Ripasso and Appassimento in Niagara: A Virtual Tasting with Barclay Robinson, Winemaker at The Foreign Affair

15 04 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne

As a wine lover, I often feel I am walking a tightrope of sorts between appreciation of bare-bones, terroir-driven wines of place on the one hand, and esoteric, funky winemaking techniques on the other. My allegiance gravitates implicitly to the former camp, populated by relatively pure expressions of soil and grape variety that eschew the muddying effects of various vinification tricks of the trade. Then again, I can be a sucker for the weird, particularly if there is true intent behind the decision to use a particular cellar technique: the careful realization of a particular vinous vision can be every bit as compelling as what results from a more hands-off approach. It turns out that in some cases, particular techniques are the tradition. And traditions, like other aspects of culture, are meant to be shared, applied to new contexts, and ultimately celebrated.

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Enter Barclay Robinson, winemaker at Ontario producer The Foreign Affair, who recently shared the story and results behind some of these techniques and traditions in a personal virtual tasting.  This was a lot of fun, Barclay being exactly the sort of guy I like tasting with: erudite yet down to earth, funny yet quick to impart knowledge. The winery, situated in the Vineland area of the Niagara Peninsula, is completely unique in the Canadian context. Founders Len and Marisa Crispino lived as expats in Italy, where they fell in love with the Amarone wines of Valpolicella. These burly concoctions are made using the the appassimento process, in which the grapes are dried after harvest for to up to 6 months, typically resting on bamboo racks or straw mats, or alternatively strung up from the ceiling where air can circulate and work its dehydrating magic. These raisined grapes provide a very concentrated must (the juice to which yeast is added after crushing to make wine), which makes fermenting the resulting wine to total dryness quite a challenge. I have grown to appreciate Amarone over the last year or so, although its combination of high alcohol, intense flavour concentration, and a unique nut-like bitterness can be polarizing. The Crispinos decided to bring this winemaking approach to Ontario, albeit using the Bordeaux varietals known to do well in the Niagara Peninsula (alas, Niagara Corvina is not a thing at this juncture).

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This decidedly unusual venture led to some struggles in early vintages. The Crispinos persisted, as do all successful innovators. Today, all of the wines from The Foreign Affair are touched in some way by the appassimento process, either made entirely Amarone-style or making use of the other famous Valpolicella winemaking technique commonly associated with it: ripasso. Ripasso involves adding leftover grape skins (pomace) to a young wine for a period of maceration to increase flavour intensity and colour. The process is akin to steeping tea, although a secondary fermentation usually also occurs because some yeast remains on the spent grape skins. This of course increases alcohol levels, and in Valpolicella the unpressed skins that are “repassed” over the finished wine are typically none other than the dehydrated appassimento skins from prior Amarone wines. Not surprisingly, the fine folks at The Foreign Affair take this same approach. Near the beginning of our tasting, I asked Barclay about what it was like to make wines using these methods which are so distinctly associated with a particular Old World wine region. His answer evoked a deep admiration of Italian wines. This tugs at my need to pursue the offbeat, the rare, the provincial, as well as at my very genes.

2016 The Foreign Affair Winery “The Conspiracy” (~$20)

We start here, a wine consisting of 62% Cabernet Franc, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Merlot. The grapes hail from a total of 21 different vineyard blocks. This is made using the ripasso technique, with each grape harvested, fermented, and aged separately before being repassed over skins and lees from appassimento grapes used to make other wines in the portfolio. The 2016 vintage was extremely warm in Niagara, but the wine nevertheless weighs in at a comfortable 13.5% ABV. It sees 9 months in an oak regime of rather neutral 2nd and 3rd pass barrels. I ask a question about yeast strains and Barclay confirms that cultured yeast is used, given how stubborn such appassimento fermentations can be.

