Twenty Years of Flat Rock Cellar’s Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

By John Szabo MS

Nadja’s Vineyard

Last week Flat Rock Cellars hosted the deepest vertical tasting of Canadian wines I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend, twenty years of the single vineyard Nadja’s riesling. Named after proprietor Ed Madronich’s mother, Nadja’s vineyard has long been the source of some of Ontario’s, and Canada’s best rieslings since first planted in 2001. To prove the point, and the ageability of wines from the site, Madronich gathered a small group of writers to taste through twenty vintages, from the inaugural 2003 to a tank sample of the 2022. There are few wineries in the country that would be able to pull off a similar tasting.

Flat Rock proprietor Ed Madronich

Flat Rock proprietor Ed Madronich

For the detail-oriented, the 2.3-acre Nadja’s vineyard lies in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Peninsula, at the top of the Niagara Escarpment above the Flat Rock winery itself. According to Madronich, it’s, “the coolest of our estate vineyards, but it also receives the most sunshine out of all sites as it sits on top of the Escarpment.” Clay-loam soils are notably shallow for Niagara, from as little as 18 inches deep to about 4 feet before hitting the layer of hard dolomitic limestone running underneath. It was planted, as mentioned, in 2001 with the Weiss 21 clone of riesling that’s widely planted across Ontario, originally from the Mosel in Germany, on SO4 rootstock.

Nadja’s vineyard favours a long, slow, flavour-gathering ripening period, allowing the wine to pack in considerable flavour but on a light, sharp, laser-focused frame. What was most fascinating about this tasting, other than the consistent quality (if not consistent style), was the transparent window into both vintage variation, always a significant factor in Ontario, as well as the varying approaches of different winemakers over the years. The Nadja’s riesling has been made by no fewer than six winemakers since 2003, each bringing a nuanced, varied philosophy, and in some cases evolving their own philosophy from year to year. The wine has always been made with a pinch of residual sugar, but the number has been as low as 8 grams, up to 30 grams for the least dry vintage. Acids, too, have varied by several grams, even if overall the wine has stayed within a fairly classic Niagara Bench style that remains firmly in the citrus and white-fleshed orchard fruit spectrum of flavours, never veering into tropical.

Another fun fact is that, by design or coincidence, almost all of the winemakers made their primetime Ontario debuts at Flatrock: (in order) Darryl Brooker, Marlize Beyers, Rose Wise, Jay Johnston, Allison Findlay, and Hayley Thompson, Flat Rock’s current winemaker, all got their first gigs in charge at Flatrock. Only industry veteran Dave Sheppard (2017-2020) had prior head winemaker experience in the province. This no doubt contributed to the noted learning curves and stylistic wanderings.

All in all, it was an excellent and enlightening tasting, and kudos to Madronich for putting it on, without cherry picking the top vintages but rather pulling them all out from the cellar for everyone to learn from and delve deeply into what is surely one of the best sites in the province for riesling. I remember quite clearly Madronich’s early days at Flat Rock, with his steadfast focus on chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling, what he considered to be the best varieties for his piece of the Niagara Bench. What I couldn’t have known then, however, was that the small parcel on top of the Escarpment that he named after his mother would be capable of producing rieslings that improve over such an long time, and indeed survive much longer that I could have guessed. Even the inaugural 2003 still has much life ahead of it.

My notes and relative scores from the day are below, not cross-referenced to my original reviews. There’s also much to be learned from comparing my impressions of the wines from when they were released to tasting them now, in some cases many years later.

Flat Rock Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2003-2022

Nadja's Riesling Bottles

Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling Bottles

93 2003 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Nadja’s was planted in 2001, so this 2003 is the first vintage. It’s showing maturity to be sure with its buttered, honeyed toast character, but seems far from tired, reminiscent of 10 or 15 year old Hunter Valley semillon. The palate is deliciously sapid and succulent, with crackling acids, electric. The sugars have been almost fully digested, finishing dry and acidulated on candied citrus-lime flavours. Long finish. Still in great shape, with several more years ahead. Exuberant concentration from the first harvest of these young vines, as is frequently the case, before they dip in their adolescent years. Winemaker: Darryl Brooker. Last tasted March 2023.

