Two Sisters Vineyards – A Winery Profile

The secret to ripe, concentrated and structured wines lies in the lands of the Niagara River

by Michael Godel

This feature was commissioned by Two Sisters Vineyards.

Try this one on for size. “Best Performing Small Winery of the Year at the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada.” This most recent accolade boldly earned and accordingly bestowed upon Two Sisters Vineyards is but another feather in the young winery’s cap and yet there is every reason for its founders, viticultural and winemaking teams to wear this significant tombstone with pride. I was recently very proud to pen the WineAlign foreward on behalf of the 2018 National Wine Awards of Canada award in a category that honours smaller wineries producing less than 10,000 annual cases. Congratulations to proprietors Angela Marotta, Melissa Marotta-Paolicelli and winemaker Adam Pearce on being chosen as this year’s recipient of the annual award. 

Best Performing Small Winery of the Year

The young estate is located in the large appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake, oft-referred to as the birthplace of Ontario’s modern wine industry. The Niagara River sub-appellation is where Two Sisters farms with profuse efficacy and hyper-passionate attention to viticultural detail. The estate is truly a family affair, while the grounds, facilities and manifold Italian inspired restaurant, Kitchen 76, all contribute to the grand mystique. A walk through the manicured, natural surroundings can make it feel as though time stands still. The vineyards are groomed and maintained with an extreme prejudice of purpose, set between Lake Ontario and the northern tip of the Niagara River, sandwiched in a micro-climate bounded by the river, the lake and the flats of the Niagara Lakeshore and Four Mile Creek sub-appellations.

Winemaker Adam Pearce discusses the height and merits of merlot

The original 76 acres of vineyards at Two Sisters were planted to the holy trinity of Bordeaux grapes; cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. In my previous article I posed that million-dollar question. Why Niagara River? As Pearce explained, the early spring and late fall make for one of Ontario’s longest growing seasons, but it is this particular corner of the tiny territory that rests in closer (commercial) proximity to the lake than the rest. It’s this far-easterly of these eastern Niagara vineyards that benefits from a lake effect that is the most mitigating and capable of drawing cool air away. It’s also a place that doles in swagger and confidence but also leads its makers to think high-end. “We’re not trying grow grapes, we’re trying to grow wine,” says Pearce. He adds that the ultimate goal is to use bigger casks and to sprinkle in some salt and pepper from barriques. “Long term aging will get us to a cool, cedar undertone in most of our red wines. Our red portfolio is an aged one and I love that right now we’re talking about 2012s and 2013s.”

The highly specific Two Sisters terroir is the thing. The appellation is easterly facing, with gentle slopes and a long growing season moderated by the fast-moving Niagara River. The small strip of land runs along the river from John Street to Dee Road and inland approximately one kilometre. Soils in the area are primarily naturally well-draining, stratified sands, ideal for growing red Bordeaux varieties and chardonnay. The soils have developed on the bedrock of the Queenstown Formation, a red shale with high silt and clay content and there is quite a bit of variegation, especially with respect to drainage. At Two Sisters the fineness of the soil is rather striking and really suits the merlot and cabernet sauvignon but is especially fortuitous for cabernet franc. The river’s flow creates air convection currents which moderate temperatures and draw cold air away from vineyards and into the river gorge. The fundamental takeaway is the ability to hang grapes for extended growing seasons, for concentration and most importantly, for fully realized phenolic ripeness.

Here’s what I had to say about the top scoring wines at this year’s (Nationals) competition. “The Platinum Award winning cabernet franc for 2018 comes from a winemaker who clearly understands the necessities and the potential of a grape suited to excel in Ontario. Adam Pearce’s work will travel under the radar no more and he will always remember 2018 as the year when his exceptional cabernet franc sat perched at the top of the national peak. The 2014 Niagara River cabernet franc may still be a ways from reaching its full potential but it has certainly hit its stride. This is how and why the WineAlign judges found it to rise up and away to the top of its national class. The judges are all proud that the 30 special acres planted to beautiful franc made a wine that found us at this optimum window of opportunity. It beat out 45 other cabernet francs also awarded medals in 2018 and this speaks volumes about its quality amongst an entire class of national compositions.”

Wine competitions are numerous and while a good proportion of them offer meaningful results to both entrants and consumers, there are too many to count that hand out medals like ribbons at a county fair. Heavy scrutiny, discernment and the many layers of perlustration exerted throughout the judging process are what separate these Nationals from so many other wine awards. To reach the level of Gold and Platinum at NWAC your wines must pass through 20-plus checkpoints by way of the noses, mouths and minds of 22 experienced judges. It’s not the amount of medals earned by Two Sisters that justifies their excellent and consequential 2018 showing. It’s the colour of those medals; one Platinum, four Gold and one Silver. Impressive indeed.

The WineAlign team sat down in early August to taste through 18 wines from their impressive, premium portfolio. We had a tough time choosing a handful of favourites because there was so much consensus in finding quality across the board. Nevertheless here are the critics’ picks.

