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Weekend Wine: Cave Spring Cellars

An interview with a winemaker

In 1986, the Pennachetti family partnered with long-time friend, Angelo Pavan, to establish Cave Spring Cellars in the village of Jordan below the Niagara escarpment.

From the beginning, Len, the President, and Angelo, the winemaker, along with Len’s brother Tom, the Vice President of Marketing and Sales, have followed a vision which has resulted in the consistent production of exemplary wines reminiscent of wines of excellence as they are crafted in Burgundy on one hand and in Germany’s Rhine and Mosel regions on the other.

The Cave Spring website documents the history and philosophy of this partnership, setting the background for us to understand the Pennachetti/Pavan goals.  As we read, we come to appreciate the wines even more when we taste them, recognizing that they are the solid achievement of what was in mind, really, from the outset.

One commitment that comes through clearly is their recognition of “place”, knowing what the locale can best provide, and recognizing too, which kinds of grapes will thrive and which ones would be better left for other regions.

I can’t help believing that a fundamental factor in shaping their thinking and approach was background. While they have pursued educations in wine-making, they all first pursued graduate studies in Philosophy, and, in Len’s case Italian Renaissance History.

Angelo, in fact, was working on his doctorate in philosophy when his interest in wine burgeoned to the point that his wife said, “Do you realize you have more books on wine than philosophy on your desk?”  A career shift followed.

Recently, I corresponded with Tom Pennachetti, wanting to get an update on how things were proceeding, and here is what I learned.

Tom, I remember Angelo saying he only drinks Ontario wine and wines from Europe - does that still hold true? 

By and large, yes. Angelo drinks wines from comparable cool-climate regions in northern Europe, mainly. He’s a burgundy man, especially for reds. And, naturally, drinks a lot of Riesling, mainly from Germany and Austria.  He also likes his Tuscan wines, particularly Chianti Classico, as well as Valpolicella and whites from Friuli and Alto Adige.

How is this year's harvest - was it a good growing season? 

Outstanding. The spring was by and large normal, and the weather in May and June temperate and sunny with enough rain.  We did, however, have a severe drought between the third week of June and first week of August, the longest and possibly the worst in severity on record.

However, nicely paced and adequate rainfall returned starting about Aug. 10 through the first week of September, just in time to re-boot ripening very nicely.

The last three weeks of September brought a bit too much rain and very warm weather, which brought some rot and disease pressure, especially in Pinot. We were able to counter with some thinning and vineyard work, though, and the fruit survived fine.

Pinot was picked a bit sooner than we had hoped, but the quality is still excellent. We then picked Gamay and Pinot Gris (small quantity), both of which came in nicely. Riesling is almost all in now and is in great shape, if early.

Strangely, for the first time ever we are picking Chardonnay after Riesling. This is in part due to old vines that are slow to ripen, but also due to the drought. Cabernet Franc is, as usual, hanging beautifully and has started to come in. We are now 80 per cent through the crush, with only the tail end of Riesling, a tiny bit of Gewurz, and all of our Cab. Franc remaining.

Overall, it’s not quite as good as 2015, which is destined to be the finest harvest in the past 20 years with a level of quality across the board that’s the best we’ve ever seen. But 2016 is better than 2014, which is a year that I personally think is a classic and hits a level of quality that would satisfy me 7 or 8 years out of 10.

How would you say things have changed for grape-growing/wine-making in "Niagara", over the past 10 years? 

Three things come to mind:

(1) The winemaking continues to improve, which it ought to, as we are still a relatively young region. Helping this process is an infusion of capital from some well-heeled investors, mainly private but also to some extent from the main corporate concerns, which has pushed the envelope in a positive way.

(2) The varietal focus continues to narrow, though not at the pace that I think it needs to. There are still too many marginal varieties either being planted or producing and promoted, e.g., Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Nebbiolo, etc.

That said, after the harsh winters of 2014 and 15, experimental plantings are much rarer than in the past. I’m surprised more growers and wineries did not take the aforementioned winters as the signal to phase out more of these varieties. At CS we did bite that bullet, removing the last of our Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc and half of our Gewurztraminer.

Though these only add up to about 10 per cent of our plantings, it was still a bitter pill to swallow financially. It was the right decision for the long term, though. Our focus is more than ever on Riesling, followed by Chardonnay, Cab. Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay, in that order. Small parcels of Pinot Gris (which we feel is viable here) and a single acre of Gewurz round out our plantings.

(3) Climate. After about a decade of mild or modestly cold winters, we were all hit in 2014 and 2015, and it reminded us that we need to stick to the varieties that survive extreme winters and ripen in our summers.

