Niagara winery Pearl Morissette part of a natural wine trend

November 22, 2016 - THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A fruit fly has settled, unceremoniously, on the tip of my nose.

I am standing in the clamorous Pearl Morissette winery in Ontario’s Niagara Region, the raisin aroma of fermenting grapes all around. The 54-year-old winemaker François Morissette hands me a glass, and at the hint of open wine, the little jerks who have been loitering around the nearby barrels make their move.

The scene is a far cry from the sterile tasting-rooms-slash-retail-stores that visitors find at many wineries, and that is the point. Pearl Morissette is one Canadian contributor to a burgeoning movement of “natural” or “low-intervention” wineries that are attempting to create a product whose taste better reflects the character of the region, or a sense of place. The setting is designed to reinforce that: Fuzzy baby ducks amble around a pond outside near lolling cows in a field. Work goes on all around as I taste. Bottles sit on a black plastic rolling cart, with a plastic basin to spit in. Morissette wants visitors to hear the story of the winemaking process, but also to feel they are in the middle of it. There is a very conscious crafting of a sense of authenticity and pastoral romance.

There is also a deliberately cultivated mystique: There is no sign at the entrance to the vineyard. The people who run the place will proudly say that not everyone loves their wines. They celebrate the fact they have been rejected by industry standard-bearers, asking people to join their “Black Ball Wine Society.” The vibe is contrarian, wonky and disdainful of bus tours and typical winery culture.

And it all got started here because Frank Gehry never finished a building.

In 2002, Vincor, then a Canadian wine giant, and its French partner, Boisset, announced plans for a Gehry-designed winery in the vineyard of Le Clos Jordanne in Jordan, Ont. Dreaming of Bilbao, where a Gehry museum transformed the Spanish city, Toronto-based real estate developer Mel Pearl snapped up about 50 acres five minutes’ walk away, for a little more than $1-million.

But the project stalled, and in 2006, Vincor sold to U.S. giant Constellation Brands. Pearl’s bit of speculation had fallen flat: He found himself with land that wasn’t going to appreciate by itself. He decided to get into the wine business, and was willing to invest millions more to get a winery running. He just needed a winemaker.

Around the same time, the Quebec-born Morissette was in France’s Burgundy region, learning as much as he could about natural wine. The movement started in the forties in Burgundy’s Beaujolais appellation with winemaker and chemist Jules Chauvet, who resisted adding sulphur to wine and embraced fermentation with indigenous yeasts. Appreciation for the techniques spread in France and then slowly everywhere else: As recently as 2005, The New York Times referred to it as “almost a secret world, a shadow wine industry … catering to a tiny but fervent band of consumers.”

Morissette was turned onto what some call “low-intervention wine” in the early nineties by Jeannot Gingras, one of the first Quebec “somms” to champion natural wine. Morissette calls Gingras “a big reason why I’m a vigneron today.” After eight seasons in France, during a visit home in 2006, Morissette heard through an acquantaince about “a crazy guy looking for a winemaker,” in Pearl’s words, in Niagara.

“I didn’t want to come here at all,” he says. “I was in Burgundy; why the hell would I come to Southern Ontario?” He had a low opinion of Niagara wine, but he visited anyway. As he tasted local wines, he recognized that people were doing some interesting things – particularly Le Clos Jordanne, where the Gehry building had been planned.

He told Pearl that he’d be happy to sign on if he would be allowed to experiment and make wine exactly as he wanted, without external pressure. The developer agreed, though Morissette was not the safest choice. “I had no name really – still don’t, largely, and I don’t care,” he says. “I had no reputation as being a leader on this stage.”

A high-wire act

“Natural” is a funny term, used in many products as a bit of marketing hocus-pocus to make foods and beverages sound more healthy, more wholesome and hand-hewn than they actually are. Natural wines, generally, are about minimal interventions such as filtering or additives that control the way a wine develops. This is different than organic wine, a designation that means pesticides are regulated, but does not necessarily eschew other additives.