Barrel Room

Barrel Room

Two Sisters Franc Blanc 2016, Niagara Peninsula (To be released winter 2019 – price to be announced)

David Lawrason – This is a white sparkler based on red cabernet franc – so a blanc de noirs in French terminology. It is bright, taut and well-balanced with great acid grip. There are lemony, herbal notes and no sense of red berry fruit or colour. I really like the leafy subtle herbal refreshment. The length is excellent.
Michael Godel – Franc Blanc tastes just like white and black currants. The lime is all over in major douse. There is no funky complexity, it’s so smart and makes so much sense. Fresh and spirited. This franc blanc from Two Sisters will change how we think about Ontario Sparkling Wine and cabernet franc. Slated for a September release.

Two Sisters Vineyards Rosé 2017, VQA Niagara River

David Lawrason – This lovely rosé was “purpose grown,” in other words not a bled off red wine. Merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon were farmed with more leaf cover to slow ripening and picked early. The only skin contact occurred between the picking and press. It is very pale. It has a fine, soft nose of strawberry, red currants, rhubarb and gentle leafiness. It is mid-weight, nicely lively with some pithy bitterness and very good intensity.
Steve Thurlow – This is very serious rosé with lovely lifted aromas and a very flavourful palate. Expect the nose to show red cherry, rhubarb and strawberry fruit with some sweet herbal notes. The palate is rich creamy and juicy with a fine balance and very good length. Don’t over-chill and try with baked salmon.
John Szabo – Forget the de-based rosé category and just think of this as fine wine. I love the pleasantly reductive side of this purpose-built rosé (not an afterthought of red wine making), but also the fruity, intense and complex nature and marvellous fragrance overall. The palate is dense and rich, quite remarkably intensely flavoured, with excellent length. Drink or hold short term even – this has the stuffing to age.
Michael Godel – Only the second vintage of the estate rosé in the categorical house style is 60 per cent merlot plus 20/20 cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, under cork because it’s an extension of the red program. “Ultra-serious rosé,” explains Adam Pearce, bone-dry, 100 per cent purposed and sent through stainless. Raspberry and black raspberry fruity with leafy herbaceousness, released back in March. Really good acids. Really well made. A riverine pale pink wonder executed out of a cropping at the perimeter specifically for rosé. Not concerned about colour. “Whatever it tuns out as, that’s what it is,” shrugs Pearce.

Two Sisters Riesling 2016, VQA Twenty Mile Bench

David Lawrason – This is gorgeous, pristine and delicate just off-dry riesling with classic aromas of apricot, lemon, honey, vague petrol and spice. It is medium weight with a sense of richness yet classic riesling acidity and a hint of spritz to keep it lively. There is some sweetness throughout but the finish is just dry and bitter enough to provide balance. The length is excellent.

Two Sisters Sauvignon Blanc 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula

Steve Thurlow – This is a crisp fresh sauvignon with a delicate nose of nettles, peppermint, apple and cucumber. The palate is juicy with just enough sweetness to balance the acidity which is soft and lemony. Very good length.

Two Sisters Unoaked Chardonnay 2017, Niagara Peninsula (To be released January 2019)

John SzaboThis is surely one of the top examples of un-wooded chardonnay in Ontario, in fact, let’s just call it chardonnay. It’s clean, open, fragrant, with a broad range of ripe citrus (orange-tangerine), white peach and nectarine, apple and pear aromatics, in a mid-range, neither reductive nor oxidative style. The palate is fleshy, flavourful, quite intense in fact, with good to very good length. It’s not missing the touch of wood. 

Two Sisters Unoaked Chardonnay 2016, Niagara Peninsula

David Lawrason – Made from Beamsville Bench fruit, predominantly from the Lenko Vineyard, this shows lovely subtle creamy, complex aromas of lees and melon/pear fruit. It is medium-full bodied, very fresh, a touch sweet and rich, yet quite fine and fresh as well with good acidity. Seriously good, well designed un-oaked chardonnay – not just chardonnay without oak. Excellent length.

Two Sisters Cabernet Franc 2014, VQA Niagara River

Steve Thurlow – This is one of the best cabernet francs I can remember from Ontario. It is classically styled like Saumur Champigny with a lovely earthy peppery tone to the red and black berry fruit. It is full-bodied, finely balanced with a fine supple texture and excellent length.
John Szabo – A well-deserved platinum medal at the National Wine Awards of Canada, I first tasted it blind during the competition, and later for this profile. In both instances I find it to be an absolutely classic cool climate archetype, complete with all of the lovely earthy and peppery notes, fresh black fruit and graphite-like minerality typical of the variety. The palate is equally impressive, quite full-bodied, balanced, and supple. Tidy stuff.
Michael Godel – Released on Monday July 16th and now a Platinum Award winner at NWAC18. “This has everything that ’13 had but just a bit more weight, structure and complexity, plus volume, those last three meaning on the palate,” explains winemaker Adam Pearce. The focus, presence and confidence of this wine stand apart, all worked specific to place and the uniqueness of the appellation. Benefits from a double-lake effect and different soils. Chalk and river stone liquidity running as a river of its own right through. Drives the point of patience, to allow a vineyard the chance to speak of its singular phraseology.

