In 1867 David Jackson Lowrey moved his family from Vanessa Ontario to St. Davids to establish a new farm on one of the most perfect agricultural sites he had ever seen.
Lowrey recognized its merits even then, and over 150 years since they first worked the land, it has proved to be one of the most verdant farms in Niagara.
In fact, in 1869 David Jackson Lowrey planted one of the earliest commercial vineyards with 500 vines. Five farming generations of Lowreys would eventually reap the benefits of his decision, growing all kinds of tree fruits and grapes. Until the mid 1970s they sold their entire crop to Canada’s largest winery at the time, T.G. Bright, Ltd.
At that time, almost the entire 100-acre farm was planted in labrusca and French hybrid grapes. Eventually, most of them were torn out. For several years the vineyard lay fallow until 2003, when Lowrey descendant Norma Jane (Lowrey) Harber, and her husband Blair Harber, prepared to return the upper farm’s 34 acres to grapes, but this time to very fine European varieties.
We will continue to learn from our vineyard and enhance the uniqueness of the property.
We are getting to know it better all the time.
Today, the 34-acre winery site is located in the sub-appellation of Niagara called St. Davids Bench. It is different from other sub-appellations in Niagara mostly because it is the warmest area – 20 percent warmer than any other location in the region. The vineyard shares that fortuitous distinguishing feature with its neighbours, but if you go a little deeper, that is where the physical attributes it has in common ends. In fact, the property is actually an anomaly. The soils are lighter, its airflow and water drainage are more consistent, and its position on the Bench is at its highest elevation.
With the constant guidance from their consultant, Peter Gamble, Norma Jane and Blair discovered the extent of the site’s differences the day the lab sent them the results of a very detailed soil analysis. They were all so shocked with the results that they thought the lab had made a mistake. There are three main sections to the Ravine Vineyard – the upper bench (‘the top’), the slope (‘the hillside’) and the bottom – and each had a completely different composition. But what was astonishing was that the soils of the precious upper bench and slope, which make up over 85% of our vineyard, were radically different not only from other areas in St. Davids, but also from anything ever found in Niagara.
That’s when they discovered what lay buried beneath.
The old Lowrey farm was sitting atop the river channel of the ancestral Niagara River where it once raged 22,800 years ago, as part of an ancient drainage system that drained melted water from 3 km (1.9 miles) thick surrounding glaciers. The massive volume of water the river carried hollowed out a gorge 1,219 meters (4,000 feet) long, 305 meters (1,000 feet) wide and 91 meters (300 feet) deep. Twelve thousand five hundred years ago, when the third glacier retreated, it emptied into this gorge massive amounts of glacial silt, filling it to the shoreline and plugging it up so completely it would never reopen again. The river’s waters, not to be denied in their downward imperative to the sea, rerouted to the present channel where the Niagara River now flows as it empties into Lake Ontario. Geologists refer to the earth below our vineyard as part of The St. Davids Buried Gorge.
In each section of the old river’s path are ancient traces of its once raging activity – the soils on the top east side of the property, under a shallower, slower flowing part of the old river, are higher in clay; a distinguishing feature of the legendary Chateau Petrus vineyard, and an ideal location for planting Merlot. Just west of there, where the clay ends abruptly, the soils are mostly sand and low in organic content, the result of faster waters scouring the river’s bed. There they planted Cabernet Franc.
Then there’s the ‘hillside’. After 5,500 years of erosion on these small but relatively steep slopes, the soil is thin, sparse and very mineral – conducive to the growth of some very low-cropping, Burgundy-style Chardonnay. Lastly, there’s the bottom of the slope, part of the bed of historic Lake Iroquois, rich in deposits of humus and organic material. There they planted Chardonnay Musqué, which could take advantage of this extra vigour with the production of fresh, vibrant flavours – emphasizing exuberance rather than structure.
So, along with matching the variety of the grape to the soil’s inherent composition, they took into account the complementary characteristics of carefully selected clones and rootstocks. Their attention to what this very special place required, has resulted in what they believe is a natural, yet unified mosaic, as intricately configured as a Baroque design, as intrinsically beautiful and as long lived.
We will continue to learn from our vineyard and enhance the uniqueness of the property. We are getting to know it better all the time. On the winemaking side, Peter Gamble and Shauna White are working constantly with our viticulturist, David Beyers, to fine tune different practices in order to perfectly match the great strengths of various blocks of our vineyard site. And in the cellars, ongoing advancements in yeast selection, specific barrel cooperage, vinification techniques and handling, are yielding increasingly inspiring results. When the goal is truly fine wine, the winemaking team must listen very carefully to the vineyard, and learn to implement what it whispers.