Sommelier David Ouellette, Wine Salesman Steve Neuhof, and Winemaker William Hoare are making their own wine. The Sommelier, Salesman and Winemaker bring insights from across the wine world together as they make their first vintage of low intervention, unique wines under the name All-In Wines.
Beginning this past year, the endeavour has become a passion project for the three wine lovers. “This was one of those things that was bound to happen sooner or later and is the natural progression of being in the wine business,” says Neuhof.
The idea to start making their own wine was sparked by Neuhof and Hoare after seeing some VQA grapes being grown by a childhood friends’ father in St. David’s Bench appellation of Niagara. With Hoare being a skilled winemaker and Neuhoff’s love of the vine, it seemed impossible not to make their own wine.
“Will has wanted to do this for a long time, it is an idea that Steve and he have been working on,” says Ouellette. “Will and Steve brought me on board,”’ he adds. “We have known each other for about 2 or 3 years now, and we have become fast friends. They brought me in to offer a different perspective.”
When I first heard of this project, I was curious about the decision to make natural wines. Ouellette has become a pusher of natural juice, pouring me wines that surprise during his time at Aprés Wine Bar. However, both Neuhof and Hoare come from classic wine backgrounds. Neuhof has been the sales agent for Reif Estate Winery, known for its traditional winemaking style. Hoare has been making wine for his family winery London Born Wine Co. in Beamsville for many years; I have come to know his style of winemaking as quite classic. There are challenges to making natural wines, they can be a bit unpredictable. Without cultured yeast and low intervention from the winemaker, they can be a risky move for a first vintage. On the flip side, the finished wine could be a hit.
“It was a challenge for me to convince Will and Steve to make wine in a low intervention style and to make choices that were risky with the intention of making something different,” said Ouellette.
“This process is new to me, it is out of my element to make a natural wine,” Hoare acknowledged. He explained, “I have always liked the idea of minimal intervention winemaking, and letting the wine express itself. It also gives you the avenue of freedom, because people that enjoy the low intervention wine style appreciate the wine for what it is. There are no boxes to be put into in the style of winemaking.”
For their first vintage, the three-man crew are making two wines. A skin contact Chardonnay, named the ‘Fakuff Chardonnay’ and a possibly oaked aged Merlot, the ‘Dominica Vineyard Merlot’. Both grapes were sourced from Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Chardonnay from the Smith Vineyard, just down the hill from St. David’s Bench, and the Merlot from the Dominica vineyard, at the top of the hill in St. David Bench. A vineyard owned by the Panko family, long time friends of Neuhof.
“We initially wanted to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the vintage was not showing as well,” Ouellette pointed out.
Neuhof added that, “the invariability of the weather might have really affected the grapes. That changed our decisions in making a Pinot Noir.”
With the grapes chosen and visions in alignment, the process of turning fruit into wine began. Hoare fermented both wines with their indigenous yeast, with no additives other than a bit of sulfites to stabilize the wine for sale; following the guidelines for making natural/low intervention wines.
“With the Chardonnay, I have never made it in this style, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. With the Merlot, I had more of an idea to how the fermentation would go, and the winemaking style has followed that. Both had their own challenges, but it is part of the appeal,” explained Hoare.
“We fermented the Chardonnay for two weeks on the skins, so when you get it on the palate, you are going to notice a really intense tannic finish. Right on the nose, you have a lot of reduction, as well as baked apples,” described Ouellette.
The baked apple aroma on the Chardonnay stuck out to me. Ouellette assured me that wine had not been through any malolactic conversion, which would have heightened baked fruit notes in a warm vintage. However, the 2019 vintage for Niagara was cool and wetter than normal. Where did the notes of baked apple come from?
“Will was nervous about using the natural yeast and doing a spontaneous fermentation, so the wine was fermented very warm,” explained Ouellette. He continued that making the wine at this temperature kick started the fermentation and brought out baked apple notes in the wine.
On the palate, the Chardonnay tastes very much like a natty wine. As dry as a Barolo, this Chardonnay is highly astringent with mouth-watering acidity. The combination of acidity and astringency reminds me of eating a Warhead sour candy.
“I think the Chardonnay needs a bit of work,” says Hoare. Continuing that, “[the wine] appeals to me more as an interesting wine, rather than a wine I want to sit there and drink every day. I like what was done with it, I like how it wasn’t pressed, I like the experimental factor of it. To me, it is an interesting wine. Its greatest appeal is that it is pushing boundaries, and it is unconventional.”
The Chardonnay posed some problems that the team say they have learned from immediately. It is hard to know what will happen with a natural ferment wine. It seems that choices made when fermenting the Chardonnay created some unexpected developments.
“In the future, they are going to ferment at a lower temperature,” says Ouellette. Speaking for the team, he thinks, “the reduction could also be coming from the heat of fermentation. The sulphur is also a side effect, those notes are coming from the natural yeast and the fermentation process. Right now, we have to stand behind the wine and expect it for what it is.”
There have been some hiccups in making the Chardonnay, but the trio stands behind the wine they have made. Their Merlot, on the other hand, has clearly been ‘the good kid,’ so to speak.
“I found the Merlot easy to deal with,” says Hoare. Although he continued, “it is not pushing barriers.”
Ouellette adds that “the Merlot is something we are a lot happier with. Semi carbonic is how Will fermented it, with no pressing. What we have in this wine is a lot for freshness.” He continues, “it shows the qualities of Merlot in the glass. We don’t have any oak on it yet. We are planning on getting one barrel, and ageing the Merlot one barrel at a time. We don’t see the wine being done soon, in about a year or two.”
I rarely get to try an unoaked Merlot. This wine is pure delight, filled with aromas of berry jam and soft black spices. On the palate, there is a bright level of acidity. It reminds me of the fresh and lively Garnacha-based wines coming out of Spain right now. The wine puts me in a different headspace, it is not what I expected, but with every sip, I loved it. I really hope that some of their Merlot remains unoaked.
The Sommelier, Salesman and Winemaker have made some bold and exciting choices. From choosing the name All-In Wines to how the wine was fermented, it is exciting to see the process and watch their vision come to life. Their Merlot remains the most appealing to me, the hands-off approach taken by Hoare screams natural wine, and I just love the way it tastes. I am curious to see how the Chardonnay develops. The wine had an unruly feel like it wasn’t ready to be woken up, but that tells me it has potential and time will tell how the wine develops. As the first vintage is ending with bottling around the corner, the trio is looking ahead to the next. Hinting at a second vintage with more varietals, like Syrah and Pinot Noir.
The love of natural wines has been growing. Although it’s heard from time to time, natural wines are seldom called ‘hippie juice’ anymore. This style of low-intervention winemaking has a way of expressing the world around the grape. Everything from where the grape grows to what yeast was growing on it adds to what you finally taste in your glass. Conveying that ‘sense of place’ every wine enthusiast is searching for.