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I get an initial whiff of raw blood/burger meat, something rustic like the tar I often get in ripasso Valpolicellas, but this effect is ephemeral at best, rapidly subsumed by a rich bloom of raspberries, cassis, cherry Nibs, blackberries and black plums. I also mention getting a lot of blueberry to Barclay. He agrees and attributes this to the Merlot component of the blend. A floral halo of Sen Sen liquorice-flavoured breath fresheners and Thrills gum serves to dial up the complexity a bit. Finish is a fairly long drive to raspberry jam city. This delivers the expected punch of flavour, even if the midpalate rings just a tad hollow. Tannins are soft, acidity is fresh. The Conspiracy over-delivers for the price point, and provides evidence that Bordeaux varietals can deliver a convincing ripasso. Regardless of whether this was ever an important research question, the outcome is worth your perusal.

88- points

2016 The Foreign Affair Winery Dream (~$30)

We move onto the Dream, a blend of 45% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot. This is 17% appassimento grapes (100 days drying time), with 16 months in French, American, and Hungarian oak (some new). Barclay explains that the silky tannins on display here are due to the effect of enzymes on the raw grape material during appassimento. This makes intuitive sense. Ever taste a bitter, scratchy raisin?

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Dream evokes wet clay, powdered graphite, strawberry jam, vanilla bean (classic American oak), dried fruit punch flavoured snacks/fruit roll ups, and Black Forest cake. I begin to enjoy the contrast between the delicate nose and comparatively thick, plodding body. I suddenly realize that the nose is redolent with red flowers — hibiscus! — and a pinch of pepper, both black and white. My mind runs with this spice and evokes an association with the Petit Verdot in the blend, although the appassimento blending component (period) is probably the greater contributor. This is another wine that positively kills it for the price point. For fun (and because I had no desire to finish an entire bottle of red solo on a weekday afternoon), I corked the remainder of the bottle backup and revisited it 13 days later, with no argon or other preservation methods applied. The wine was still in pretty solid shape.

89 points

2016 The Foreign Affair Winery Apologetic Red (~$70)

Here we are, at the apex. 100% Cabernet Franc, 50% appassimento grapes (90 days drying time), 18 months in French oak. And what a fantastic label concept. It riffs on the Canadian stereotype of being overly polite, and then walks this back to flash some pride in how well we can do with Cabernet Franc in particular. Oh, Cab Franc. This grape always intrigues me. I recently commented on social media that this grape manages to be simultaneously more sophisticated yet also more rustic than its progeny Cabernet Sauvignon. The bell pepper notes are sharper yet more refined, fruity chilli pods as opposed to pure pyrazines, and the berry fruits themselves often trend more red than black. I believe the ledger balance sheet suggests that Franc outperforms the better known Cab in this country. I’m pleased to report that this rather esoteric take on the grape does not dispel the notion.

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I immediately get a huge note of nutmeg and sundry other pumpkin pie spices, along with a more moderate aroma of cedar, parchment, and fern fronds or fresh chopped kale. There’s the expected strawberry and raspberry, Mission figs, oolong tea, and then boom, dried Aleppo chilli pepper that grades into cigarette tobacco, which in turn grades into darker cigar territory. The residual sweetness really plays to this wine’s strengths. The finish is all sultanas and light molasses and more figs. Craisins? You bet. I still return to the brown spice impression when my mind revisits this gem. Of the three wines tasted here, this was the one I kept sneaking back to sip again and again. Not sorry.

90- points

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“Reminicient of the Old World temptress”… Not sorry.

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2 responses

26 04 2019
mukulmanku

Interesting. This technique is covered by Canada’s appellation or is it akin to Super Tuscans of Italy which are outside any appellation system but great wines all the same ?

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26 04 2019
Peter Vetsch

My guess (not backed up by any formal research) is that Ontario’s appellation-based wine laws are just nowhere near as prescriptive in terms of permitted or prohibited winemaking techniques than Old World appellation regulations. There is certainly far more freedom in Canada in terms of varietal choices within the formal appellation system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the use of these techniques was in a similar boat. The criteria to be met to fit within the appellation tend to be far broader and more general than in Chianti and other European appellations.

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