Sulphur, which protects wine from the ravages of oxygen, is used as sparingly and as late in the process as possible: Many winemakers use it at harvest to eliminate dangers, then reacidify the wines and use added enzymes to control the parameters of how it develops. “After you sterile-filter it, you eliminate anything that is alive in the wine,” Morissette says. One criticism of low intervention is that wines can more easily become oxidized and taste off, but he says he monitors the aging process carefully to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Morissette also shuns pesticides, though he will reconsider if the vineyard is in jeopardy – he compares it to toxic chemotherapy, a necessary but not long-term measure. Instead, he uses oils, protein films and plant decoctions he says discourage pests without compromising the surrounding biodiversity or posing a danger to the bees that are kept on-site.

“Are you a climber?” he asks, leaning a ladder against a big cement tank in which grapes are fermenting. Once we are kneeling on top of the tank, he lifts the lid and presses his palm into the grape clusters, releasing a bubbling pink foam. “See how pretty that is?” Soon, a worker in overall-style waders will climb into the tank to press the grapes manually.

Pearl Morissette practises whole-cluster fermenting, rather than picking grapes off their stems. This allows lactic bacteria to more quickly feed off malic acid, an important but unstable acid in wines. This process yields different flavours and textures in the wine.

Fermentation is done with natural yeasts from the field, rather than the commercial yeasts that many winemakers use because they are more predictable. But that also makes it more difficult to control the kind of volatile acidity responsible for vinegar; through constant tasting, Morissette says the winemakers have learned when things are going sideways. The wines are unfiltered and left on their lees (a mixture of grape-skin debris and dead-yeast deposits), which “through an enzymatic process, will nourish the wine and give it further tints, aromas, structure,” Morissette says. He wants the wines to keep changing while they sit in the bottle.

“I’ve always been a believer in the way life organizes itself,” he says. “… We humans are very presumptuous, wanting to play l’apprenti sorcier.”

The natural-wine movement has its detractors. Influential wine critic Robert Parker has dismissed them, tweeting in early 2014 that “the undefined scam called ‘natural’ or ‘authentic’ wines will be exposed as a fraud – (most serious wines have no additives).” But over all, appreciation is expanding. This month, the London-based Raw Wine fair was held in the United States for the first time. Some Canadian wineries are making a name in the field, most prominently the Norman Hardie winery in Ontario’s Prince Edward County.

Joshua Corea, sommelier and co-owner of Archive wine bar in Toronto, says a growing interest in low-intervention wines is especially visible among younger drinkers, the same types who gravitate to craft beer and are receptive to a broader range of flavours. “Wine has been marketed as a natural artisanal product of terroir, when much of it has been the product of the chemistry set of 200-plus allowable additives produced on an industrial scale, turning it into a homogenized wine-like alcoholic beverage,” he says.

Producing low-intervention wines is a high-wire act, he says, since “you must be even cleaner in the winery to avoid microbiological elements from being the overpowering flavour in the wine.” But Corea believes the results are worth it. “The wines have a lot of character to them,” he says of the bottles from Pearl Morissette. “Taste is sometimes a hard thing to put in words, but they have an alive-ness to them and a complexity of flavour.”

The unusual tastes that this approach can yield have created problems for certifying wines. “This earned me four rejections from the VQA,” Morissette says, sipping a riesling that is less sweet than drinkers might expect from that grape.

The Vintners Quality Alliance is the group that manages “appellation of origin” labelling for the province. Securing VQA approval is not mandatory for a winery, but there are financial incentives. For example, wineries keep about 77 per cent of the revenue on VQA-approved wines sold to restaurants, wine bars, event spaces or other licensed sellers, compared with just 59 per cent for non-VQA-certified sales.

When the VQA was established in 1988, Ontario wines had a reputation for low quality. The alliance played a major role in the advancement of the region. But now some winemakers, including Norm Hardie, have been vocal about their desire for change. Like Morissette’s riesling, Hardie’s wines have sometimes been rejected by the alliance.

“My concern is that the wine world is moving very, very fast … The VQA is very slow in adapting to where the wine world is from a global standpoint,” Hardie says. He believes the VQA should verify truth in labelling and grape origins, but questions the idea of a quality standard based on an idea of typical taste profiles. “The tasting panel, while very qualified, has given a sort of box in which to taste wines, and if they fit in the box, the wines pass,” he says. “Imagine if the rules of painting were made around the impressionists. We’d never have a Warhol. We’d never have a Picasso.”

