Derek Barnett
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A-list Artisans: Derek Barnett – Ontario’s original cult winemaker

October 7, 2021
“Making small batch wines using traditional methods that convey a sense of place. That’s my definition of an artisan winemaker.” – Derek Barnett

Fans and followers of Ontario wine know the name Derek Barnett. Whether you’ve had the delightful opportunity to meet him face to face, or have simply enjoyed his wines over the years, Derek has become an Ontario winemaking legend, with a cult-like following that’s always thirsty for more. Yes, legendary, because that’s what 30 years in the business reaps. Not to mention, entirely so in Ontario.

Having emigrated from England where he grew up in the small town of Swinford, Derek hails from a background in agriculture. Both of his grandparents owned farms in rural central England which likely influenced his decision to study agriculture before leaving for Ontario in the early 1970s.

He found work on a farm in Maple, north of Toronto, owned by Bill and Marilyn Redelmeier, and was proactive in its evolution from dairy farming to a thriving fresh local produce hub. From there, he would learn the art of winemaking, and in 1991, a newfound passion was ignited through his work for the farm’s newly established Southbrook Winery. He made roughly 2,000 cases of wine from grapes sourced from various Niagara vineyards. The Redelmeier family has since moved their operation to Niagara-on-the-Lake where they’ve become a leader in the sustainable winegrowing movement with Ann Sperling at the winemaking helm. But Derek was undoubtedly very instrumental in those early years.

Read Also: A-list Artisans: Keith Tyers – capturing that sense of place for Closson Chase

In 2001, Derek left Southbrook and he and his wife moved to Niagara to begin Lailey Vineyard – a fresh project that saw Derek partner with Donna and David Lailey, Tonya Lailey and her husband Yves Starreveld. It was at Lailey where Derek would make some of Ontario’s most treasured (and cellar-worthy) wines. Small batch bottlings from the winery’s 23 acre vineyard – including syrah, cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir – were deemed must-haves by those who just simply knew. In fact, fans of Lailey are still opening Derek’s wines from celebrated vintages (notably 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012).

In 2015, Lailey was sold to foreign investors, much to the dismay of many who just knew that things would never be the same. Derek left the winery and launched his very own Meldville Wines, a small batch virtual winery working out of Legends Estate Winery in Beamsville.

Derek Barnett

Derek Barnett at Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

That same year, only a week after Lailey’s sale, Derek was contacted by a proprietor out in Prince Edward County named Sherry Karlo, who had recently suffered the loss of her husband Richard Karlo. Sherry was determined to keep her late husband’s dream project alive and wanted Derek to take over as winemaker of Karlo Estates. On a handshake agreement, Derek obliged.

“I must admit, I had not been to Prince Edward County in many years,” says Derek. “I was always too busy to get out and visit other regions in the summer, and then getting there in the winter was always a struggle. Anyway, I sat with Sherry and talked about wine and maybe even drank a glass or two. We discussed winemaking in the County and the vision that Richard Karlo had for the winery. It drew me in.”

For her part, Sherry Karlo was both thrilled and relieved to have someone like Derek Barnett take the reins. “Derek’s arrival allowed everyone to take a collective sigh of relief, knowing Karlo’s wine would be in good hands,” she says. “Derek stepped in with ease into the enormous boots Richard left behind. He’s a perfect fit as both Richard and Derek love to experiment while respecting Old World winemaking techniques.”

Derek’s drive and passion for his craft has kept him driving that three hour trek to Prince Edward County at least once per week ever since. “It feels like the drive out to the County gets a little longer each time but I am still enjoying it very much,” he says.

Derek Barnett

You can often find Derek Barnett working out in the vineyards when visiting Karlo Estates.

Meanwhile, his Meldville project is growing and gaining in consumer popularity with each passing vintage. Many people often wonder about the name Meldville and what it means. As it turns out, this was a project inspired from those very early beginnings back in small town England.

“In thought, Meldville was always meant to be a small virtual winery. It was something that my wife Judith and I had talked quite a lot about,” recalls Derek. “Coming up with the name was tough but we wanted it to have some of our history attached to it. The name comes from England and was the name of the house that I grew up in. I’ve always wanted to make wines that represented where we live, that show the sense of place. Both my grandparents were farmers in England, producing products that also showed a sense of place. I think that every bottle of wine that Meldville produces has a little of that in it, and a little of me too.”

