Ottawa, Canada. Late may.
The high number of individuals starting a mini winery in their garage or basement exemplifies the dynamism and freedom in North America. In Canada and the U.S. many aspiring winemakers have grapes shipped to their home in frozen buckets (sometimes very far from the originating wine region) and learn all the steps of winemaking, elevage and blending. The reasons behind this maybe diverse, from the love of good, true wine to sound economics : you can get a great bottle of wine (your own wine!) for a cost (including the cask/year cost) of 8 dollars or lower, when common prices for quality wines start at 30-40 dollars around here...
Some do it (often rather well) as a mere hobby, some do it so well that it becomes their main professional acitivity.
Bernard Martineau is of them : He originally worked in the computer field for the canadian government, learning and experimenting on his own time with winemaking, following courses (he went to UC Davis, California and Geneva-Cornell, New York), even taking a sabbatical year off to get training abroad. He ended up teaching oenology and working as an external oenologist for several Niagara wineries (Herdern Estate Wines and Stoney Ridge Winery)...
Here we are, in a typical leafy neighbourhood in Ottawa heading to Bernard's basement winery. Ottawa by the way is one of the towns with the highest ratio of amateur winemakers, partly due to the fact that wine lovers want to circumvent the limitations of the retail/import monopoly in Ontario, LCBO. Amateur winemakers in Ontario are organized, and they even have their own website. I can't but dream to see this happening in France...
Bernard excuses himself for the mess in the basement/chai which contrasts with the otherwise orderly house. But I love it ! this is real life! The neon-lit room, where he produced several thousand liters along the years, is stacked with casks, containers of all sorts, bottles, tubes, measurement devices and lab accessories...It looks like a lab (with a mad-scientist-workshop touch) and a chai at the same time. There is even the small vertical press : He says it is very simple but very soft on the grapes and allows a very nuanced work at this decisive stage. It is just arduous to fill and empty, though.
This is a real tasting, now :
__1 Chardonnay 2005 (from Carneros California grapes). Sample taken from a 225-liter Berthomieu cask [picture on left]. The frozen buckets were delivered in december, allowing him to quietly vinify Ontario grapes in the earlier months, then proceed with the California grapes. The wine will stay there another month, 6 months altogether. Fermentation and elevage in cask. No stirring, elevage on its lees.
No malolactic fermentation here. It could start but he does not want it to. He prefers to have the resulting acidity in the wine. He says that the California grapes don't have much malic acid compared with Ontario grapes. This wine will have a longer laying-down potential.
__2 Chardonnay 2005 from Ontario grapes. sample taken from a 100-liter stainless vat. He got the grapes in the 1st week of october and used the Berthomieu cask for the fermentation (he needed the cask for the California grapes only in december). Rich in the mouth, hides the acidity which he says is higher in this wine. This was a very warm weather millesime coupled with frost problems earlier in the season. The harvest time came early, october 18th, which is some 2 weeks early.
As Bernard looks for the next wine to taste, I look at the empty 5-gallon buckets used for the transportation of the grapes. Bernard remembers there were 12 to 20 such buckets in the delivery. And like for a big-size vat filled with fermenting grapes, there is a real danger of suffocation with CO2 and a label on the side warns the amateur winemaker (in both english and spanish, this is California) not to let his kids play around [picture on the left]. It only takes a second for a toddler to smell the must and faint on it.
__3 Cabernet Franc 1999 from Ontario. Sample taken with a wine thief from a converted metal beer container [picture upper right]. He bought several of them in France. With volumes between 20 liter to 50 liter, they are the ones used for delivering draft beer in french bars and cafés. He skilfully worked on the original metal openings to allow efficient opening and closure of the improvised mini-vat. With the resulting wide range of containers, he can, like in a real-size winery, work on different volumes for his blendings. For this Cabernet Franc, the fermentation was made in a stainless vat, then had a 12 months elevage in an oak cask. The grapes come from the Funk Vineyards in Ontario.Very small vineyard (3 hectares), very meticulously worked, he says. He will most likely blend this Cabernet Franc with a very small percentage of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Long elevage, for sure. Bottling later in 2006, probably. I like the nose here. Lightly woody. He says that Ontario's Cabernet Franc needs to wait a few years, like 7, 10 years. This is important. In the mouth, a delicious onctuosity. Nice legs on the inside of the glass. I like this one. In a "real" winery, I would ask for the price of this one...
__4 Grenache from California 2005, from a cask. He uses the casks 3 years usually, and then buy new ones. The cost for such a cask is something like 700 Euro (1000 Can. Dollars), he says. He will blend this Grenache with Syrah and a little bit of Zinfandel to make a Rhone style of wine. Nice sharp nose, with fruit.
__5 Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, made with Rutherford Bench grapes (grown right near Opus One vineyards). Fermented in stainless vat, then elevage in cask. He says all his reds go through malolactic fermentation, usually beginning in stainless and completing in the cask. He usually has the malo fermentation started at 3/4th of the alcoholic fermentation to reduce the buttery side of the malo. But there is a slight risk if the alcoholic fermentation does not go to its end (risk of volatile acid). Straight and precise nose. In the mouth, this is definitely Cabernet Sauvignon with its tannic side, but nontheless chewy and pleasant.
Bernard shows now the way to his veranda where he and his wife keep fragile plants through the cold canadian winter. He brought old millesime bottles of his production to the nearby kitchen, one of them for patient decanting.
__6 "Rhone" blend 1994. Syrah-Grenacue-Zinfandel, from California grapes. Animal nose at first. 5 minutes later or so, the wine opens itself. More aromas on the nose. Nice complexity in the mouth. He tells about some of the wines he made a few years ago, like the ones with great Pinot Noir and Merlot grapes from Santa Maria, from vines which have been uprooted since. He looks at the wine as their surviving memory.
He now pours from a carafe which he filled earlier after very carefully uncorking an older bottle :
__7 1984 red. Guess what it is... Colour edging on tile tones on the side of the glass. See the picture on the right as he gently and steadyly pours the wine into the carafe so as not to stir the sediment (no filtering of the wine). We discuss on the aromas as I try to put a name on the feel of the mouth. He says it is actually made of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Chimney Rock (a winery you can't buy grapes from anymore, you even hardly can buy a bottle from them now, either...), 18% Merlot from Oakville, 4% Malbec from Mount Veeder, 8% Cabernet Franc from Napa. We are having a great time drinking a 22 year old wine which was stored in a 17°C basement cellar !... It is sure that many of the wines of the same origin and millesime he could have bought then from real wineries would not have fared that well. He also knows that his wines were made without the added substances used nowadays in many wineries to enhance the tasting aspects of the wines in the short term. And when you think that the all-included cost for this bottle was maybe 5 dollars, he says... He says that paradoxally, the fact that the grapes were frozen for transportation is good as it gives a better extraction from the skin.
We finish the tasting with a 2000 Port which stayed 5 years in a cask and will be bottled this summer. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Mourvedre.
He thinks he will make traditional-method sparkling wine next autumn at a Niagara winery, but that is not sure yet. He has also made ice wine but prefers the Sauternes and Barsac wines style. He used gewurztraminer grapes, vinified in oak casks for his own ice wine. Here in Ontario, he says, most ice wine is made from Vidal grape variety, an hybrid, and the result is less good.