The VQA’s regulations do evolve: The alliance no longer bans screw caps, and recently has been working on developing a category for approving “appassimento” wines made from dried grapes. “It’s a bit of a myth that we try to pick out wines that are typical. For almost all wine styles, there’s a huge range of flavour profiles that they could have,” VQA executive director Laurie Macdonald says. “What the tasting looks for is that the wine is free of faults or defects.”

Morissette disagrees that this is a reliable measure. “Let the customer decide what’s good and bad,” he says.

More recent rieslings (and other wines) from Pearl Morissette have been approved by the VQA tasting panel, but in any case, that early rejection was a marketing opportunity. The winery named the 2010 non-VQA riesling “Black Ball,” a name that would soon become central to its brand identity. The buildings on the property are painted black and a Black Ball logo is stamped on the non-approved bottles’ labels in place of the usual VQA signifier.

’We don’t ever want to be a really big winery’

During my visit, Morissette walks over to a large cask to pour wine that is still in the fermenting stage. He introduces this first to give a visitor a sense of the path the wines take to the bottle. A riesling looks almost like a glass of apple cider and is still overwhelmingly sugary; a fizzing chardonnay, cloudy with unsettled grape-skin debris, tastes almost like a mimosa; a fuchsia-coloured pinot noir is just starting and has only reached about 4-per-cent alcohol, Morissette estimates. A darker-hued pinot, which is just about to be pressed, bottled and aged for a year, has a slightly harsh tannin smack that he says will taper off somewhat as it ages.

We move on to the finished products – two chardonnays, a gamay, a cabernet franc – each with their own story about the weather that year, the aging process, the time in the bottle. We taste an orange wine, a mixture of white grapes aged in clay amphoras with their skins on, giving them a deeper honey colour. He also pours a newer brand with the somewhat questionable name Métis, which is meant to be an easy-drinking blend of grape varietals. “[The name] comes from Manitoba, originally, that mixture of native and white. Anything can go in there, any grape varietal,” Morissette says. “It’s the blend of the year.”

Morissette started out with five barrels of pinot noir in 2007, using facilities at Hidden Bench winery, then six barrels of chardonnay in 2008 with the help of Featherstone Estate Winery. By 2009, Pearl Morissette had its own building and did 10 barrels. Only in 2012 did it begin selling its wine. A 19-person team now runs the winery, including 10 Mexican labourers who work the fields eight months of the year. Pearl Morissette has 13 acres of vines at its main location and 18 more at a vineyard not far away. The plan is to plant 20,000 more vines next year, which will begin producing fruit three to five years later.

“I don’t have much of an appreciated return on it, but the investment is solid,” Pearl says. “I’m happy to go on forever with it, unless someone offers some stupid money for it … This year or maybe next year, we could be in a break-even position … We don’t ever want to be a really big winery. But we want to create a brand, a certain quality, the integrity of the product.”

While Pearl Morissette does limited releases with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario every year, it prefers to sell on-site and direct to customers through the website, which allows them to keep a bigger cut of revenue. Typical of many small wineries, “selling at your doorstep is the only way you can make a little money,” Morissette says.

It doesn’t do the volume a large-scale retail release would require – production reached just 4,400 cases total this year, with a target of 7,000 to 8,000 in the next few years. Instead, the winery caters to restaurateurs in Canada and the United States, and international buyers; current markets include Germany, Hong Kong, Denmark, Austria and France. A few months ago, it began working with a U.S. distributor – an expanded effort in that market.

Morissette says his goal is to prove the mettle of Canadian wine on a global stage. He applauds the recognition granted to Hardie, whose chardonnay has been named by Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer as one of his wines of the year more than once. “My focus has always been to be an international brand,” he says. “The product is of international quality.”

The winery has launched another project in California, also backed by Pearl, which will launch officially next year under the label Chamboulé. It’s also now building an on-site restaurant in its Niagara space, in the large minimalist building originally constructed as a tractor barn. Opening early next year, it will be overseen by chef Daniel Hadida and will pair Pearl Morissette wines with food from local farmers and foragers, as well as its own farm, which includes a peach and pear orchard, Galloway cows, those fuzzy ducks and Berkshire pigs.

At the same time, it will fight to keep a mystique. Even when the restaurant opens, there will be no sign, although Morissette muses about putting up a sculpture of a character holding a black ball.