Letting the grapes do the talking; Black Bank Hill's Taylor Emerson
As many readers will no doubt be aware, the journey toward launching Archives has been tumultuous and ongoing. For a year we've been moving slowly through the arduous licencing process and fighting with the building department in St. Catharines for every millimetre of progress. It was early on in this process that we discovered Black Bank Hill, an upstart winery travelling on a parallel path through permits and construction in fits and starts. Two entrants looking to break into the wine scene, stymied by paperwork, we've developed a bond forged by frustration but also by deep passion for great wine.
Behind the brand is Taylor Emerson, who purchased a prime property just beneath the Beamsville Bench and has painstakingly nurtured both the young vines and his business plans. Last year, he and winemaker Jonathan McLean introduced Black Bank Hill to the world with a spectacular début release from the 2018 vintage, collaborating with Cloudsley Cellars for production. His 2019's are now available through Archives, and build upon the momentum. Through it all, the vines on Black Bank Hill's estate have been developing and Taylor was able to harvest his first crop in 2020 - a season already being talked about as the best ever in Niagara.
We've shared a great deal of both permit frustration and delicious wine with Black Bank Hill over the past year, and have been anxious to share Taylor's story since the early days of the Archives project. We expect he will be a fixture in the bottle shop once it opens and we intend to plant ourselves firmly at Black Bank's cellar door just the same. We sat down (virtually of course) with Taylor on a snowy afternoon; the perfect backdrop for someone already earning a reputation for bold wines.
AWSM: How did you come to start Black Bank Hill?
Taylor: In the spring of 2016, I made a career change and resolved to start my own business. I have a background in digital media and had a variety of potential business ideas, but had been deeply into wine for about 10 years and always felt an affinity for food-related businesses. I was living in London, England and the WSET school was basically around the corner. I signed up for a two-week Level 3 course and by the end of it, the notion I would make a leap into wine was well set. My main interest was in winemaking. I am a product person by nature and wanted to have my hands on the process. I was forty-five and it was a ‘now or never’ type of decision.
By the autumn I was enrolled in a 2-year Viticulture and Oenology diploma at Plumpton College (Sussex, UK) which is the only English-speaking wine school in Europe. I was not thinking of moving back home to Canada at that time as gaining wine experience in Europe seemed natural. One morning, heading down to Sussex on the train, I was reading some excellent articles on terroir that the teacher had assigned, and it crystallised the idea that people are both a part of the terroir’s influence on wine as well as at the same time being influenced by terroir, that there is a larger connection; a triangle. It became important that, being Canadian, I make wine in Canada and would move back to Ontario. It was a combination of ‘the craft itself, terroir, identity, and being part of a developing market that I could help move the needle on’ that sealed it for me.
Does the name have any significance?
Black Bank Hill is the name of a tiny spot on the Niagara Escarpment, a high point of land near Creemore, Ontario. My parents bought a farm there in 1980 and I did a lot of growing up there. I saw the three words on a local map when I was researching ideas and that was it, that was the name I would use. It’s a reminder of how the geography of the escarpment defines us and connects us as southern Ontarians while also being the raison d’être for wine growing in Niagara. I’ve always felt, like many of us, quite connected to our land and country, largely because of the nature we are so fortunate to be surrounded by, and wine is perhaps the perfect expression of how geography defines and forms our identity. It’s also a very beautiful part of Ontario, with views off the escarpment, and I loved the sounds and metre of the three words moving together. The words had the right feeling. It’s not all sunny and positive. It’s a bit deeper or darker, and more thoughtful, and I want the wines themselves to also have that depth. A good wine will make you stop and pay attention to it. It will make you notice and enquire further into what it is and what it has to offer. The name of the winery should do the same. A lot of people ask me about the name.
You're going from virtual winemaker to estate winery. What's the winery going to look like when construction is complete?
