Posts Tagged ‘Pillitteri Estate Winery’

Our wine of the month club discovers the talent of Sue-Ann Staff

Posted by Susan

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012


Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery
Presented by Sommelier Susan Desjardins

Sue-Ann Staff ‘s name precedes her reputation in the Canadian wine industry. Growing up on the family farm, it was natural to pursue a degree in horticulture and biotechnology from the University of Guelph. Shortly after graduating, she headed to Australia to complete a graduate degree in oenology at the University of Adelaide.

With her graduate studies as the launching pad for her winemaking career, she worked the harvest at a winery in Australia’s Hunter Valley, then returned home to Niagara, beginning her career as assistant winemaker at Pillitteri Estates under the guidance of Joe Will. Within 6 months, she was named winemaker, spending 10 years crafting internationally recognized award-winning wines. When the newly founded Twenty Bees Winery came calling with an ambitious icewine program for Sue-Ann & she accepted. “I learned a huge amount about operations, planning and governance, and got great experience that led me later to decide to establish my own winery”. Through the years, she’s also visited and worked in France, Germany, Andorra & South Africa.

Following what seemed an inescapable destiny, she founded Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, and took on the role of Winemaster for the John Howard Cellars of Distinction, producing wines for the Megalomaniac brand. Already marked in her winemaking career, she has been acclaimed Winemaker of the Year (2002) by the Ontario Wine Society and has twice been recognized as one of the top four ‘Women in Wine’ by the International Wine and Spirits society in the U.K.

Rooted in her land, makes quality wines

Growing up on the farm, Sue-Ann developed an intimate understanding of the interplay between the land and the wine. “It seems like a cliché, but I’m a farmer’s daughter.” She has lived the evolution of her family’s property: the growth of juice and table grapes, the impact of Canadian-US Free Trade agreement, the vine pull-out program & the disappearance of local processing plants. Stubbornly, the family has continued to plant vinifera grapes.

Of the 140 acres on the home farm, 35 are under vine. Taking a conservative approach, the reliable Riesling and Baco Noir grapes were planted 15 years ago, followed by Pinot Gris 6 years later. Cabernet Franc, Vidal and Viognier followed 5 years ago, although, says Sue-Ann “Viognier is a stretch up here on the Beamsville escarpment”. Recognizing Niagara’s cool-climate terroir, Sue-Ann identified and planted those varietals most suitable to the region and the property, the parcels specifically selected to optimize the chosen varietal. The property sits astride two Niagara sub-appellations, 20-Mile Bench and Vinemount Ridge. The Ridge lies just above and south of the brow of the Niagara Escarpment, a long narrow moraine whose subtly undulating landscape creates many shallow, east- and south-facing slopes that provide ideal sun exposure and early spring warming to the deep clay soils. The Bench exhibits a recognizable double bench formation and short varied slopes that roll to the brow of the escarpment. Sheltered north-facing slopes & moderated temperatures due to the lake effect create ideal growing conditions.

A winery with a conscience

Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery is a designated sustainable winery, where low water use & conscientious efficient use of resources and materials ensure a minimal impact of grape growing and winemaking on the estate environment. In this commitment, she follows in the footsteps of her ancestors, who have been stewards of the land for two centuries.

Estate Winery Home at Sue-Ann Staff Winery in Niagara

 Sue-Ann produces VQA wines from estate-grown grapes, her goal to create enticing, vibrant whites, intriguing reds and luscious icewines. Coming back to the land, she reminisces, “after 10 years at Pillitteri, I had forgotten how rewarding it is to cultivate a vineyard, to nurture my own vines, to watch the entire grape maturation process—this is one of the great satisfactions in my life.”

With her first crush in 2008, she produced 2000 cases (approx. 24,000 bottles). She anticipates that 2011 will yield an increase to 3000 cases, with a goal of 6000 cases by 2013. After that, it’s a matter of scale, and Sue-Ann will have to decide where she wants to take her estate winery.

