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Meet the Canadian Winemakers who will Put Canadian Terroir on the Map

Andrew Brooks of Back 10 Cellars infuses his wines with the flavour of Canada

In the past ten years there has been huge growth in the Canadian wine industry – Ontario in particular. There are more bars and restaurants offering local wines, and even globally we are slowly, slowly, gaining recognition from wine writers and consumers for the wonderful wines we produce. That said, I think as a wine-making nation, we still have a long way to go.

I believe that a quality terroir starts with the winemakers – the ones who put their heart and soul into extracting the best from our soil. In my work as a sommelier I meet so many wonderful winemakers, and I want to share the conversations I have with them, with you. I truly believe the folks you’ll be hearing from are making a major difference by adding a unique Canadian touch to their wines.

I visited Andrew Brooks of Back 10 Cellars in Beamsville, Ontario, several years ago, after I had heard from some colleagues about an interesting boutique winery in Beamsville that needed to be checked out.

I’ve tasted many cool climate Chardonnays, and of all the Ontario Chardonnays, I had never tasted anything like Back 10 Cellars Chardonnay. The uniqueness of this wine comes from the winemaker’s decision to use Canadian oak, indigenous wild yeast, and of course, Canadian cool climate grapes, to create this ultra-Canadian wine.

Talking with Mr. Brooks about the unconventional use of local oak, I was curious to hear why it’s not more common for Canadian wineries to use Canadian oak; “I feel like Canadian oak hasn’t really caught on yet. There are a few wineries, such as Featherstone, using it, but the oak I use – it’s a particular oak – is fattier, which shows in the wine’s richness, unique creaminess, and tropical fruit. There is something very unusual coming from that oak, but we are being careful not to use more than 20% new wood; to not overdo the tropical fruit and to keep it within the classic Chardonnay characteristics.”

Regarding his choice to employ wild fermentation, Mr. Brooks mentions how risky it is, as the winemaker has very little control. “It’s almost voodoo.” Explains Mr. Brooks. “It suddenly starts and we have to monitor it like crazy, but I fundamentally believe that wild ferment adds more texture, nuance, and aroma to the wine.”

After spending many years in the restaurant industry, in 2002, Andrew and his wife Christina went out on a limb, left their lives in Calgary, purchased 10 derelict acres in Beamsville, Ontario, and began planting vines. Since then, their perspective on how our local wine industry has changed, and where are we are heading with our wine identity piqued my curiosity. “Back in 2002 when Christina and I arrived here, I felt like I was in the Wild West – anything was possible! I even heard about Zinfandel being planted around here.” But, says Brooks, “In the past five years more growers plant vines that fit our sense of style and place: Riesling, Cab Franc, Chardonnay, sparkling, and Pinot Noir. These wines will be our Canadian identity. I think that we make world-class Riesling at a reasonable price in Ontario; Cabernet Franc to an extent, Pinot Noir maybe less. Slowly but surely, winemakers are making better wines and local people find value in Canadian wines.”

Ontario winemakers don’t have it easy, with the cold weather and extreme variations in vintage conditions, making wines here is not an easy task. Asking Mr. Brooks what keeps his passion lit, he answered “I see the potential of the place, I love the seasons. I can’t wait for the sun to come, I feel like I want to attack the farm to keep on going, I love the flow of the seasons. I also love the wine conversation in the winery tasting room; there is always something new to talk about, new vintage, new challenges, new wines.”

For Mr. Brooks, the most important thing is to showcase interesting wines. “You won’t offend me if you say you don’t like something, but if you’ll tell me it’s boring then we have a problem. I want to make wines that are exciting!”

Another of the many great benefits of visiting Back 10 Cellars is that Andrew Brooks will probably be the one tasting the wines with you and having a very friendly, yet professional conversation about what he went through to make his beautiful wines shine. There is no better way than learning from the winemaker himself. And when you go, of course bring home a bottle of his fascinating Chardonnay, but don’t overlook his Cabernet Franc and Riesling.


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