classic, and consistently amongst Ontario’s best rieslings vintage after vintage. The 2015 CSV is an absolute cracker, the first made from mostly wild ferments.
David Lawrason – Generous and intense aromas of apple, yellow flowers, vague honey, spice and flint.

Cave Spring Indian Summer Select Late Harvest Riesling 2014 ($24.95/375ml)
John Szabo – Another fine vintage for this Niagara classic, one of the finest in the late harvest category year in and out, and one of the sharpest values to be sure.  
Michael Godel – From sugar pear to apricot and many fruits in between this really hits the proverbial sweet tooth spot.

Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2014 ($49.95/375ml)
Michael Godel – The balance is impeccable, oscillating without stress along a wire, quiet and confident. Just terrific!  
David Lawrason – Very sweet, of course, and intense – with great lemony acidity running start to finish. Outstanding length.
John Szabo – dripping with apricot jam and marmalade, caramelized apple and quince paste flavours.

Cave Spring Csv Riesling 2015Cave Spring Indian Summer Select Late Harvest Riesling 2014Cave Spring Riesling Icewine 2014

Chardonnay ranks second in production at about 30 acres, almost entirely sourced from three bench vineyards. Like riesling, it has become something of an institution at Cave Spring, known for similar linearity and subtlety, with judicious use of oak. “Going forward Chardonnay CSV will be the only white seeing any (225 litre) barrique,” said Angelo Pavan,”and none of it new oak.”  Chardonnay Musqué is a clone that Cave Spring pioneered in Niagara, offering floral almost muscat-like aromatic lift and chardonnay textural richness.

Cave Spring Chardonnay 2016 ($15.95)
John Szabo – A highly pleasing, attractively priced chardonnay very much in the cool climate (not to say Chablis-esque) style, very fresh and unoaked.

Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2015 ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – Spring-like blossoms and peppery spice vivify the palate and linger persistently.
David Lawrason – This is very elegant wine, with very good to excellent length.

Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay 2015 ($18.95)
David Lawrason – It’s medium weight, quite elegant and warming yet carries firm acidity and a touch of minerality.
Michael Godel – A terrifically ripe, sweet fruit scented and fleshy vintage.

Cave Spring Cellars Chardonnay Csv 2015 ($29.95)
David Lawrason – From 41 year old estate vines, this is such a well composed, complex and balanced chardonnay. It shows generous if not hugely intense aromas of dried apple, spice, honey, light toast and subtle butterscotch.

Cave Spring Chardonnay 2016Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2015Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay 2015Cave Spring Cellars Chardonnay CSV 2015

Pinot Gris
The first pinot gris was made in 2016, from very young vines, but Cave Spring is adding pinot gris to its core list going forward, with about 10 acres. “Sauvignon blanc and others didn’t make it through the cold winters of 2014 and 2015,” explained Tom Pennachetti. “But pinot gris did, so that is where we are going”.

Cave Spring Pinot Gris 2016 ($16.95)
John Szabo – Correct, clean, easy-drinking, and mildly flavoured white wine.
David Lawrason – It shows fairly generous peach/nectarine fruit, lemon and a subtle note of anise on the nose.

The Core Reds

Cabernet Franc
“Cabernet Franc will be our number one red going forward,” said winemaker Angelo Pavan, which may surprise some who know Pavan’s passion for pinot noir. “The reason is simple! It’s easy to grow because it fits our climate.” (It is Ontario’s number one red by acreage.) Cave Spring has 27 acres. There are four cabernet francs in the range, including the winery exclusive Dolomite and the appassimento version called La Penna (neither current vintages are reviewed on WineAlign).

Cave Spring Cabernet Franc 2015 ($17.95)
John Szabo – An unusually minty, cool climate style cabernet franc with just a touch of hickory smoke and deli meat, and smoked paprika flavours. The palate is light and soft.
Michael Godel – This is clean and focused, light and eminently quaffable.
Sara d’Amato – An engrossing and highly typical style of Niagara cabernet franc, generously perfumed and expertly ripened.