“It’s the first time I’ve been responsible for the entire process. It’s a satisfying day when the harvest comes in, & the sense of personal satisfaction continues when the wine is bottled. It’s a bit like your children graduating from university.” We’d say these graduates are magna cum laude!

Enjoy this month’s Savvy Selections!



On the road again…to Niagara!

Posted by Susan

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

A recent week-long trip to the Niagara area offered not only great golfing weather, but an opportunity to take in Wainfleet’s Marshville Heritage Festival before visiting a few of my favorite wineries,  all of which will be featured in our Savvy Selections wine of the month club over the next few months.

The Marshville Heritage Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.  Organized entirely by volunteers, the Festival celebrates the 1829 founding of a small Ontario village associated with the construction of the first Welland Canal.  The volunteer society has restored 17 buildings, including a one and one-half story limestone house built in 1790, a sawmill built in 1891 (at the Festival, it was being run by the 70-year-old grandsons of the founder – how neat is that!?), an outdoor oven (where women in period dress were baking fabulous cornbread), and a cabinet-maker’s shop which once belonged to J.W. Overholt, a prominent abolitionist who sheltered escaped slaves.  A wide range of artisans and food vendors vied for space with the historical buildings.  The Festival is the Society’s primary fundraiser and is a great educational and entertainment event for all ages.  If you’re in the Niagara area in early September next year, don’t miss it this festival.

After an enjoyable couple of days at the Festival and on the golf links, I got down to the serious business of wine tasting!  My first stop was Reif Estate Winery, where I met with Klaus Reif, President and Oenologist, and Andrea Kaiser, who is responsible for the winery’s retail operations and promotion.  We had a great chat about Klaus’ early years, the evolution of the winery, as well as some the new challenges he has set himself.  This includes the innovative use of tobacco kilns for creating temperature-controlled environments to dry grapes for passito-style wines and to produce botrytis-affected grapes for Sauternes-style wines.  Reif Estate has some great wines, including some outstanding Bordeaux-style blends.  More to follow in the Savvy Selections  this November.  Consider subscribing for an opportunity to try some of the hard to find Reif wines along with the recipes we recommend! 

For those of you who know me, I am a strong proponent of organic wines, so my trip included a visit at Frogpond Farm  and Southbrook Vineyards, both of which will be featured in spring issues of the Savvy Selections. 

Frogpond Farm is the original certified organic winery in Niagara.  Jens and Heike are excited about their expansion onto a new certified organic acreage in the peninsula, and are now producing wines in 750 ml bottles as well as their traditional 500 ml format.  We tasted a range of wines, including the 2006 Cabernet Franc from their original property and the 2007 Cabernet Franc from the new property.  This side-by-side tasting was a great opportunity to compare the significant differences terroir and vintage can make to a wine.  While the 2006 is brawny and robust, the 2007 is more fruity and delicate.  We laughingly decided that the former was more ‘masculine’, while the latter, more ‘feminine’!

I spent time with Elena Galey-Pride, Director of Customer Experience at Southbrook Vineyards, learning about their transition to biodynamic and organic viticulture and viniculture.  To quote their winemaker, Anne Sperling, “Biodynamics is like extreme organics!”  In effect, biodynamic producers have a profound respect for the influence of nature on their crops and products, and work to optimize, preserve and recycle the resources of their farmed land.  The biodynamic processes on site continue to evolve, with a decision made to establish their own herd of sheep next year, and the use of natural fermentation in winemaking.  Southbrook’s first biodynamic release was their Cabernet Franc Rose this summer – we sipped from one of the few remaining bottles.  In October, the winery will release their second biodynamic wine, the 2008 Triomphe Merlot, which offers strong fruity flavors with a great balance of acidity and tannins. 

