By Jamie Drummond

I have greatly respected Ontario Winemaker Norman Hardie (or Norm as everyone calls him) as a Winemaker, taster and friend for so many years, tasting with him whenever the opportunity presents itself, and a couple of years back recording a  lengthy podcast  that you can listen to right here. Just the other day I had the pleasure of spending an entire Ontario Winter’s day with  the man himself. The journey to his winery in Prince Edward County was most worthwhile and made for one of the most concise and exhaustive tastings that I have ever had the pleasure of participating in.

After a two hour drive from Toronto we finally approached the winery. I noted the snow-covered vines and suddenly thought that it would be interesting for Norm to explain some of the harsh realities of viticulture in a marginal climate such as Prince Edward County. For example, did you realise that in order to ensure the survival of the vines throughout the colder months of the year, a Prince Edward County Grapegrower must bury or “hill” his or her vines? Cue Good Food Revolution’s very first video segment… and please note that this is my very first experimentation within this medium, so be sure to be somewhat gentle with your criticism of my production values:

Once inside the relative “warmth” of the winery’s cellar itself we began tasting through the barrel samples of Norm’s 2009 Chardonnays. For those of you who have never experienced a true barrel tasting, I must explain that it can be quite a challenge to perceive the potential of these unfinished wines. Many barrel and tank samples are still going through the stage of their evolution known as malolactic fermentation, the conversion of tart malic acid into the softer lactic acid. A wine still completing “malo” will often exhibit very little of its true fruit characteristics and so one has to look at the texture and minerality that come through on the plate in order complete a correct evaluation. Quite often wines going through this process give off what are referred to as reductive odours, which in the most extreme cases can smell slightly unpleasant to the olfactory organs of the inexperienced. A trained nose and palate can see beyond this, and so it essential for a Winemaker to be tasting from his barrels at least once a week in order to evaluate the progress of the wine’s élevage, and to be able to make informed decisions regarding the future of said barrel or tank. After tasting through a number of the single vineyard components of both his Niagara and Prince Edward County Chardonnays, Norm gave us a fascinating glimpse into the future, creating an on-the-spot assemblage of his newest wine, the “reserve” level “Cuvée L” Chardonnay made up of both Niagara and Prince Edward County fruit sources. The wine will be released mid 2010. Here’s Norm to explain the story behind this exceptional wine:

Following on from his beautiful Chardonnays, Norm took me over to his tank room where we tasted through the 2009 vintages of his Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgogne and Riesling… and then he brought out a little surprise. Norm still has a little bit of his 2008 Riesling (sourced from the acclaimed Wismer Vineyard in Niagara) in tank, and with the extended lees contact it has endured this wine was tasting very special indeed. If it ever sees the light of day, Norm will not be releasing this wine until around the Spring of 2010. It is a bottling that I highly recommend any of you Riesling fanatics keep your ears to the ground for.

A tasting exploring both toast, barrel age, and Coopers

And so we reached the principal reason for the excursion to Norm’s winery: an in depth barrel tasting in order to put together an extremely special wine-tasting session for 2010’s Terroir Hospitality Symposium this coming March 2nd. Norm and New York wine authority Paul Grieco will lead the room through a tutored tasting of Norm Hardie’s 2009 vintage Pinot Noir. What is exceptional about this tasting is that the group will be led through six examples of the same wine matured in different barrels. Through this exercise the assembled tasters will gain a greater understanding of the many effects of a well-managed oak regime/barrel program, as well as the intricacies and nuances that come about through the utilisation of different Coopers, toast levels, and ages of barrels. This is a tasting that is not to be missed. See the Terroir website for ticket details.

For this flight we tasted through twelve wines in all, six from Niagara fruit and six from Prince Edward County. Unusually, the County fruit had been harvested four days before the Niagara fruit in this particular vintage and so Norm was originally looking to pour the County Pinot for the tasting in March at Terroir. Upon tasting it became apparent that at this point the County Pinots were going through the aforementioned malolactic fermentation and were not showing quite as expressively as their Niagara counterparts at this stage in their evolution. Although the Niagara wines were also completing their secondary fermentation it became clear that for the purposes of this exercise it would most probably be a better idea to pour the Niagara wines at the Terroir session.

Lunch at the winery after the barrel tasting

After a delicious well-deserved luncheon of Braised Brisket with Flageolets cooked in Norm’s Pinot Noir (recipe to follow perhaps?) we moved back to the winery to taste through the 2008 releases. These wines are currently available but in extremely limited quantities. Visit Norm’s website for details regarding getting your mitts on some… or better still, pay the winery a visit yourself, but always be sure to call ahead… and be sure to tell them that Good Food Revolution sent you!

2008 Norman Hardie “County” Chardonnay Prince Edward County VQA
The nose gives one citrus, apricot and stones. Simple enough you may think?… but no… The wine shows reserve but at the same time exhibits some fascinatingly complex gunsmoke aromatics that may  puzzle the uninitiated. The extended lees contact so apparent in many of Norm’s wines in many ways evident here, but a little less prevalent that in previous years, bringing a pleasant texture to the glass. On the focused palate there an incredible vitality, particularly on the back of the palate, the expression of true terroir that many Winemakers see as the holy grail. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon goes as far as calling this enigmatic component a wine’s “Life Force”.
I find this vintage of County Chardonnay very exciting indeed.

2008 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Niagara Peninsula VQA
Despite being a different beast altogether from the County bottling, this particularly delicious beast reeks of Norm Hardie’s winemaking style, and this is no bad thing. Showing a remarkable amount of opulence for a cool climate chardonnay, this wine rewards with surprisingly ripe green/yellow fruit character that belies the relatively cool vintage that was 2008. In the mouth the wine is pure Norm Hardie with texture, structure and minerality all coming together front, mid and back palate. No slouch when it comes to acidity I can see this wine getting better and better with time. A superbly balanced wine that I look forward to re-tasting as soon as possible… for purely selfish reasons.

2008 Norman Hardie “County” Pinot Noir Prince Edward County VQA
Barring his next door neighbour Dan Sullivan at Rosehall Run, I have always felt that Norm has a touch with Prince Edward County Pinot Noir that is second-to-none. It’s the vineyards of course, and the way in which these two talented Winemakers take care of said vineyards. This edition shows a wonderful delicacy of red fruit aromatics: raspberries, wild strawberries. There is also an ethereal perfume that I just couldn’t put my olfactory finger upon. The limestone seems to sing from the soil to the roots, the roots to the vine, the vine to the grape, the grape to the wine, the wine to your entire experience. It’s a very classic linear wine, and with its relatively low alcohol not a wine that will necessarily please the bullied palates of those weaned on Sideways-leaning Golden State Pinots, but for me it is pretty damn close to perfection. There is a lot of wine in this glass if you know where to look.

2008 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Niagara Peninsula VQA
To choose between the Norm Hardie County and Niagara Pinots has always been a difficult decision for me. On one hand I enjoy the leaner style of the County, but occasionally I am seduced by the richness and fruit component of the Niagara. In the case of this particular vintage I have to say that I feel Norm’s Niagara bottling to be one of best wines he has put his name to. The fruit profile is undoubtedly darker, with the clay/limestone soils adding their unmistakable influence upon the juice. On the nose the dense, darker fruit aromatics are lifted by a little something that simply has to be the delicious Niagara dirt peeking through. Quite how Norm pulls off this kind of fruit/acid balance in a vintage such as 2008 is truly a mystery to me, but then I don’t have anything near the experience with Pinot that Mr. Hardie does. The palate is both satisfying and thorough, with magnificent structure and finish. One of my favourite wines of the year thus far.

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.