Cave Spring Cellars Cabernet Franc Estate 2015 ($34.95)
David Lawrason – This may be the richest, smoothest naturally ripened cabernet franc Cave Spring has ever produced – full of ripe raspberry, gentle herbs and fine oak spice.

Cave Spring Pinot Gris 2016Cave Spring Cabernet Franc 2015Cave Spring Cellars Cabernet Franc Estate 2015

Pinot Noir
At 25 acres pinot noir is just shy of cabernet franc’s importance viticulturally, even if closer to winemaker Angelo Pavan’s heart. “I think we finally have a handle on this variety, and it is selling well, but no question it is the most difficult to manage. It needs so much work in the vineyard,”  he said. And in the winery oak will be kept minimal, with portions to be done in large, inert foudres, in the style of central Europe.

Cave Spring Pinot Noir 2016 ($18.95)  
Sara d’Amato – A young pinot noir that shows a great deal of promise, sophistication and intrigue.
Michael Godel – It’s clarity and finesse are nothing but lovely as is its lack of astringency.
John Szabo – There’s no pretension here, just simple but clean, well made red wine.

Cave Spring Cellars Pinot Noir Estate 2015 ($39.95)
David Lawrason – a lifted, lively nose of florals, sour cherry and a light wood. It is light to medium bodied, with a silky texture, lively intensity and very fine tannin, so rarely achieved in Niagara.

Cave Spring Pinot Noir 2016Cave Spring Cellars Pinot Noir Estate 2015

At 11 acres planted gamay is the third of the three core reds, but Angelo Pavan feels it is a variety with “a brighter future”.  He said that the first clones planted were not ideal, and that this variety needs “heavy clay soils” to work well. He also acknowledged a growing consumer appetite for gamay.

Cave Spring Gamay 2015 ($15.95)
Michael Godel –
The Ontario equivalent of Beaujolais-Villages comes crystal clear in this gamay of clarity and pure drinking ability 
John Szabo – Simple, juicy-fruity, fresh and easy-drinking gamay, soft and gentle on the palate with almost no tannin.

And a Final Toast to Sparkling

With all the above evidence of acidity, minerality and elegance, sparkling wine is a natural at Cave Spring, but it almost seems under-appreciated on-campus and off. The focus, rightly, is on chardonnay-based blanc de blancs, which recently joined Vintages Essentials list. But the just released Blanc de Blancs CSV 2009 (made from old vines planted in the 70’s) aged seven years on lees, sipped but not yet reviewed and rated, may be the piece de resistance.

Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut ($29.95)
John Szabo – This latest release is in excellent form, particularly generous and fleshy, with considerable toasty-brioche autolysis character in a rich and mature style.
David Lawrason – This is a nicely light, fresh, balanced chardonnay-based sparkler with a fairly generous complex nose of baked apple pie, hazelnut and some minerality.

Cave Spring Gamay 2015Cave Spring Blanc De Blancs Brut

Where to Buy

Many of Cave Spring’s lower priced wines are available on the LCBO General List or as Vintages Essentials. All can be ordered from the winery on-line for delivery in Ontario. A trip to the winery in Jordan will reveal all, including an impressive library of older vintages. I tasted 1999 and 2005 vintages of the flagship CSV Riesling, and they are holding beautifully!

This feature was commissioned by Cave Spring Cellars. 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, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign. See below for more details provided by the winery.

Cave Spring Cellars

Named after the limestone caves and mineral springs located in their eponymous vineyard, Cave Spring Cellars has been producing outstanding wines for more than 30 years. Founded and to this day operated by the Pennachetti family and veteran winemaker Angelo Pavan, this esteemed estate has been vital in the development of the wine industry in Niagara, most notably as pioneers of vitis vinifera with plantings dating back to the 1970’s and the refinement of the regional style for Riesling as one of the Peninsula’s definitive varieties. In addition, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and traditional method sparkling wines complete the diverse portfolio, with the very best of these coming from vines over 40 years of age planted in the limestone-clay soils of their Cave Spring Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench.