Vinnified: A Great Canadian Wine Club in the Making?

26 03 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with wine clubs. This is despite belonging to several. I value freedom of choice. I don’t necessarily love having to select bottles form a constrained number of options as compared to a shop, particularly if the lineup is purely crowd-pleasing and humdrum. On the other hand, a well-curated wine club can be a godsend: one doesn’t have to exert much effort to get a cool haul, particularly if the club is not afraid to offer some libations that tread well off the beaten path. My personal preference is for a roster of old school (albeit perhaps lesser-known) regional offerings coupled with some avant garde, dare I say edgy, selections. Not much to ask, is it? Meet Vinnified.

Vinnified was co-founded by Prince Edward Island-based Andrew Murray and Montreal wine consultant Dave LeBoeuf. Although the website states that the wine club brings “Canada’s best wines” directly to your door, digging a little deeper reveals that the intent is to highlight small-scale producers who identify as farmers rather than manufacturers. One can receive either a 3-pack (for $119) or a 6-pack (for $235) of selected wines once per month, for a fixed price that appears to include shipping charges. You can adjust your monthly subscription at any time to adjust your incoming bottle load. The reach is nationwide. Although Ontario provides the initial focus, the plan is to draw from BC and Nova Scotia producers some time this year. The sleek website is user-friendly and clearly designed to port one quickly and efficiently into the fold. Perhaps the first rule about wine club is that you do not talk (a lot) about wine club. However, some other press materials evoke concepts like “quaint” to describe the wines, which needless to say piques my curiosity. There is a desire to disseminate at least a modicum of wackiness. The first bottle showcased here from my monthly example subscription set provides more than said modicum.

2019 By Chadsey’s Cairns PTO ($24 cellar door)

A sparkling red?! That’s right. By Chadsey’s Cairns is a quaint moniker indeed… faeries and other mythical sprightly creatures undoubtedly frequent any place with such a handle. The winery is named after Ira Chadsey, an early settler with a massive hipster beard, and a man said to be a bit of a romantic. Legend has it that he built the property’s stone cairns so that they would guide him home after death in the form of a white horse. One wonders what else grew on this property beyond the run of the mill agricultural produce of the times. In any event, the winery currently features rustic buildings and a decidedly down-home country vibe. Situated in Ontario’s northernmost wine region, Prince Edward Country, cartoonist-and-politician-turned-grape-grower Richard Johnson helps estate-grown grapes to survive the punishing winters by burying the canes, which is followed by a sometimes-hair-raising analytical adventure helmed by winemaker Vida Zalnieriunas in helping the grapes get enough sun to ripen without losing too much acid. Perhaps a sparkling red makes sense after all.

As you can see right there on the label, this bottle is made using the Charmat or tank method for sparking wine, in which an uncarbonated base wine is blended with a liqueur de tirage (a mix of sugar and yeast) before being put into a pressurized stainless steel tank where the wine undergoes a second fermentation to add the bubbles. This is how the (in)famous Prosecco is made. Because the tank is sealed shut to oxygen and the wines are bottled directly without additional aging, grape aromas and fresh fruity notes are well-retained as compared to traditional methods of making sparkling wine. Such an approach should be well-suited to the dyad of grapes used here: Gamay and… St. Laurent?! The latter is a fun one, a highly aromatic black grape best known in Austria (although in fact the Czech Republic has more acreage of it). St. Laurent can be described as a beefier Pinot Noir, darker of hue, and indeed, Pinot is one of its parents (the other remains unknown). I imagine how this personal vinous favourite of mine will translate into bubbles format as I pop off the crown cap and pour a glass, immediately struggling to tame the violet-tinted aggressive froth.

Once that deed is done, I can enjoy. The first few sniffs evoke raspberry and strawberry Jolly Ranchers, sloe berries (black plum skin) and a co-occurring Asian plum sauce vibe, kirsch, watercolor paints, and honest-to-gosh correction fluid (White-Out). Not that one is supposed to sniff that. I don’t know what to make of this latter aroma… volatile acidity perhaps? There is a low key yet surprising earthiness under the clean and kinetic fruity lines, and my mind can’t decide whether this more recalls blackberry-infused sandpaper or a stemmy purple Popsicle stuck in a tin of black peppercorns and licorice root. The licorice note is twofold, like black and red strands twined together. Everything is stitched together by a tangy, powdery acidic thread. I’d be flat out lying if I claimed I wasn’t thoroughly enjoying this strange romp. You won’t be demolished by the complexity, but you will not get bored. Wines like this occupy a useful niche in the pantheon, “just right”, rather like Goldilocks’ preferred state of porridge and everything else. Despite some of the stranger things poking through, my lovely partner enjoying this with me stated that this would make a decent “gateway wine…you know, something to hook the masses that doesn’t suck”. Based on the all the online winery reviews claiming that people drive up there specifically for this, she’s likely quite right. Something tells me the next bottle in this sequence will be more…classic.

