This post is part of our ongoing series, Canadian Wine — specifically, Canadian wineries and the remarkable wines they produce. Today, Meaghan Carey shares the story of Pearl Morissette's wines and their high quality but "atypical" Niagara region style. Learn not only what makes their wines unique, but how the winery used their VQA experience as a major part of their branding.
No one wants to be the one not invited to the party or picked last in gym class.
Yet it’s happened to all of us, which is probably why this common plot is at the centre of many stories. If you know anything about Pearl Morissette wines, you may think it’s the centre of their story as well.
In Ontario, after a wine is produced the winemaker can submit it to the VQA (Vintners Quality Assurance) for inspection and certification. The wines are tested in labs (for “faults”) and then blind tasted by a panel of judges. The purpose of VQA certification is to guarantee a certain minimum level of quality.
Pearl Morissette’s Rieslings have been repeatedly rejected by the VQA for being “atypical” of the Niagara region
The 2010 vintage of Pearl Morissette Riesling was rejected four times by the VQA. In comparison to world wine regions, the Niagara region is still in its infancy, so you wouldn’t be alone in thinking, “What’s a typical Niagara Riesling?”. Does a 3-year-old have a defined personality that will remain the same throughout their entire life? Thankfully (for most), no, and a young wine region shouldn’t either; however, that’s a debate for another article.
François Morissette is Pearl Morissette’s vigneron (someone who cultivates the vineyard for winemaking). When his business partner informed him of the VQA’s repeated rejection of their 2010 Riesling by simply stating, “We’ve been blackballed,” Morissette needed a moment to translate the remark. It was a comment that stuck. The Riesling was released in 2011 under a playful new name: Cuvee Black Ball. That version wasn’t submitted to the VQA; the 2012 was, and rejected — twice. The 2013 Cuvee Black Ball received the approval of the VQA, while the tasting panel once again rejected the 2014.
The ‘black ball’ expression lives on with Pearl Morissette’s wine club, the Black Ball Wine Society, and the cheeky painting of their winery buildings black. Although the latter started with just one building, it was so aesthetically pleasing they chose to paint all the buildings on their home site black.
After spending a morning with Morissette and his winemaking partner Brent Rowland, it’s clear that although being excluded by the VQA has been the story most written about and most attached to the winery, it certainly isn’t the central plot for the dynamic, young winemaking team at Pearl Morissette.
Morissette has always been an innovator in the wine world. In the early 1990s he was part of a movement of sommeliers in Montreal who were pushing the status quo and creating innovative wine programs focusing on low sulphite wines. In 2000 Morissette followed his passion for wine to the Burgundy region of France, working several harvests and learning the traditional vigneron methods that have been practiced for centuries in the vineyards and candle-lit cellars.
While Morissette is French, he is French Canadian, and after several years living and working in France he felt the draw to return to his home country. Around the same time Toronto developer Mel Pearl decided to invest in the Niagara region, purchasing a vineyard site in Jordon. The region had been buzzing with the news of a Frank Gehry-designed winery and he felt the timing was right.
Morissette moved to Niagara in 2007, with the full support of Pearl to pursue his vision of natural winemaking following organic and bio-dynamic principles.
The home vineyard is located on Jordan Road next to the winery, and belongs to the Creek Shores appellation. The vineyard is 12 acres planted with Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir between the years of 2010 and 2012. This main site also features an orchard, an onsite event space, a herd of Galloway cattle, Berkshire pigs and a few ducks waddling around to greet you.
The original 19th Street Vineyard belongs to the Twenty Mile Bench appellation. It consists of 16.5 acres planted with Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. These vines were planted prior to Morissette’s arrival in Niagara, and required several years of care before yielding the quality of grape Morissette desired for his wines.
Through an ever-changing process of experimentation and exploration, the team at Pearl Morissette craft limited quantities of high quality wine. Each year is therefore a slightly different expression based on the climate and harvest. Morissette views his role as one of guiding the growing of the grapes and crafting of the wine. It’s a very low-interventionist approach.
The grapes are hand picked according to skin maturity, which Morissette and his team view as a key contributor to the flavours and textures of the wines. It’s texture that defines Pearl Morissette wines, obtained through their philosophy of oxidative winemaking. Oxidative winemaking is about allowing controlled oxygen exposure so the wine is able to develop non-primary fruit flavours and textural complexity. Wines made using an oxidative approach tend to be more stable, which leads to greater aging potential.
If you like miso, walnuts, or a hunk of Parmigiano, there’s a good chance you’ll like oxidative wines.
While some may consider the flavours and textures of Pearl Morissette wines to be atypical, the team that crafts the wines strives for each to be an honest expression of the Niagara region. To the critics, as Rowland so eloquently stated, the wines “… speak loudly in the glass.”
So what will be Pearl Morissette’s story?
Only time will tell.
From the short time spent at the Pearl Morissette winery, it’s easy to envision a key plot of changing the way we, and the rest of the world, think about Canadian wine. It’ll be a tale of teaching, inspiring and motivating other winemakers to say, “This is Canadian wine, this is Niagara wine.” Not proclaiming a wine to be a Burgundian style Pinot Noir made in Niagara. Of course, all while fighting our very Canadian urge to apologize for it.
Pearl Morissette Chardonnay is available at select LCBO stores. The full portfolio of wines is available for order from the winery’s website www.pearlmorisette.com.
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Canadian Wine: Pearl Morissette was written by Meaghan Carey. Meaghan shares her musings on life as she attempts to cook good food for family and friends from her small kitchen, on her blog Un Assaggio of Food, Wine, and Marriage. Raised in Cape Breton, Meaghan returns home as much as possible and loves to welcome friends to this picturesque corner of Canada each summer. Connect with Meaghan on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.