We are effectively a start-up right now focused on getting up and running. We hope the winery will evolve for many years beyond what we can imagine at this point, but in the near-term there is a beautiful 20-acre vineyard and we are building a small barn to produce wine in for the next number of years, maybe forever. The vision is very simple, grassroots, not grand. We want to grow and harvest the grapes from the vineyard and bring them into the winery and sell a product that has its own identity and presence in a way that I feel is becoming a lost form in our increasingly industrialised world. Unfortunately, its very expensive to grow good fruit in Ontario and combined with our wine regulations and distribution system, it is extremely challenging to profitably make craft wines at a small scale and maintain a viable business. So we have real challenges.
How's the property from a terroir perspective?
When we started looking for a property, we were driven by the characteristics of the land itself, cost (of course), and location. And the absence of expensive buildings! And I wanted to plant a vineyard from scratch. When we got down to it, very few parcels met most of our criteria. The only one that did was 4247 Sann Road, the old Trach family fruit farm. The Keczan vineyard was the neighbour to the south, almost entirely planted in black grapes including Syrah, and many of the sites along the northern side of King Street focus on the black grapes and can ripen them.
It is terrific site in many ways. The defining characteristics are the heavy, clay-dominant soils which moderate vigour and increase quality, but retain water and nutrients; the warmer than average meso-climate the site is situated in at the foot of the escarpment; and its gentle but consistent slope and drainage. The site has a very open aspect to both sunlight and air circulation, but the heat accumulates at the base of the escarpment as it is more protected, and you are not cooled by the lake or by altitude. You come back to the vineyard from running errands around Niagara in the summer you almost always notice an increase in temperature. People commonly refer to our location as being ‘on the flats,’ and in comparison to the escarpment it is. But the fall from south to north over the vineyard is 18 feet, over 1% grade, which is very comfortable for both good drainage and farming. So, the vineyard has a great balance of qualities. The appellation is Lincoln Lakeshore which is a little too big right now to have specific meaning, but we are seeing this name more frequently associated today with top quality fruit and wine in Niagara. We are thrilled to have found this spot in Niagara, not only for its attributes, but also because it is distinct and adds to the diversity of terroirs in Niagara that we hope in time will become as recognised as the better-known appellations.
What has been challenging so far? Has anything been easier than expected?
This is a funny question because at first glance every little thing has been harder than expected, but then again, my expectations were not particularly well-informed simply because I had never done anything like this before. I had had a lot of experience outdoors, with both trees and plants at my parents’ farm, tractor driving. I had even planted a few Vitis vinifera as an experiment in Creemore many years ago, but absolutely nothing can prepare you for real agriculture until you do it. It is hard as hell. And very complex. Challenging physically, emotionally, and intellectually. The experience, although difficult, has been tremendously rewarding and greatly increased my respect for anyone who has committed themselves to it.
While not easier exactly, the development and health of the vineyard, and the quality of the wines have shown better results than I expected. I am thrilled to see the vines getting established and maturing. The diversity and level of pests we have in Niagara is unparalleled, and it can all seem insurmountable, but you know there is something special when you see the vines not only survive but at times even emit a light glow about them. You can see it, for example in the Cabernet Franc vines, you can simply tell this variety was meant to grow in this spot. And the wines have been more special, more unique, and have had more to communicate than I could have expected.
What has your winemaking philosophy been so far with purchased grapes and will it change as you switch to estate-grown?
Our winemaking philosophy is at its base very simple and won’t change whether we use grapes from our own vineyard or another vineyard: we are total believers that wine is made in the vineyard and that wine quality comes directly from grape quality, particularly in a cool-climate region like Niagara. Our winemaker is Jonathan McLean whose experience has all been in BC at several of the top wineries. While his experience is heavily weighted to winemaking, moving to Niagara has totally pivoted his focus toward the challenges in the vineyard, which are so much greater here than out west. The winemaking becomes more and more simplified as the quality of the grapes improve. Not to limit all the great things that winemakers do, but winemaking is ideally about stewarding the grapes toward their natural destination. Winemaking really comes into play when you need to fix problems or want to make wine in a very specific style. We mostly want the grapes to tell us where they want to go, and so far, they have been pretty good at communicating that to us.
Walk us through the 2019 releases...
