Making Wine History at Potter Settlement Winery
I love the back-stories of family wineries. At Potter Settlement Winery in Tweed, Ontario, the back-stories deserve a Giller Prize.
Like all good stories, this begins with “It was a dark and stormy night” when I joined a group of Belleville Rotarians for a wine tasting at Potter Settlement Artisan Winery. Sandor Johnson, the owner/wine-designer, and Erin Reitav, sommelier/cellar manager, were our hosts for the evening. As a former actor on All My Children and internationally known model for luxury goods, Sandor has no shortage of interesting stories but it was his tales of adventures in winemaking, coupled with ten wine tastings, that had us spellbound.
He has an Indiana Jones approach to wine-making and his stories are full of escapades to find extinct woods for barrels, top secret or long lost wine yeasts and new hardier grape varietals. They involve travel, intrigue, humour, innovation and discovery as Sandor and his winemaking team battle the unforgiving forces of nature in this hostile wine growing area and the implacable barriers of bureaucratic red tape.
Tweed is at the edge of transition land between lowland lakes and the Canadian Shield. It ’s probably the most northern part of Ontario where grapes can possibly grow. Over the past two decades, Sandor has poured a vast amount of money into transforming a family property into an organic vineyard and testing out cold climate vines that could survive on their land.
In trying to find suitable hardy grapes for his winery, Sandor pioneered Marquette grapes in Canada, a hybrid developed by Peter Hemstad, at the University of Minnesota who also developed the Honey Crisp Apple. The grape has had about eight cross breedings including wild Quebec grapes and European Pinot Noir. It can survive -30°C and tastes like an old world Bordeaux when fermented with Australian yeast.
The wine has won a number of medals but, sadly, he can only sell it at the winery. Marquette is not included in the VQA list of “acceptable” hybrids and cannot be sold through the LCBO or at Farmers’ Markets.
Sandor is a consummate promotor for the winery. When Canada had a trade mission to Washington DC, several years ago, Sandor was the only Canadian Vintner there. He proudly exhibits a photo with President Obama holding a glass of his late harvest Frontenac Gris at this event on his winery wall, He has recently added a second picture with his Marquette wine and Prime Minister Trudeau.
The Potter Settlement wine team have vowed to let nothing but small-batch, high-quality wines leave their winery. Their wines are free of artificial tannins, sulphites and pesticide. Where possible, they grow their own grapes, but less hardy grapes like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are sourced from organic growers in Niagara. These are their “signature” wines which include the name and GPS coordinates of the actual block in the supplier’s vineyard on the label.
Sandor’s work as an international model has provided the opportunity for extensive world travel and exploration of other wine regions both famous and emerging. He jokes about being a “yeast” mule collecting different kinds of yeasts from wineries around the world. His finds include yeast from Sancerre for his Sauvignon Blanc; Burgundian yeast for his Chardonnay, Vidal, and Pinot Noir,; Montrachet yeast for Frontenac Blanc; Provencal yeast for his Pinot Noir rosé and, most famously, a rare Chinon yeast from the Loire Valley for his Cabernet Franc carried home in a broken barrel stave.
He was once stopped at security in a German airport when he had a container of yeast in his carry-on bag. The checker thought it might be drugs and hailed his supervisor over the loudspeaker that there was a man “with a suspicious yeast problem in line four.”
Eight out of 13 of his yeast imports were held back by Health Canada for a year before he could use them at the winery. He has recently obtained the North American rights to supply a newly developed yeast from Switzerland that was made from a chardonnay that had been buried since 1865 and was still delicious. He has used it in his 2018 Sleeping Beauty Chardonnay.
Perhaps his most remarkable exploit was the development of a one-of-a-kind Rare Triple Ferment Chardonnay aged in three barrels which are the stuff of legends. The first barrel was a top of the line French Sesille oak, the second barrel was made from aged Ontario Butternut planks found in an old family lumber mill and the third barrel from extinct American Chestnut planks that had spent 50 years on a sunken barge in Lake Superior.
The Chardonnay was aged six months in oak, three months in butternut and four months in chestnut. It sells at $100 per bottle and there are only 365 cases and has notes of butter, ginger, and banana cream pie. Bottles were sent to leading international wine critics and its story has been covered in most of the prestigious wine magazines. It has been described as a “once in a lifetime wine.”
It certainly catapulted him from the obscurity of a small family run vineyard in Tweed to the attention of some of the world’s leading wine connoisseurs
Put Potter Settlement Winery on your list to visit in South East Ontario this summer, but be sure to set the address on your GPS. It is extremely difficult to locate. If you find yourself on a narrow road in the middle of a swampy forest you’ve gone too far. Do not try to find it on “a dark and stormy night” you may be lost forever. This is, after all, the home of a Sleeping Beauty Chardonnay.