The highest scoring entry’s in the year’s Ontario Wine Awards comes from South Marysburgh and the winemaker behind it all says that has made all the difference.
Exultet Estates’ 2013 oaked Chardonnay, The Blessed, scored an aggregate 93.25, claiming not only its category, but also the award for best white wine. It also outscored the top red, a Creekside Estate 2012 Broken Press Syrah Reserve, from the Niagara Region.
“It outclassed everyone,” said winemaker Gerry Spinosa. “This area can grow some great stuff. That’s a reason why we’re growing out here, it can be the best in the province.”
Spinosa said he believes the terroir on his Royal Road farm, coupled with real attention to a handcrafted wine at all steps of the process were keys to the win. As a boutique small-production winery, Exultet is in control of its own product from planting and growing, to harvest, to cellaring. The grapes are grown from organic materials and with minimal chemical use.
“It’s really hands-on.”
Having converted the former apple orchard his family purchased in 2004 to a vineyard, Spinosa has been adamant that he not buy grapes grown in Niagara or elsewhere to make wine.
“It’s hard to make a great wine when you’ve bought in on the bulk market,” he said. “We’re not going to buy from Niagara. I just don’t want to do it.”
Spinosa said the impact of the rain, sun, and wind all have an impact on the flavour of the grape.
“When you blend from somewhere else, you’re kind of losing the beauty of here. All the areas in the county are great and they have different flavours. If you plant the same apple it would taste different.”
Accordingly, Exultet caters to those seeking local, hand-crafted products. Dedicated to a clientele of wine connoisseurs, oenophiles, and foodies, Exultet doesn’t position itself to compete financially with imports from South America or with other companies looking to produce mass quantities.
The Blessed sold for $45 a bottle – which Gerry and his wife Lia, who leads the retail side of the operation, say is the cost of taking the time to tend by hand and grow. While some visitors balk at the higher prices, the marketing of quality appears to work. The award-winning wine is sold out.
Chardonnay seekers may look to Exultet for its 2014 vintage, which placed third at the Ontario Wine Awards category for oaked Chardonnay over $20. Lia said the biggest difference between the two is the 2013 was able to be aged and bottled longer. That wine has yet to be released for sale and there’s already a waiting list for the release. With fewer than 200 cases, quantities will be scarce. Lia said to think of it like a larger winery’s high end reserve products.
With that in mind, it won’t be offered for tasting too often at Exultet’s retail store.
“When people know you have a stellar wine, they’ll come. We’ve had lines to taste, but they just want to taste, not to buy. We’ll taste it occasionally, but we’re tasting it to sell, not just to taste,” Gerry said.
Those making the trek south to Milford, however, will find that Exultet produces a wide range of products from a limited number of varietals. Using Pinot noir, there is a light red wine, a dessert-style port, a blanc de noir (a white wine made with red grapes), and a traditional Venetian appassimento red. They’re also using Pinot Grigio and the hybrid Vidal, which has been used for ice wines.
“Gerry stared branching out, he wants to be creative. He’s always trying something new and something different. He’ll go the extra mile to see what it’s like to try something,” Lia said.
That experimentation took on a different twist last year when a late May frost wiped out most primary growth in the vineyard, including the prized Chardonnay crop. Workers burned bales of hay to try and keep the frost at bay, but with no wind, there was little protection. Concerned about a total loss, Gerry decided to turn to fruit wine in a pinch.
“There’s a lot of creativity that goes into being a farmer and a winemaker. When life hand you lemons - in this case, we were handed frost and Gerry said we’ll use the next best fruit crop in the county. We’ll get some apples and try an apple wine,” Lia recalled.
They produced a dry white called Royal Road Recipe, a nod to the varieties that would have been on the orchard (before) 2004. Gerry says he won’t reveal which apples he used, but he’s pleased with the end result from the sideline. Yet again, he said it all started from focusing on local and focusing on quality.
While the accolades are valued, Gerry seems to get as much satisfaction from those who share his passion for the land and the entire winemaking process.
“The people who come and love this area the most love that it’s rural and it’s true. When they come here the first time, they say ‘This is what we’re looking for.’ Even when they go to Niagara they say this is the kind of place they’re looking for. We have to sell stuff from here.”