There are 3 wines: a Foxcroft vineyard Chardonnay, a Foxcroft vineyard Cabernet Franc and a Parke Vineyard Syrah. All Wismer fruit from established Twenty Mile Bench vineyards that have some age and where you can taste the consistency from vintage to vintage. The Chard is a direct follow up to our wonderful 2018 Chardonnay, with fruit from the same 2 rows, but this year with one barrel of new French oak. The Cab Franc and Syrah are new to us and have blown us away in terms of complexity and completeness. I think each wine makes a real statement about Niagara wine. There is a lovely freshness to the 2019 vintage. The winemaking was very simple across the board: crush, ferment, and 18 months élevage in neutral French barrels (except one new Chard barrel). Total quantities are extremely low at only 240 cases, and half of that is the Cab Franc. But we are thrilled to be releasing these wines this year and fully expect these wines to start putting Black Bank Hill on the map.
Early days at the Sann Road vineyard.
What have you got coming for the 2020 vintage?
The 2020’s will be released in 2023, and we have the first 3 wines from the Black Bank Hill vineyard, all reds: a Syrah, a Cab Franc and a Merlot-based blend. Jonathan and I just tasted everything and determined the final wines last week. The reds from 2020 are going to be big wines. These are not shrinking violets… they have presence and will hold a good while in bottle. However, the vines are still very young indeed, and that is also reflected in the wines, but the concentration is frankly unlike anything I have seen from Niagara before. We were already cropping low for the young vines and then faced the heat and drought conditions for the entire summer. Most amazing to me what how well the vines responded. They weren’t particularly happy about it, but they held up like soldiers. In a way, and I have mixed feelings saying this, these wines do not taste like what we know of as Niagara wines to me. I think this vintage has the potential to redefine what Niagara means to a lot of people in terms of red wines, particularly. But 2021 is in that sense a return to normality: classic Niagara, lighter in body and more elegant. It will be very interesting to watch the 2020 vintage evolve over many years.
We also purchased some fruit again and have a 2020 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Twenty Mile Bench, both of which we absolutely love. These will be the last 2 wines we make from purchased fruit for many years. The 2021’s are despite the challenges of the growing season, going to turn out to be wonderful wines for many reasons. First and foremost, our severe cropping practices allowed us to pick cleaner fruit earlier despite the rains, and second, we had a long growing season due to a very early bud-break. The flavour development was tremendous even with lower sugars, both of which I totally welcome. I don’t need gobs of alcohol in wine. Although we have heard from the viticulture side how menacingly hard the 2021 vintage was, and we too lost fruit we couldn’t harvest due to our quality requirements, on the winemaking side the picture is a lot rosier. When the 2021 vintage hits the market, the picture will undoubtedly change.
Where do you see Niagara winemaking heading in the future?
There are a few key themes that jump out at me immediately: the climate is getting warmer, which is fundamentally good for Niagara wine growing and particularly more complete red wines; however, the weather patterns are getting more extreme and variable, which is fundamentally bad for wine growing, and will push us to focus even more on the vineyard. Broadly, the industry is still young and getting established and we continue to see improvements in winemaking across the board every year. I also expect more consolidation around our most successful varietals, which will give Niagara a clearer message to the market, the easiest example being Niagara Cabernet Franc will be ‘a thing’. I totally support experimentation and new varietals and styles, but at the same time I think Niagara could benefit from more focus which would result in a clearer message in the consumer’s mind about what we are really good at.
But perhaps the most significant and important change we see now is the beginning (we hope) of real long-term structural change in the regulatory and distribution environment, due to growth in internet and direct-to-consumer sales, and the evolving rules for licensees and off-premise sales, as a result of the pandemic. To dovetail a few themes that have come up here, it is brutally difficult for small production, premium wineries to survive financially and, hopefully, new tiers of distribution, focused on serving the segment of the market interested in premium craft wines will collide and help make this journey a more successful one. With better distribution, including inter-provincial sales and a supportive excise tax environment (which is currently murky), there would be greater opportunity for winemakers to produce better wines at a more affordable price, which would benefit everyone. There is still a long way to go on these issues but, I am an optimist.
We are honoured to be Black Bank Hill's partner in unveiling their 2019 Vintage Collection, available now.