89- points

2018 Redtail Vineyards Pinot Noir ($24 cellar door)

“Low intervention since 2008”, Redtail Vineyards was acquired by current owner Thomas Stallinga in 2018, who planted a 25-acre vineyard and built new production facilities so that experienced and educated head winemaker Lee Baker could pursue a passion for “natural-style” wines that are clean and balanced. That’s a philosophy I can get behind, as my palate skews increasingly away from the wild and wooly indulgences that I used to pursue (see below where I talk about orange wine). Lee appears to have a particular interest in Burgundy, so of course I’m delighted to see this particular bottle. The tech specs say that a “majority” of this wine spontaneously fermented in the cellar, followed by 14 months aging 25% new and 75% neutral French oak barrels.

This one pours a clear medium ruby (maybe closer to pale), with an initial shot of pungent yet pleasant oak right to the olfactory bulbs, incense and creme brûlée, followed by health-boutique strains of earthy cola and ginseng root, shards of cinnamon… Then the fruits creep in. Bing cherries, pomegranate, and flares of strawberry Fruit Roll-Up are followed by a flourish of blueberries and black plum skin. Admittedly I find this a tad pedestrian and plodding at first, the fruits monochrome and lacking in sweetness, like a vinous photo negative: I want them to move more. Fortunately with a little time they do just that, as a blackcurrant throat lozenge vibe joins the less-than-raucous party, and the other fruits are seemingly elevated into a pleasing fist by some airy hibiscus flower shop and mossy forest nuances. This eventually arrives at a pleasant balance on the palate, filled out by technically correct sweetish fine tannins. You won’t hate this as part of your mixed pack. It’s true to form, and perhaps ultimately a wine for Pinot Noir completists. You might even love it if you catch in on the right day. Whether you’ll remember it, I’m not sure.

87+ points

2018 Grange of Prince Edward Ombre Gris ($30 cellar door)

Ah, an orange wine. I have a confession. When I first caught the wine bug and began my torrid love affair with this greatest of beverages, I drank a LOT of orange wine. Right out of the gate. Yikes. My mind somehow decided that skin contact and white grapes meant more intensity, more flavours, more character. Well, at least two of these suppositions are often correct. As it turns out, orange wines can be a tad much when done to excess, with skin contact not preserving more of the delicate varietal aromas like I’d fantasized. Orange wine is still something I enjoy, something I deliberately loop back to when the whim strikes. Nevertheless, I’ve become a bit of a battle-hardened skeptic now, and remain so even after reading Simon J Woolf’s tour de force “Amber Revolution”, a directory of orange wines and an earnest love letter to the style that forced me to recall that Radikon is still a legend. The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Estate Winery enters the orange fray with Ombre Gris, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc that sees 36 hours skin contact in neutral oak barrels. Intriguing. Not 36 months, and no clay vessels or underground burials in sight. The winery seems to check out as the sort of enterprise built to make wines such as this: sustainability-focused, family-run, slightly garish yet pleasing name. And look that the fantastic label. This seems poised for glory.

An orange wine it may be, but this also flashes some lovely pink coral highlights in the glass, a telltale sign of Gris in the blend. Oh my. The aromas are bright and lively, nothing cumbersome, with deft brush strokes of fresh daisy, pomelo, Earl Grey tea/bergamot, allspice, mango sour straws, lanolin, and dried apricot daubed onto a core of bruised Cox Orange Pippin apple and quince. A slight mephitic funk lurks, lest you forget this is indeed an orange beast, flashing capers, limonitic earth and a shot of pickle juice, but nothing unduly harsh. This weirdness is seasoning, not the main course, which remains astonishingly fruity at its fundamental essence. The skin contact translates as a starchy green banana tannic scratch, again in balance with the elegant, high-toned, fleet-of-foot aromatics. Those are not words I would typically use to describe such a bottle. A Canadian orange benchmark? My orange wine fatigue begins to ameliorate as this draws me back into the fold, with the code around how to retain some varietal character in a skin contact wine effortlessly cracked, and a bottle rapidly emptying as everything comes full circle. If nothing else, Vinnified is neither shy nor scared.

90+ points

Cork/Crown Cap ratings: 1/10 (Much, much work needed here.)


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