Two Sisters The Eleventh Post 2013, VQA Niagara River

John Szabo – Of all of the Two Sisters’ Bordeaux-style blends, in terms of style, quality and price, the Eleventh Post hits a perfect storm for me. It’s fragrant, maturing, but still with plenty of life, displaying the strength of these varieties when blended rather than each on their own – the whole being greater than the parts. The balance on the palate is excellent, and fruit and herbs mingle nicely. I love the mix of red and black fruit, fresh and dried herbs, and well integrated wood.

Portfolio tasting at Two Sisters Vineyards

Portfolio tasting at Two Sisters Vineyards

More from the portfolio

All the wines in the portfolio are worth discussing because the winemaking team is taking nothing for granted. Agriculture is treated with utmost attention to every last detail, estate fruit or not. Working with growers like Craig Wismer and Daniel Lenko is a very congressional matter so that vines are grown and cropped to meet the highest end of the Two Sisters’ expectations. Below you’ll find further information that travels further beyond the WineAlign team’s personal picks and highlights so keep reading for a deeper delve into these extraordinary wines.

Lush Brut Rosé combines pinot noir and chardonnay 50/50 with a two point eight per cent cabernet franc dosage and at a sugar level of 8 g/L. It’s basically 2014 fruit, though not vintage labeled. Fresh cherries and raspberries, crushable bubble, some tannin on the palate. Carries a controlled energy laying flat but yes, it’s so very crushable.

Chardonnay is a hefty barrel fermented one made from Lenko and Foxcroft fruit. Really smells and tastes like Beamsville Bench fruit, tight, taut and also über-rich. In this package it drafts understated, mature, grown-up, slipstream restrained. Really impressive with a clean, crisp acid structure. Pay attention to Two Sisters whites. Pay attention to wines properly made.

Merlot is the varietal that takes time to peel away its layers and now it’s finally ready. “It can be the unoaked chardonnay of reds, not everyone is putting their best efforts into it,” says Pearce. This is the one to show the apposite Two Sisters approach, grown with great purpose and nurtured like few others in this town. Sees a small percentage of American oak and spends a total of 32 months in wood. With time it will go past wound up and locked tight, shed its clothing, get naked to the world. Reduction will be gone, acids will stay high, texture will be chewy and somehow very crisp. Another story told and time to read.

Cabernet Sauvignon FYI, like any Two Sisters red you taste will always be 100 per cent estate grown, Niagara River. Theirs is certainly ripe and the texture is real silk. Balsamic and pure cherries mixed with Cassis. Great acidity, there is a verdancy but it’s almost a caper brine and certainly a black olive, Mediterranean dusty savour. Like Bordeaux meets the Languedoc but in cabernet. No sugars, just naturally accrued. Come to think on it it’s actually like cab sauv grown and made in Tuscany. Just proper. But in then end, pure Niagara River.

Stone Eagle continues in 2013 as the pinnacle of Two Sisters’ barrel selection, with the three estate varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) in delivery of combined prized possessions. The style and the elegance show off what winemaker Adam Pearce can do, regardless of weather. You could pour this blind with some older Bordeaux and have some fun but also alongside older Chianti Classico, Brunello and Barolo, if just for kicks, sh*ts, grins and giggles. There’s just something about the wisdom and the leathery liqueur of this wine that wants to take you there.

Stone Eagle Special Selection is cabernet franc dominant with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The highest of the three Stone Eagle tiers is smouldering, roughed up a bit by a tobacco edge and then grooved into black olive. It’s very franc, matter of fact and here, 100 per cent new French oak, 34 months all in. Just 100 cases are produced. Classic Cassis and graphite buff and shine. It’s grippy, a Niagara River stew, Bay Street oriented. An extravagance, designed out of the few barrels that showed deeper elements. It’s a hedonistic view and a bomb. Kind of the antithesis but certainly in the playground. There is a time and a place for this wine. Structure is proper.

Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine is perhaps not exactly expected but the aromatic emission from the Two Sisters cabernet sauvignon Icewine is pure strawberry, wild strawberry no less. I hate to think how many frozen grapes had to be sacrificed to make this ambrosial elixir, sweet submissive dessert wine in pure glory for a Niagrified world. Few in the category accede to such concentration, viscosity and intensity. Though the varietal-acidity relationship is often at the lower end of the spectrum this manages to keep up with the currants, Crème de Cassis and Ribena so that their flavours shine on through. All the stops were certainly pulled to make this happen.

This feature was commissioned by Two Sisters Vineyards. 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.

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