90 2004 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

2004 featured a cool spring and summer with warm late season, and this came in at 11.5% alc., 2.91 pH with 11 grams of sugar and 10.35 total acidity. The nose is still surprisingly tight, backwards even, showing just a touch of candied citrus flavour – it needs air and I’d suggest decanting. It’s relatively round and full bodied, compared to the 2003, though with less pronounced (more dilute flavours), though well balanced in the end. Winemaker: Darryl Brooker. Last tasted March 2023.

91 2005 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Like the 2004, the 2005 is relatively quiet on the nose. Spring frost naturally curtailed yields and thus encouraged high concentration. This is the first vintage to show a floral component, yellow flowers, chamomile, also gently honeyed, with citrus. The palate is lean and tight, with a pH of 2.95 and TA of 9.2. Concentration of flavour is good if not exceptional, as is length. I’d say this is drinking really well now (carafe).  Winemaker: Darryl Brooker. Last tasted March 2023.

94 2006 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

This seems positively tropical on the nose relative to the previous vintages, even if harvested at lower Brix (18.9º), leaning into tangerine and ripe, orange-citrus, also floral. The palate delivers a raft of flavours and lovely sapidity, really fine palate presence and depth, a step above the previous two vintages. Comes across quite dry on the finish (10.3 grams rs), with balanced acids. Finishes on that lovey saline note. Top notch. Winemaker: Marlize Beyers. Last tasted March 2023.

92 2007 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

2007 was a warm, dry vintage, with record breaking temperatures in September and October. Yet this wine was harvested quite late, in mid-October, at just 18.3º brix and at an astonishing 2.93 pH (surprisingly low), considering the warm conditions. This is as once sweet and tart, with tight, acidulated finish. Depth and substance are very good, with flavours developing along the buttered/honeyed toast line. Length is excellent. Winemaker: Marlize Beyers. Last tasted March 2023.

93 2008 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Opening nicely at this stage, though you’d be hard pressed to guess this was nearly 15 years old, such is the freshness and vibrancy on offer. The nose is poised and balanced, with impressive volume, and an enticing mix of citrus, fresh and candied, also slipping into white-fleshed orchard fruit. I find the balance on the palate impeccable (2.90 pH with 12.3 g/l rs and a moderate 8.6 grams of TA, 10.5% alcohol), finishing quite dry and acidulated. Depth and length are excellent. I like the energy and the sapidity here. Winemaker: Marlize Beyers. Last tasted March 2023.

94 2009 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

One of the riper years for the Nadja’s, harvested at 20.3º brix with 11.6% alc. And 12 g/l rs, though with low pH, 2.92 and high TA – 10.8 grams – a bit of a mystery. Perhaps some berry desiccation with the hot late season leading to high concentration? In any case, this is a wine of substantial depth and power, with acids well-balanced by fruit extract and the residual sugar, though like most rieslings form this vineyard the finish is nearly dry. I love the depth and length on offer, a terrific vintage, one of the best in this vertical. Winemaker: Marlize Beyers. Last tasted March 2023.

90 2010 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

This was the first vintage for winemaker Ross Wise, who brought up the alcohol to 12%, the highest to date for the Nadja’s, and the driest palate at 9.0 grams of sugar, also among the ripest at harvest at 20.9º brix. The palate seems to show less concentration for mysterious reasons, a touch more bitterness, a bit more of a heavy hand. Length and depth are good, but I wouldn’t count this among the top vintages for this fine single vineyard riesling.  Last tasted March 2023.

91 2011 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

2011 brought record high temperatures in Niagara in in June and July, also very dry. Stylistically  this is a turnaround from Wise’s first vintage, with among the highest rs measures for Nadja’s at 13.2 grams,  highish pH at 3.05 and 11% alcohol. I find the palate a little dilute in relative terms, without the crackle and  depth of the best. Balance in any case is still very good. Shorter hang time=less flavour development? Winemaker: Ross Wise. Last tasted March 2023.

94 2012 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Winemaker Jay Johnston’s first vintage at Flatrock saw the earliest harvest on record to date for the Nadja’s, September 15th, also the highest rs to date at 13.5g. The palate is quite thick and fullish, with solid flavour intensity and length. There’s great salinity here and sapidity. Surprising depth and concentration for such an “early” harvest, demolishes my theory about hang time and flavour depth. Last tasted March 2023.

