Tawse Terroir Trip

autumn vegetable salad

Last week, I got to attend a blogger trip to Tawse Winery in Niagara to learn about how the winery employs terroir and Biodynamic techniques and philosophies to make some great wines. We were guided by Tawse winemaker Paul Pender and Marketing Manager Daniel Lafleur, as we roamed their two properties at Cherry Avenue and Quarry Road. To cap off the day, we were treated to a blind terroir comparison wine tasting and an amazing lunch prepared by chefs from London, Ontario's The Only On King.

We started the morning taking a tour of the main property on Cherry Road, where the Tawse sheep and chickens also live. As part of the Biodynamics method, these animals are an important part of how the land is tended, and also provide egs and mutton for sale. Now having tasted farm fresh eggs, I don't know that I could ever go back to the factory farmed you find in the grocery store. They are more expensive, but the difference in taste and colour is extraordinary.

While we walked the property, Paul gave us the news that Tawse had just that week recieved their official Organic and Biodynamic certifications, in addition to being named 2010 Canadian Winery of the Year, though they had been employing these methods for quite a while already. For example, besides using Red Sexlink chickens, Shetland sheep, horses and ducks to help tend the land, they are experimenting with the use of clover to control weeds and help soil porosity. The team at Tawse believes in the biodynamics tennet that treating the soil, as well as the plants, as a living organism. Healthy soil means healthy plants means healthy produce.

Tawse has a number of vines planted on different properties in the region, each with it's own terroir giving distinct flavour profiles to their wines. There are three "blocks" just on the Cherry Ave property which show subtle differences. Overall, limestone is a key element in all their wines. In fact, the organic bacteria in the soil, generated by biodynamic farming, releases a small amount of acid, which converts any native limestone into a soluble form for the plants. While the older plantings are laid out in a typical 8-9' row spacing, most of the new vines are planted in a Bordeaux style 5-6' row spacing. They believe this affects root mass per square foot, which in turn affects flavour complexity. In Paul's opinion, the grapes best suited to the region are, arguably, Reisling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

On the Quarry Road property, Tawse grows Chardonnay, Gewerztraminer, Reisling and Pinot Noir grapes. Paul tells us that 2010 has been an extraordinarily early harvest. This time last year, they were just beginning harvest, where this year, the harvest was nearly complete. He expects 2010 to be a fantastic year for Cabernets and Merlots, so keep your eyes peeled.

One of the most interesting things I learned on our return to Cherry Road to check out the winemaking process was the fact that Tawse ferments their grapes whole rather than crushing them. They will also add some dry ice to the fermenting barrels to help inhibit mold.

Once the tour was over, we got to do one final lesson in terroir, with our tongues instead of our ears. We were presented with three different wines - '09 Pinot Noir, '08 and '09 Chardonnays - in a blind taste comparison, with one example each from Quarry Road and Robyn's Block (Cherry Ave). Across the board, the wines from the Quarry Road property displayed a higher minerality and acidity, where the Robyn's Block wines showed more soft, tropical fruit. I think of the three varieties, the Robyn's Block '09 Chard was my favourite, with lovely lemon and pineapple notes.

Finally, we moved on to a wonderful lunch from The Only On King. For our meal, chefs Jason Schubert and Paul Harding prepared five courses, each paired with a Tawse wine. To start, we had a "Winter Luxury" pumpkin soup with Thornloe blue cheese and pumpkin oil. Velvety smooth, this was a great start to lunch. For me to enjoy something with blue cheese without being overwhelmed by the mold is certainly a feat. I absolutely adored the Soiled Reputation autumn vegetable salad. While I avoided the carrots and beets, the radishes, turnips and brussel sprouts were fresh, crisp and delicious dressed simply in "really good Tuscan olive oil" with bits of deep, salty Farben Farms lamb bacon. Man, oh man that was some good bacon.

Next up were the delightfully cloud-like Klondyke Farms potato gnocchi with charred leeks, brown butter sauce, and topped with Monforte Dairy goat tomme. The sweetness brought out in the leeks went amazingly well with the brown butter, and the cheese added a nice sharp element. The main event was a perfectly seasoned and juicy Field Gate Organics roast chicken on a bed of sauerkraut with mustard sauce. The skin was beautiful and just crisped and the acidity in both the sauerkraut and mustard sauce were made for the chicken.

We ended the meal with a light and sweet Chocolate and walnut torte topped with chantilly. To go with that, winery owner Moray Tawse opened a special bottle from 2005 for us, which he called the "Ninety Nine/One" Pinot Noir. In that year, there was a devastating frost wich destroyed most of the crops. For this particular wine, they used 99% Bordeaux grapes with the remaining 1% being local. The nose on it was full of smokey wood and eraser, while the taste had a hint of black cherry and cedar with lovely, smooth tannins.

What a fantastic day this was. The weather was perfect and Paul, Daniel and Moray could not have been better hosts and teachers. I must admit, I've been to a few different wineries in Ontario now, and I do believe Tawse is my favourite, aesthetically. It's an absolutely gorgeous property at Cherry Avenue, and I'd encourage anyone to visit their tasting room, which is open for about one more month in 2010. I defy you to walk out without at least one bottle of their delicious wines. Hey, their 2008 Reisling was the wine that cemented for me that I just might be able to love whites.

Thanks to Suresh for organizing this once-in-a-lifetime trip, chefs Schubert and Harding for an exquisite meal, and everyone at Tawse for sharing their knowledge and hospitality.

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