Pillitteri Estates Winery was our last stop of the day, where we participated in a wonderfully informative tour of the winery, then tasted a wide range of their still and sweet wines.  The Pillitteri family story seems like a Canadian fairy tale.  Gary Pillitteri came to Canada in 1948, when his grandfather purchased their original 56-acre fruit farm off Niagara Stone Road.  A series of photos show the evolution of the farm from orchard to vineyard, and of the retail building from fruit stand to combined tasting room, retail shop and fruit stand.  When Gary won his first award as an amateur winemaker for his Vidal ice wine, a family decision was made to move beyond grape growing into winemaking.  Pillitteri Estates Winery has expanded to 100 acres and is a family affair involving Gary, his wife, their three children and the five grandchildren.  Fifty-five or more percent of their production is sweet wines, for which they have won numerous prestigious awards, including a recent gold for their Shiraz Ice Wine at the Syrah du Monde competition.  Yet, with all this success, staff at the winery speak with great affection about the work environment the family has created.  Said one individual, “Mrs. P (Pillitteri) often comes in and makes pizza for everyone on the weekend.  And the family usually gathers in the winery at the end of the day to share dinner.”  Not only does Mrs. P make pizza, as I noticed when we were in the tasting room, she also comes by and helps the staff wash tasting glasses! 

We toured Pillitteri’s barrel cellar, which is one of the largest in the Niagara at 6000 square feet.  In the barrel cellar, Gary Pillitteri has created a fascinating homage to his success in Canada.  He firmly believes that 23 is his lucky number.  He arrived in Canada on that date, and his wife and two of his children were born on that date.  The 42-foot-long single-pour concrete table in the cellar is surrounded by 23 chairs made from a single steel fermentation tank.  The table has 5 supporting legs (2+3) and 23 lights hand above it.  23 steps lead from the barrel cellar to the tasting room. 

After the extensive tour, we were thirsty, so up those stairs we went!!  We sampled the toasty 2007 Sur Lie Chardonnay, the aromatic 2008 Gewurztraminer/Riesling blend, and the Bottled Blond Bradshaw Reserve – Dr. Marc  Bradshaw, Pillitteri’s young winemaker from SouthAfrica, dyes his hair, hence the name!  Among the reds, we sampled both the 2007 Merlot and the 2002 Merlot, each reflecting its unique vintage and winemaker.  And the 2007 Cabernet Franc was a great hit, full-bodied and well balanced with a lingering finish.  One of my favorite sweet wines is Pillitteri’s Select Late Harvest Chambourcin, produced from a hybrid varietal – it has a beautiful balance of tart red fruit, rhubarb and honey.  The grand finale was a taste of the 2007 Sticky Beak Ice Wine, which includes a blend of the Cabernets, Sangiovese and Shiraz – the perfect ending to a beautiful experience.  Pillitteri Estates Wines has been a Savvy Selections feature in past years, and we look forward to showcasing their wines again soon. 

Our thirst sated, we were hungry!  On a recommendation, we headed to Olson Foods at Ravine.  This is the new home of Anna and Michael Olson’s gourmet bakery and deli, located in St. David’s adjacent to Ravine Vineyards.  Opened in the summer of 2008, the single-story rustic building looks like an old farmhouse with an inviting veranda surrounding it. The scarred wooden tables and mismatched chairs make the interior feel like you’re stepping into your grandmother’s kitchen.  Anna was welcoming guests and helping out at the cash, where she willingly signed copies of her recipe books.  The food was great  – sharing plates or modest main plates were freshly made with local ingredients, and very reasonably priced.  A wide range of fresh breads and pastries tempted us to stay for a lingering cup of tea.  And the wide range of condiments, oils, vinegars and kitchen necessities beckoned from the well-planned displays.  This is a must-visit spot whether or not you are visiting wineries!  

If you can’t make it to Niagara but are tempted by some of the great wines I’ve mentioned, contact me to order a selection of wines from Reif Estate Winery,  Frogpond Farm, Southbrook Vineyards or Pillitteri Estates – or any other winery featured in our Savvy Selections .   