95 2013 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

This shows tremendous aromatics, a mix of ripe and fresh citrus, florals, the most Germanic of the Nadja’s rieslings to date, pure and penetrating, less reductive (though Jay was not shy about sulfite additions at bottling we’re told). The palate is superbly balanced and intensely flavoured, with great depth and an extra range of flavours (humid conditions in the fall increased disease pressure – did that add to the complexity?). In any case, a lovely vintage for this wine, one with exceptional length. 18 grams of RS was the highest to date, as the 2.90 pH was also the lowest, matched only in 2008. Winemaker: Jay Johnston. Last tasted March 2023.

94 2014 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

The Nadja’s with the lowest alcohol to date at 9.5% and the highest RS at 24 g/l, the 2014 takes a Germanic tack hear again as did the 2013, with still a touch of CO2 notable on the palate. It seems very young indeed, far from nearly a decade old. Palate weight and depth are excellent, as is length. Another top notch vintage. Winemaker: Jay Johnston. Last tasted March 2023.

91 2015 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

More quiet on the nose – this needs oxygen to reveal its strong mineral signature, like wet oyster shell. It’s softer than the mean, also with 30 grams of sugar, the sweetest Nadja’s ever made. Acids seem light even at 2.90 pH (8.6 TA), and the thrust of the best is not there. A more Passepartout style than finely honed Nadja’s, if still very good. Winemaker: Jay Johnston. Last tasted March 2023.

92 2016 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

This is tightly wound and mineral on the nose, showing crackling acids (9.5 grams) bolstered by some dissolved carbon dioxide. I like the sweet-tart fruit flavours, from citrus to orchard, and the lingering finish. Yet still doesn’t have quote the cut and poise of the best historical Nadja’s; sugar is still a bit high at 20 grams/liter.  Winemaker: Jay Johnston. Last tasted March 2023.

89 2017 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

A radical shift here to the driest Nadja’s yet made, the first vintage for veteran winemaker Dave Sheppard. It has just 8 g/l, with relatively high pH, a pendulum swing from the 2016 encouraged by proprietor Ed Madronich, who felt the Nadja’s was becoming too similar in style (i.e. slightly sweet) to the regular estate riesling. I find the aromatics don’t sing, and there’s a distinctive dry, slightly bitter profile on the palate. This misses some sweetness, and even acids (8.1 g/l.) Length and depth are good if not exceptional. Seems a little ‘worked over’ in this context. Winemaker: Dave Sheppard. Last tasted March 2023.

93 2018 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Back on track here in 2018, the second vintage from veteran winemaker Dave Sheppard’s tenure at Flatrock, moving up from a lean and thin 8 grams of sugar in 2017 to 16.2 grams in this vintage. The nose is appealingly fruity and open, with an enticing mix of citrus and green and white orchard fruit, gently floral and honeyed. I like the Germanic styling, the sweet-tart pull, the pinch of residual carbon dioxide that lifts the palate. Length and depth are excellent. Showing very well. Last tasted March 2023.

92 2019 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

The wine that won a Decanter ‘Best in Show” award, one of only three Canadian table wines to have done so, so far. I find this still tightly wound on the nose, also surprisingly effervescent, notably prickly in any case. The CO2 makes it taste drier than the 17 grams of sugar would suggest, while flavour intensity and depth, and complexity are excellent. Flavours linger impressively, even if it’s not my preferred vintage on the day. Winemaker: Dave Sheppard. Last tasted March 2023.

94 2020 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

SO2 still noted off the top – this is a long way from prime maturity. Ripeness is clearly higher than the mean (this was harvest with the highest ºBrix yet from Nadja’s to date, at 21.4º). Yet acids are very high – 10.4 g/l) and pH is low at 2.93. 18 g/l rs and 11.5% alcohol point, however, to high sugar ripeness. The palate is broad and fleshy and above all balanced, with fullish, textural mouthfilling character. Very good length on a mix of citrus and tart tropical fruit. A classic vintage for this wine.  Winemaker: Dave Sheppard. Last tasted March 2023.

NR 2021  Wonky nose. Oxidative aromatics. Bitter palate. Candied fruit, stripped flavours. (Off bottle?) To be revisited. Winemaker: Allison Findlay. Last tasted March 2023.

NR 2022 Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling

Tank sample. Too early to tell. Candied, yeasty. Fully primary. Revisit. Last tasted March 2023.

John Szabo, MS