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Pop Up by Chris Waters

County crusaders bank on bubbly

When Jonas Newman and Vicki Samaras envisioned their Prince Edward County winery, they saw themselves making sparkling wine in addition to some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown on the property. They quickly narrowed the focus after their first harvest, which saw them make small amounts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, as well as two sparkling wines.
    “You have to have nerves of steel to make Pinot Noir,” Newman states while shaking his head. Other County producers are enjoying success with the varietal, but it’s not for him.
    Going forward, Hinterland Wine Co. will only produce bubbly — the first winery in the emerging region to do so. The husband and wife team saw sparkling as the best possible expression of Prince Edward County wine.
    “We hope that more people here will do it, too. What Icewine is to Niagara, sparkling will be to the County,” Newman says.
    Hinterland opened the tasting room of its winery in Hillier to the public last spring. Visitors to the converted dairy barn were wowed by the opening inventory of a rosé sparkling wine and their top fizz, Les Etoiles, both made with base wines blending Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the 2007 vintage.
    The still wines had their fans, but Hinterland’s bubblies became the toast of critics and were listed at some of Toronto’s top restaurants. These are wines with purity and charm that make them suitable stand-ins for capital-C Champagnes from France.
    Suddenly Samaras and Newman’s decision to specialize seemed obvious. The couple is quick to credit veteran Niagara winemakers Gunther Funk and Herb Jacobson, two of the original founders of the Thirteenth Street Wine Co., for showing them the ropes.
    Newman, formerly a maître d’ at Toronto’s Scaramouche restaurant, and Samaras, who worked as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, started volunteering at Thirteenth Street in Jordan Station in 2004.
    “We said we would do whatever they wan­t­ed, provided we could ask as many questions as possible,” Newman explains.
    Samaras says it was the best preparation they could have possibly had to get them ready for launching Hinterland. They learn­ed the ins and outs of running a vineyard from Funk and the technical details of winemaking from Jacobson.
    Those lessons are clearly ingrained as Samaras and Newman’s discussion of their winemaking process is peppered with references to their mentors.
    As Newman opens the soon-to-be-released 2008 Rosé Sparkling wine, Samaras reflects on the challenges of its production.
    “It was a tough growing season,” she says. “We ended up leaving three tonnes of grapes out on the vine, which was a tough financial decision to make. The fruit wasn’t clean enough to use for sparkling wine.
    “Gunther [Funk] always stressed that the fruit had to be perfectly healthy,” she continues. “Better to have one perfect grape. . .”
    The offer of a glass of wine interrupts her train of thought.
    Newman pours another and admires the colour. Wine geeks or latex paint marketers would call it salmon.
    He explains how he had a panic attack when the wine was being disgorged (the final stage of sparkling wine production that sees the sediment removed and a slight amount of wine added to top up the level and enhance the flavour and balance of the finished fizz).
    “Under the fluorescent lights, it didn’t look like it had any colour,” Newman says. “I was looking at a rosé that wasn’t pink.”
    Sooner than anticipated, a small parcel of bottles was readied for release to meet demand. Newman explains that most of Hinterland’s 2008 Rosé production is still aging in the bottle with the spent yeast cells that produced the bubbles during the secondary fermentation. That process adds to the texture of the wine and imparts some biscuit- or bread-like flavours.
    As a new venture, Hinterland doesn’t want to disappoint its customers. Earlier that morning, Newman raced home to secure the final two bottles of the 2007 Rosé they needed to complete an order for Canoe Restaurant in Toronto.
    The good news for both wine lovers and their personal cellar is production is increasing. Hinterland made 500 or so cases in 2007. Volume climbed to 750 cases in 2008 and 1,200 in 2009.
    They have also launched two different sparkling wines, an off-dry Vidal called Whitecap and a startlingly enjoyable, slightly fizzy Gamay Noir named Ancestral. The latter tastes a lot like Beaujolais Nouveau with a subtle spritz.
    The experiment was inspired by a French wine that their wine agent passed their way in the hopes they would attempt a Canadian interpretation. The couple bought some Gamay from a neighbour and gave it a go.
    Part of the reason they only produced 140 cases of the crowd-pleasing, berry-flavoured wine is they wanted to protect themselves if the experiment didn’t work.
    “I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. We made the most that we could afford to pour down the drain,” Newman says.
    The couple is already thinking of ways to improve Ancestral for the next vintage and wondering what other varietals are out there to experiment with. Sauvignon Blanc seems to be a front-runner.
    The more pressing issue at hand, however, is how they are to proceed with a Riesling that they made. The base wine is ready for secondary fermentation, but Newman and Samaras aren’t sure of a direction.
    Should it be subject to the time-honoured traditional method for sparkling wine that would mean the finished wine won’t be ready to be released until 2012? Or should they proceed with the charmat method, which sees the secondary fermentation take place in a large reinforced tank that won’t allow the carbon dioxide to escape, in which case they could sell the wine this year?
    Samaras says the debate is likely to be settled one night soon over a glass of wine. That’s one of the perks of turning your dream of running a winery into reality: it’s fun to bring work home with you.

    Chris Waters is the editor of Vines magazine.