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From the cool-climate, limestone-rich hillside vineyards of Twenty Mile Bench in the Niagara Escarpment spring the wines of Flat Rock Cellars. Vintages writer Douglas Webster sat down with Ed Madronich, president, who shared why he feels Ontario is one of the greatest wine regions in the world.

You grew up in Hamilton. How did you get into wine?

Two things got me into wine. First, my grandparents had a farm in Beamsville when I was growing up. The farm had cherries, apples, peaches, pears and about 10 rows of grapes. So I come by Niagara honestly. Second, I was lucky enough to travel to France during university and fell in love with wine. During my travels, I couldn’t afford a rail pass so I was cycling through southern Burgundy and there was a sign outside a little farmhouse that said “free wine tasting.” My friend and I were welcomed in by an older gentleman who shared the passion for his craft with these two young guys with no money who rode in on bikes. That stayed with me, and hopefully that’s what I do today: share my passion for the craft of wine. Those things shaped where I ended up, and I’m lucky to be doing what I love.

Flat Rock exports to some pretty exotic places – Denmark, Finland, Japan – how do people in those places respond to your wine?

Once they get over their surprise that Ontario makes wine at all, and they actually taste it, people are always amazed by how good it is and how inexpensive it is relative to quality. The more I travel, the more I hear that we deliver unbelievable value. I put our wines up against the best wines in the world. It can be hard for Canadians to hear that – we tend to be humble – but the rest of the world is starting to recognize it.

What about people here at home?

Attitudes are changing. For Canadians to be seen as great, we tend to need to get our recognition elsewhere. You see this not only in wine, but in music, movies, you name it. It’s only when we “make it” somewhere else that we realize what we have, and how great we really are. Younger generations in particular appreciate local food and wine, and they’re proud to drink local.

How important are soil and climate?

Ontario, particularly on the Bench, is not a good place to grow grapes – it’s a great place to grow grapes. Only two things make someplace a great wine region: soil and climate. That’s it. Not many places have the soil and the climate we have. You show people the science behind the climate. You show them the soil, the limestone. You compare what we have to Burgundy, and people see why we’re a great wine region.

People talk about the terroir of Burgundy like there’s something almost mystical about it. Is there?

In Burgundy, you can literally walk across the road and on one side is one of the best vineyards in the world and on the other they’re growing corn because it’s just not ideal for grapes. The amount of land on this planet that can produce great wines is very small. We’re really lucky here in Ontario, especially on the slopes of the Bench in that magical spot between the top and bottom of the Escarpment. So in a way, Burgundy is magical, but it does not have exclusivity to magic. Great places to grow grapes are very special. Burgundy is one of them. Ontario is another.

Beyond what nature gives you, there’s what you choose to do with it. What’s your approach?

Now we’re talking about winemaking philosophy, or winemaking doctrine. My approach is to make the best wine possible. So that guides my choices. Since we know that hand-picking is better for the wine, we pick all our grapes by hand. If we then just dumped all those grapes into a tank, that’s not what’s best for the wine, so we also sort the grapes by hand. We know that pumping the wine around the winery isn’t as gentle as gravity, so we use gravity flow to move the wine from tank to barrel. In the vineyard, we are very low impact, because we want the vineyard to be better next year than it is this year. I wake up every morning knowing that we’ve done everything humanly possible to make the best wine.

What’s the story behind Good Kharma Chardonnay?

I’m very proud of this, and I’m very proud of my team for going in this direction. When we sat down as a team, we wanted to figure out what charity we could support that would make a positive contribution to our community. So we partnered with the Ontario Association of Food Banks. A portion of proceeds from every bottle contributes to help people get access to good, healthy food. We’ve provided over 100,000 meals to people in need. The product is specific to the LCBO, so we’re very proud of that partnership. We called the wine Good Kharma because everyone could use a little good karma in their life.

The Finer Points

VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
043281 (M) 750 mL $17.95

An Ontario gem. Floral, with gorgeous mineral, peach, apple, lime citrus and superb vibrancy and zest.

Aromatic & Flavourful

A Vintages Essential

VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
001578 (M) 750 mL $17.95

Beautifully complex. Pure mineral with vibrant pear, tropical fruit and lime notes.

Aromatic & Flavourful

A Vintages Essential

VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
001560 (XD) 750 mL $34.95

Rich dark cherry, subtle earthiness and heavy floral notes go from the nose to the finish.

(André Proulx)

Medium-bodied & Fruity

VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
356873 (D) 750 mL $16.95

Ripe apple, racy citrus, honeyed tropical fruit and a cornucopia of mixed orchard fruit. Charming.

90 points (Vic Harradine)

Full-bodied & Rich