In fact, on the back label of each bottle of Meldville wine, you can find a photo of what once was the Meldville homestead in England, accompanied by a brief personal message from Derek.

“The goal is still the same and that is to make the best wine that I can.”

Now embarking on his 31st vintage overall in the business, Derek’s technique has remained much the same. “I still love hand punch downs, fermenting in small bins, hardly any new oak and trying hard to let the wine evolve into something great each year without much intervention. The joy of winemaking is still very much about being there daily, being able to smell and taste what is being made. And at the end of the day, the pleasure of meeting and pouring wines for people.”

Derek Barnett

Caught up with Derek Barnett during harvest in fall of 2020 while visiting Karlo Estates.

One thing is for certain and that’s the team at Karlo Estates don’t want to stop working with Derek any time soon. “Derek is a dream to work with,” says Sherry Karlo. “We’ve done business on a handshake and he is not only extraordinarily talented, but always humble and gracious in everything he does.”

“The goal is still the same and that is to make the best wine that I can,” concedes Derek. “I still love to get my hands dirty. I am not sure I can tell you what is the best part about being a winemaker, but maybe it is seeing people’s faces when they pour a glass of your wine and that expression of “this is good ” is on their face. But it might also be the aromas coming up from a fermenting bin when you punch down first thing in the morning – it makes you a little excited each day.”

Below is a look at some wines, crafted by Derek Barnett, representing both Karlo Estates and his very own Meldville Wines:

 

Karlo EstatesKarlo Estates 2018 ‘Estate’ Chardonnay

Having first tasted this chardonnay at the winery back in September of 2020, I can honestly say that after recently tasting this again, the extra time in bottle has done this wine some good. And based on the method used to make this, you’d very much expect that. Barrel fermented and aged for 11 months, then over its lees, as opposed to stirred, in fourth fill French oak barriques; full malolactic fermentation, part spontaneous to generate more complexity. It was then settled in tank for a half month before bottling. Aromas are of candied pear and fresh hay. The palate is dry with softening notes of citrus, vanilla and caramel. Its complex journey is still very much on a rising trajectory, so there’s absolutely no rush to drink. ($48)

 

Karlo EstatesKarlo Estates 2018 ‘Estate’ Pinot Noir

This is a deep, full-bodied pinot noir that’s full of complex aromas and pronounced flavours, including smoke, cigar box, leather, spice and black cherry. The mid-palate contains that tell-tale Prince Edward County mineral acidity and there’s a lingering rhubarb-cherry and earthy finish. Terroir-driven and more old-world in style, the pinot from this ‘Estate’ is definitely one to savour. It likely hasn’t seen its best days just yet, so give this some time to fully harmonize. ($48)

 

 

 

karlo estatesKarlo Estates 2018 ‘Estate’ Malbec

As proof would have it, malbec does grow in the cooler County environment and this is a wine that, unsurprisingly, has attracted some serious attention. Firstly, it’s important to know that it would be wrong to compare this to the Argentinian malbecs one can find readily available at the LCBO for a fraction of the price. Malbec was originally a cool climate varietal which gained fame amongst oenophiles when grown in the Cohors region in the southwest of France. So it is only natural that these vines have proven to be a delicious cool climate expression of this old world grape varietal. With this being the only two acres of malbec grown in Prince Edward County, what we get is a unique wine, with equally unique flavours. The colour is a deep, purplish maroon and it smells of an assembly of dark fruits, tar and spice. The palate flavours are definitely brooding, with peppercorn spice, black cherry, tobacco and stony minerality. Tannins are grippy and the finish is smooth with further flavours of vanilla and red licorice. If you let this sit in your glass long enough, it will continue to develop. The price point is understandable – in fact, I think it’s quite fair. ($39)

 

Karlo EstatesKarlo Estates 2018 ‘Property Grown’ Carménère

This wine is from the only carménère vines planted in all of eastern Canada. One might think that this wouldn’t work out in the cooler region of Prince Edward County, but to no surprise, Karlo Estates has once again defied the odds. Understandably a challenge to manage – and so the price seems to reflect this – every bottle seems somewhat like a limited edition collector’s item. Enjoy a nose of pepper and spiced cherry, with hints of cedar and some smoke. The mouthfeel is smooth and silky, with pepper and spicy fruit flavours and a minerally-inspired finish. It’s ready to drink now as opposed to later. ($42)