PS – when you are heading to Niagara, contact me for the Savvy ‘must visit’ list of wineries and restaurants.  With over 90 wineries in the area, it can be difficult to figure out where to visit.  The Savvy team of Sommeliers have visited them all and offer you our insight to make your Niagara wine adventure memorable.


Icewines…well thawed out

Posted by Debbie

Friday, April 24th, 2009


One way to cool down on a warm day is to treat yourself to a delicious sip of icewine.  In fact…I was treated to a sampling of 15 different icewines at this year’s Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival offered for those of us who have a sweet tooth.  Rows and rows of glasses were readied as winemakers from Ontario, British Columbia, Washington and Germany shared with us stories about each sweet creation, their experiments, and tales of harvest in frigid temperatures (grapes need to be picked when -8C or colder to be labeled as icewine and command the high price point).  This seminar made my teeth sing as I sipped the sweet nectar. 


Celebrated wine author, John Schreiner explained that while researching his book, Icewine: The Wine of Winter, the Germans laid claim to making the first wine with naturally frozen grapes.  The Austrians perfected this art.  The idea grew to make icewine in Ontario in the early 1980’s when a group of Austrians grape growers and winemakers were involved in pioneering the Ontario wine industry. 


“After a number of years of experimenting, Ontario icewine was put on the map when Don Ziraldo, founder of Inniskillin took a bottle of icewine (made by winemaker Karl Kaiser) to a wine competition in Bordeaux, France in 1990.  Don casually served this novel wine to his peers to get their impression”, tells John Schreiner.  Encouraged by the impressive feedback, Ziraldo entered a bottle into the competition the following year and won top award in the sweet wine category. 


That was the legendary beginning spotlighting Canada on the world wine stage.


In 2008, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) reports that 130 plus icewines were produced in Canada – mainly using Vidal grapes.  Paul Bosc, owner of Chateau des Charmes Winery explained, “Vidal has thick skins and strong stems that withstand the harsh weather while waiting for the magic temperature of -8 degrees to be harvested“.  Other grape varieties successfully used for icewine include Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  Recent experiments include icewine made with Viognier, Tempranillo, Shiraz and Pinot Noir grapes.



Savvy Sommelier tasting notes on icewines featured in this seminar:

Jackson Triggs Okanagan Grand Reserve Riesling Sparkling Icewine 2007 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

Sitting at my table on my immediate left was Derek Kontkanen, Jackson Trigg’s newest winemaker.  This wine is one of three sparkling icewines made in the world. Double fermented to create the elegant bubbles that seem to lighten the typical cloying texture of icewine.  Honey, mango & pineapple with a refreshing acidity – this wine is simply heaven in my glass!


Chateau des Charmes Vidal Icewine 2006 VQA, Niagara, Ontario

A classic – golden nectar that oozes aromas and tastes of a freshly cut sweet pineapple with flavours of dried apricots intermingled.  Smooth texture allows the wine to glide over your tongue with a finish that lingers long after your first sip.


Peninsula Ridge Riesling Icewine VQA 2006, Niagara, Ontario

Founder Norman Beal told the story how over the years, his winemaker originally from Chablis, France, Jean-Pierre Colas, had never made icewine. “After I enticed him to move his family to Niagara and all of the contracts were signed, I slipped the comment ‘…and you will have to make icewine… Jean Pierre, just looked at me true to his French character, he shook his head at the ludicrous idea.  After several attempts, he has now warmed up to the idea and is making impressive icewines.”  This Riesling is butterscotch in colour with pear and marmalade aromas and tastes, this wine is refreshing with a long finish.  Perfect with blue veined cheeses or a slice of rustic tarte aux pommes.


Mission Hill Riesling Icewine VQA 2006, Okanagan, British Columbia

“Icewine harvest came unusually early in 2006”, recalled winemaker John Simes.  Picked on Nov 28 & 29th (a month early than previous years), the wine was all about caramel, butterscotch and toffee. Delicious!