My mantra is: ‘play to your strength’: your best chance of success is with the varieties that ripen consistently and produce a viable crop every year. Those are the grapes mentioned above, with Pinot Gris as the third white that is on the bubble but promising.

It’s time to stop trying to be everything to everyone, and compete with the varieties that we do best. Quite frankly, we are blessed by the fact that three of our leading varieties, i.e., Riesling, Cab. Franc, and Gamay are all outliers in the New World, and even relatively rare in the Old. This is an opportunity, not a disadvantage.

There are so many new start-up wineries in Niagara, including some deep-pocket operations like Stratus and Tawse.  How does that affect Cave Spring Cellars, which has been a bench mark, really, over the years, and one of the few which has remained in the hands of the founders?

Private investment has helped move the region forward over the past 20 years. The wineries you mention are part of this, and there are several others. It has been a positive trend as it has pushed established players like us to be at our best. We are blessed by having in Cave Spring Vineyard one of a handful of sites in the region that consistently produces wines with real individuality.

We are working in the vineyards to ensure the ripest possible fruit. That is where it all starts. Even at the entry level, our mix of sites between the Beamsville Bench and Lincoln Lakeshore has us well-positioned to be an estate centred on quality, at the level of the best in the region. Our vineyard acquisitions and work are all centred on growing the best fruit we have ever grown, and doing so at a level that is unsurpassed in the region.

(Angelo Pavan asserts, “The measure of a winemaker is not his ability to speak for great vineyards, but rather his faith in the idea that great vineyards can speak for themselves.”)

Are there any new developments 'coming down the pipe' for Cave Springs?

With the removal of Merlot we are expanding our Cab. Franc plantings.  In a year’s time our entry level Bordeaux varietal Cabernet/Merlot, which is predominately CF with some Merlot, will be phasing out of the LCBO and a 100 per cent Cab Franc will replace it.

I am excited by this as I strongly feel that CF is the best of the Bordeaux varieties in our terroir, and produces the most consistent quality in the bottle.

Over the next year you will see our LCBO listed SB phased out and replaced by Pinot Gris.  We feel that PG can be the ‘third’ white, after Riesling and Chardonnay, as it is more cold resistant than any other contender and ripens very well.  In the end, it is the Burgundy varieties plus Riesling and Cab. Franc that our region excels at. Finally, we are very excited to have our work over the past decade experimenting with indigenous yeast fermentations beginning to roll out in commercial bottlings. Our Adam Steps Riesling, available only at the winery, is now seven vintages in with each being done 100 per cent with indigenous yeast. The CSV (the top line) is now for the past two vintages 60-70 per cent indigenous, and the Estate and Dolomite Riesling sit between 30-50 per cent. Even the entry level Niagara Peninsula Rieslings, which themselves originate 75 per cent from our own Beamsville Bench and Lincoln Lakeshore sites, have a component in them. The wines gain in complexity and texture from this technique.

Finally, I should mention that as our latest plantings of Riesling, Cab. Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Pinot Gris come into production, we will be beautifully positioned to bring our quality to new heights. Altogether we’ll have 165 acres of prime vineyard sites at Cave Spring Vineyard and at two newer sites we’ve assembled on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation (where we focus 100 per cent on Riesling), allowing us to be over 80 per cent estate grown.

As well, our small stable of growers have worked with us for a long time and are in the sub-appellations we work in, very close to our own vineyards. So the terroir is very proximate and focused. Even at the entry level with our Rieslings, the area of provenance is quite limited (nothing more than 4 km away from CSV), and as a result the wines are very consistent in both style and quality.

In your experience, what distinguishes the wines of the Niagara region from those of other production areas?

Our cool climate and ability to produce great wines from varieties that are not found often in the New World, e.g., Riesling, Gamay, Cabernet Franc. And even in the case of the varieties that are also found widely elsewhere in the New World, i.e., Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, our style is so much more aligned with the classical, Old World renditions of these grapes that we remain a unique offer.

Is there anything else I should have asked, or anything you would like to add?

We are excited to have Angelo’s assistant winemaker Gabriel Demarco settled in now with two vintages since graduating from Brock University with his degree in Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture,  helping to manage our vineyards and cellars, learning from Angelo, shoulder to shoulder.

This means that the body of knowledge that Angelo has built up over the past 32 vintages, working in largely the same terroir for the entire period, is being passed along in the best way possible. Not that Angelo is retiring any time soon, but he wants to have his successor not just in place at the point when he decides to step back, but also in full stride at his craft when that time comes.

