CWA 2010 Winery of the Year: Tawse
Tawse takes top honours as Winery of the Year
Burgundian winemakers don’t usually pay spontaneous compliments to New World wines.
But when the co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti had nice things to say about Tawse Winery’s chardonnay and pinot noir, he had a point.
And the winery’s triumph as Canadian Winery of the Year proves it.
In October 2008, Romanée-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine had dinner at Tawse, located in Vineland, Ontario. After the meal, he told Moray Tawse, his host, that he was taken aback by the sense of terroir he discerned in the wines. “There’s a big future for wines in this area, if you access that terroir,” de Villaine predicted.
If matters had turned out differently, Tawse, the vice-president of First National, a finance and real estate company, might have been competing in the same soil as Romanée-Conti. As a lover of Burgundy, Tawse had been visiting the region once a year to bike and to buy wines. Among his many friends there was Montrealer Pascal Marchand, who was then the winemaker at Boisset’s Clos de la Vougeraie.
Being an armchair admirer of Burgundy’s chardonnay and pinot noir, Tawse wanted to own a vineyard in the Côte d’Or and make his own wine to add to his extensive Burgundy collection. “I had some people looking for sites over there in 1998,” he confesses. But there was nothing to be found in his price range.
How, then, did this Burgundy lover, who was prepared to invest several million dollars in France, come to create one of Ontario’s leading destination wineries?
The answer is in a bottle of wine.
In 2000, Rob Jull of Vinifera, a Burgundy importer in Toronto, gave Tawse a bottle of the Temkin-Paskus 1997 Chardonnay. This iconic wine was produced in miniscule quantities by wine writer Steven Temkin and winemaker Deborah Paskus. The grapes were grown by Steve Kocsis at his Mountain Road Wine Company in Beamsville.
“I was just blown away. What great terroir,” recalls Tawse. “All the Ontario wines I had had until then had been quite uninteresting — to put it politely.”
Following that epiphany, Tawse began to hunt for vineyard land on the bench of the Niagara Escarpment. He also hired Paskus as his first winemaker. (The current winemaker, Paul Pender, joined in 2005.)
Through Paskus, he met Kocsis who, in addition to being a winegrower, also ran a local real estate business. Kocsis found him land — a little less than 10 acres on Cherry Avenue in Vineland, Ont., which would become the home site for Tawse Winery.
When Tawse acquired the property, it was planted to old vine chardonnay (which would be christened Robyn’s Block, after his daughter). The initial idea was to make only chardonnay and pinot noir, as an homage to Burgundy, but since there were a few acres of riesling dating back to 1978 (now called Carly’s Block, after another daughter), he decided to keep riesling as part of the portfolio. (His son David would wait until his father acquired more land for his name to be attached to the cabernet and merlot vineyard.)
After the initial production of 2,000 cases in the 2002 vintage, Tawse began to look for additional properties. “I was interested in what I call terroir grapes — chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and, to a degree, cabernet franc,” Tawse says.
Currently, the winery owns roughly 57 hectares on five sites scattered along the bench from Vineland to Beamsville and, this year, production at the gravity-feed winery reached 20,000 cases.
“I wanted to make the best wine in Ontario,” says Tawse. “I was very interested in the different terroirs, and I always thought of the vineyards as I do now; they’re sort of like children, and you get to mould them and help them bring out the skills that they have — just like kids. Some will be quiet, thoughtful people; some will be boisterous and loud.”
“Vineyards have the same sort of personality, and by doing the farming with the organics and biodynamics, we’re trying to bring out the personality of each of the vineyards.”
A perfectionist, Tawse spent a lot of time researching what would be the perfect processing system, and he designed his winery from scratch. “I used three different architects, two different engineering firms, two different sets of consultants," he says. "We wanted to make it absolutely perfect.”
When Marchand ended his consulting contract with Le Clos Jordanne in 2006, Tawse immediately hired him and, through Marchand’s Burgundy contacts, he had access to small Burgundian coopers, whose barrels are not normally available to North American wine producers. Marchand also hired soil experts from France to determine what type of rootstock should be used for the replanting and how to change the drainage. “We do the French draining system rather than the tile drain right down the middle,” he says.
For the average visitor, a vineyard is a vineyard, but the winery building and its setting create the biggest impression. “We want to have an impact as people drive through the gates,” says Tawse. “We try to awe them. They go, ‘Oh my God, look at this. I should be in California or Europe.’”
The dramatic sloped roof of the contemporary winery, reflected in an ornamental pond, suggests the height within that allows for a gravity-feed operation on six levels, together with three barrel-aging cellars. Two horses plow the best plots so as not to compact the soil under the weight of tractors. Chickens, ducks and lambs wander the vineyard, all part of the biodynamic philosophy that Pender and his boss enthusiastically embrace.
“You’re bringing life back to the soil,” says Pender. “You get more of a sense of terroir in vineyards that are farmed organically and biodynamically.”
And the results of this scrupulous care are reflected in the quality of the wines throughout the portfolio.
When pressed to share which wine he is proudest of, Tawse will tell you they’re all his children. But he will admit that Robyn’s Block Chardonnay, from the site he started with, has a special place in his heart. “It’s the first wine that we made that brought us acclaim,” he says.
Pender says the Robyn’s Block Chardonnay is also one of his favourites, as is the Carly’s Block Riesling, but lately, he has become more interested in the Quarry Road Chardonnay. “The wine just gets better and better,” he says. “I find it really exciting.”
Tawse agrees. “In the Quarry Road vineyard [the latest acquisition], we’ve done tight Burgundian planting. That’s the one I’m most excited about coming up,” he says. “We’re just releasing our first bottling of last year’s Quarry Road Pinot Noir. It’s got great minerality, texture and depth in it for being young vines, so I’m really excited about that vineyard.”
And the 2010 vintage? “We’re looking forward to a great year…It’s going to be the best year Ontario’s ever seen.”