 

 

Meldville WinesMeldville 2020 Muscat Bubble

Made with 100 percent muscat ottonel grapes, this frizzante style bubbly is intensely aromatic with its notes of ripe grapefruit, peach and orange peel with jasmine. The palate is refreshing and clean with flavours of sweet nectarine and honeyed peach. A real treat to sip on and a perfect choice for sharing on the patio during summer, or will pair beautifully with fruit desserts and pastries. Just 9% alc./vol. ($23)

 

 

 

Meldville WinesMeldville 2020 Cabernet Franc Rosé

A refreshing, juicy rosé, with ripe red strawberry and cherry fruit aromatics and palate flavours to match. It’s the type that can be consumed with ease – as in gone before you know it – despite its generous 12.5% abv. Perhaps a testament to the superb 2020 vintage and a foreshadowing of what’s yet to come from it in the years ahead when we start seeing the release of some more varietal wines. ($20)

 

 

 

Meldville WinesMeldville 2019 Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc made in Ontario can be hit or miss. In many cases, these wines can come across as overly citrusy, tart, and with unbalanced acidity. I’ll admit, I’ve only enjoyed a small handful of Ontario-made sauvignon blanc to the point where I can truly say I’d want to buy again and again. This is one of them. It’s simply a delicious expression. The nose is shy at first but expands to reveal ripe melon, lemon and subtle hints of grass. The palate is textured, with an assembly of stone fruit flavours, minerality and measured acidity. The grapefruit finish is extra pleasing. Outstanding value. ($20)

 

 

Derek BarnettMeldville 2018 ‘Barrel Select’ Chardonnay

The colour and aromatics of this chardonnay are indicative of a richer, fuller bodied expression, which could leave many assuming that this is a wine more suited for lovers of oaky and buttery California chardonnay. Yes, it’s rich and creamy in texture, but this is a far away place from Napa Valley. Those aromas of pineapple, pear and warm butter lead to soothing and rounded flavours of vanilla nougat, slightly caramelized orchard fruits, minerality and baking spice, all kept in fine check with good and fresh acidity. There’s oak, but it’s not dominating. The Derek Barnett way is to stick with trusted methods, which in this case involves transferring the settled pre-fermented juice to third and fourth filled French oak barrels for fermentation, using a selected yeast, then a malolactic ferment before leaving the wine to rest on its lees with minimal stirring for 17 months. It’s then racked to a stainless steel tank before bottling. It all plays out so very well here with the wine coming across quite elegantly as a result. The price is a steal. ($26)

 

Derek BarnettMeldville 2017 ‘Barrel Select’ Pinot Noir

Like his chardonnay project, Derek Barnett makes two pinots – this barrel select is his cream of the crop, from what he feels are his best barrels. The difference between the two are definitely noticeable when tasting side-by-side, with the white label (entry level) coming off slightly greener tasting than this black label reserve style expression. I love the rich colour that this wine shows. The aromas are of black cherry and raspberry and the palate is more light-to-medium bodied and dry with rich red and dark fruit flavours, plum and spice. There’s a mineral touch on the finish and not a hint of tartness to be found. I love the focus here. Quite elegant and reminiscent of a classic Burgundy. ($38)

 

 

Meldville WinesMeldville 2016 Cabernet Franc

From what can only be described as a terrific vintage, this cabernet franc is a gleaming example of what happens when you combine winemaking pedigree with a quality growing season. Add to that the fact that grapes sourced for this wine are all from the Lincoln Lakeshore sub appellation, lending to that focused expression that this wine demonstrates. I love this for its richness. Red and black fruit aromas intertwine with notes of plum and olive. The palate is plush and soft, with ripe dark fruit, earth and a sprinkle of pepper. Excellent full bodied structure and a beautiful balance of tannin and acidity. Can certainly age for the next few years but why bother? This is a great wine to enjoy now with a hearty meal. How on earth can this be priced at such a bargain? ($24)