We are ecstatic with Gabe’s progress. First and foremost, he share’s Angelo’s and our overarching belief that great wine is driven by vineyard site and technique first and foremost, and he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and learn by doing the work in the vineyard that it takes to extract the best quality fruit possible from a great site. In this way what we’ve built can and will endure.

Cave Spring’s Wines

In style, Cave Springs is accomplishing its intention of creating wines in the style of those form Northern Europe.  I have tasted most of the wines that are currently available in the LCBO, both on the regular list and in Vintages.  From one to the other, they impress me with the depth and continuity of flavour – given the quality, they are priced competitively and will reward the purchaser for selecting them.

Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2014, $15.95, offers fruit that is ripe and juicy with flavours that last right through each sip. Admirable acidity and minerality are alleviated at the finish by the 16 grams of sugar per litre which balance the wine off nicely.

Cave Spring Estate Riesling 2014, $18.95 is made from older vines, with the fruit carrying even more intensity of flavour.  Peach and creamy lemon and a classic whiff of petrol are discernible, though the over-all effect is seamless and nuanced.  Though it carries a couple of grams of sugar more, this remains a relatively dry – and delicious – wine.

Cave Spring Chardonnay 2014, $15.95, is the winery’s “entry level” chardonnay, vinified totally in stainless steel. Lighter in style, but with significant acidity, this is a wine that could certainly appeal to those who favour Pinot Grigio.  I seem to pick up not only mineral notes, but also some herbal elements – a bit of pepper, a bit of thyme?

Cave Spring Estate Chardonnay 2013, $18.95, is distinctly different from its stainless steel counterpart. Made from the fruit of older vines and given judicious treatment in older oak, this wine has a creamy texture and lingering flavours of peach and lemon, with the finish suggesting mineral, and maybe even the slightest pinch of salt.

Cave Spring Chardonnay Musqué 2014, $16.95 – “Musqué” refers to a specific clone of chardonnay known for its “muscat-like” qualities – you will find density in the mouthfeel, and melon-like fruit, with a sensation of orange zest at the end.

Cave Spring Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine, $29.95 – “Blancs de Blancs” indicates that the wine is made entirely from white grapes, in this case, Chardonnay.  (Unless otherwise indicated, most Champagnes are made using some red grapes, particularly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.)  In this case, we have a truly crisp wine with lemon-lime fruit accentuated, ample bubbles flowing through, and a tangy finish. The wine lies in bottle for 30 months during its secondary fermentation, resulting in an attractive toast-worthy sparkler.

Cave Spring Gamay 2014, $15.95.  With Gamay, we think Beaujolais, and I would think that any Vigneron from that area would be proud if this were one of his or her wines.  Fittingly lighter in style, this is fresh and lively with tart cherry notes and the lightest brush of tannin bringing some silkiness to the finish.  If a Frenchman laid claim to pasta, this is the wine he would serve with it.

Cave Spring Pinot Noir 2014, $18.95, reveals a definitely Burgundian character. While a pale ruby, the flavour depth is surprising with spice and soft plum notes persisting right through the finish. The wine is dry and harmonious, and drinks like an adagio on a cello – without one sour note!

Cave Spring Cabernet Merlot 2013, $15.95, is inky and deep, with ample dark fruit such that it is almost chewy in texture. The flavours coat your mouth, some herbal, some dark berry, some chocolate and spice. I imagine a touch of green pepper on the back palate, which reminds me this is Cabernet Franc – a red meat wine, most certainly.

All of these wines should be available either on the regular list or in Vintages – check with your local product consultants.

In addition, the Cave Springs Riesling Ice Wine, $49.95, will be on the Oct. 29 Vintages release. Sara d’Amato of winealign attributes to it a score of 91, finding it balanced, with a very lush mouthfeel.  Even with the harmonious apricot and honey notes, she also detects some mineral overtones, so typical of Cave Springs wines.

If you are interested in what to expect with Cave Springs Cabernet Franc, the 2013 also appears on this upcoming vintages release for $19.95.  The vintages panel picks up notions of red pepper jelly, Turkish delight, mint and spice, among other things, and stresses its good tannic underpinning.

Neither of these two wines are slated for stores in our Northern Ontario area, as far as I know, but you ought to be able to order in by Tuesday if you are interested.

For the Oct. 29 release, the balance is tipped fairly significantly towards more expensive offerings. For this once, and given the column’s length as it is, I will try to fold in any recommendations of wines from this release with those slated for Nov. 12.  In the meantime, see what you think of the wines of Cave Spring Cellars.