Then the Germans showed their talent…

Erbacher Michelmark Riesling Eiswein 2001, Germany

Hard to believe that this is 8 years old, this elegant, light wine impressed us all.  “Smells and tastes like lemon drop candies – you know the hard ones dusted with icing sugar’, commented one of the participants. Refreshing with notes of lemongrass, chamomile flowers this wine showcased that there are many styles of icewines.


St Urbans-Hof Ockfener Bockstein 1998, Germany

Vintner Nik Weis, explained that the biggest challenge of making this wine is keeping the deer from eating the frozen grapes before they are picked.  Very different from the other icewines, this one had delicate floral aromas reminding me of elderflower, lilac and rose with a mineral undertone.


We were then treated to an icewine made 25 years ago…

Hainle 1984 Riesling Icewine, British Columbia

Jaws dropped as we savoured the toffee coloured icewine that was pulled out of the winery’s library.  I have never had anything like this.  Reminiscent of Cognac aromas and taste, this wine was made with Canada’s first certified organic grapes.  “This was a classic case of roaming through the vineyards one wintery day only to discover – Oh my god, we forgot to pick this row of grapes,” recounted Tilman Hainle whose father was the original owner of the winery at the time (the current owners are the Huber family)


For something different…

Working Horse Pinot Noir 2007 Okanagan, British Columbia

 Tilman Hainle continued his presentation as he poured this interesting icewine made with Pinot Noir grapes.  Canada’s first organic winemaker and well known in Okanagan, was establishing his second winery – Working Horse Winery.  “A grape grower called me late one evening saying that he had organic icewine grapes available….what he meant was that they were available right there and then! This opportunity does not happen often. My winery was not built yet nor did I have any equipment.  After phoning around and calling in favours, I was thrilled to be able to make this icewine.” 


Summerhill Pyramid Winery Organic Pinot Noir Icewine 2003 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

I carefully sipped on this icewine appreciating that the grapes were grown only a few kilometers away from the devastating forest fires of 2003.  Looking like wild strawberry jam in my glass, there were delicate aromas of roasted coffee mixed with tastes of homemade strawberry jam.  A beautiful wine, “…one that I enjoy dunking a biscotti into my glass”, suggested winemaker Eric vonKrosigk


Inniskillin Tempranillo Icewine 2007 VQA, Okanagan, British Columbia

Sitting on my right was winemaker Sandor Mayer who immigrated from Hungary for the opportunity to work at Inniskillin in the Okanagan.  Sandor has been experimenting with small plantings of different grape varieties to see what will grow in Okanagan. His small section of Tempranillo grapes were left on the vine until frozen (on January 1st!) then crushed to make this novel icewine.  Garnet colour with cherry aromas with tastes of raspberries and red candied apples that you find in a country fair, every sip was both sweet and refreshing with lively acidity.  A neat treat.


The finish line…

Pillitteri Estates Shiraz Icewine 2006 VQA, Niagara, Ontario

 “A real prize”, states winery president, Charlie Pillitteri, whose winery claims that they are the world’s largest producer of estate icewine. Not only is Charlie proud of this unique wine, this delicious wine was ranked the 2nd top Syrah in the world at the Syrah du Mondes competition in France last year.  It had an interesting aroma and taste that I could not identify until Charlie suggested ‘a good German made black forest cake’.  Exactly – both the dry dark chocolate cake and the sweet red cherries were captured in my glass.  Outstanding.


My sweet tooth was royally treated in this tasting.  It was an impressive experience to hear from each of the winemakers and winery owners whose devotion to craft icewine despite the challenges of cold temperatures.  Their passion encouraged us all to showcase icewine to more wine lovers.  “We should not wait until after dinner to serve it,” remarked Charlie Pillitteri, “at this point we are often too full.  Why not open a bottle of icewine before a meal?”


I will certainly try this at my next dinner party with friends.




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