Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post
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A-list artisans: Ilya Senchuk – from Winnipeg to Winona

June 3, 2020
“I would say that I am making wines exactly the way I want… We want to always release wines that are indicative of place and high-quality.” – Ilya Senchuk

An artisan wine usually comes from a small producer, made in limited quantities using traditional winemaking practices. The production of these wines is strongly linked to the local terroir, the specific soil and climate conditions of the vineyard. The wine styles made are driven by the producer’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ from their vineyards and perhaps even made to reflect their personality – and in that, you really are getting a unique product.

Read the complete intro to this series: A-list artisans: Winemakers who define ‘artisanal’ winemaking

The first time I walked into Leaning Post was February of 2018. It was Family Day Monday and many businesses were closed that day due to the holiday. Itching for something to do, the urge came upon me to look up any wineries that might be open in the immediate area. As it turned out, Leaning Post was open, and as luck would have it, it was the closest winery to my home.

I had read about this place before. A small operation, husband and wife duo trying to make their way into the wine business on their own terms. It was an inspiring story, the type that defines the spirit of entrepreneurship. I decided to visit and finally see this place for myself.

Walking into the quaint – and fully restored – old barn that the winery uses as its tasting room, barrel cellar and all-round operational facility, I was greeted by Ilya Senchuk himself – the owner and winemaker. He was working solo in the tasting room, pouring for visitors, and explaining his wines to anyone who wished to learn more about them. I was able to have an exclusive chat with him and really got a feel for what he was setting out to achieve. The wines were also excellent.

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That conversation prompted me to want to circle back – in due time – to discuss more. We would speak again later that same year and then again – albeit briefly – this past spring (while socially distanced).

Ilya grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and it’s where he and his wife Nadia happened to meet and eventually marry. Both shared a passion for wine. They decided that just drinking wine wasn’t fulfilling enough. They wanted to make wine and eventually run their very own vineyard. So, they set out to live in Ontario, where Ilya would attend Brock University’s oenology and viticulture program – one of the best in the country.

He would go on to spend the next decade making wine for other people – with stints in New Zealand and at multiple Niagara-based wineries, including Daniel Lenko, The Foreign Affair and The Good Earth. Never letting go of the dream of having their own vineyard property, Ilya and Nadia eventually capitalized on that primary ambition that brought them to Ontario in the first place and started their own label.

“Over time I began to realize that I lived in one of the greatest places on earth – at least when it came to the kind of wine I wanted to make, which was cool-climate and terroir-driven.”

They launched Leaning Post as a virtual winery in 2009, two years before acquiring an 11-acre plot in Winona, a small town officially within the reaches of the Greater Hamilton Area and most westerly part of the Niagara Escarpment winemaking appellation (Lincoln Lakeshore sub appellation). Not only would they plan to make wine here, but they also moved into the farmhouse right on the property. And it’s where they’ve been ever since, raising their, now three, children on their homestead.

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Ilya and Nadia Senchuk have realized their dream of owning their own winery.

The name of their winery is both literal and connotative in that each vineyard row has “leaning posts” to keep the vines supported, while friends and family were leaned upon for their support and encouragement. They planted a total of five acres of pinot noir and chardonnay on their property to add to the fruit that they source from other local Niagara terroirs to make up their portfolio of wines.

As Ilya remembers: “When I started Leaning Post, I was a guy walking around with wine in a suitcase, not unlike a traveling salesman.” He only made a couple hundred cases of wine in each of those first couple years. He sourced his fruit from what he refers to as “micro-terroirs”, saying “we wanted to find those unique plots of land and show that to people through our wines.”

Read Also: A-list artisans: Thomas Bachelder – Ontario’s winemaker extraordinaire

The initial focus was on small-lot pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and syrah. He also added an experimental series, which he coins his “Freaks and Geeks” lineup of wines, which are non-intervention natural wines, and include a skin fermented white (or orange wine) called Clockwork. There’s also a pinot noir, riesling and a pet-nat. More will be added to this lineup that Senchuk describes as creative sidelines that allow for curious exploration and experiment. He has since also expanded his classic portfolio to include merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, gamay and even a traditional method sparkling – which has not yet been released.

When Leaning Post released its first wines from its own estate vineyard in Winona – the 2015 vintage – they were released to positive acclaim, a testament to the unique terroir their land is situated on. The two subsequent vintages have been praised even more so (read my review of the 2017 Senchuk Vineyard Pinot Noir below).

“My hunch was proven correct in that I knew there’d be a payoff.” – Senchuk on the risk/reward factor of planting vines on his property in Winona.

The winery is also in the throes of an expansion project, which incorporates not only production upgrades but customer experience upgrades as well (additional fermentation vessels, more storage space for barrels, a roof-covered patio for guest seating, and yes, more vines are being planted in his own backyard to add to the five acres currently planted – in case you’re wondering, he’s planting gamay and dolcetto).

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The husband and wife dynamic duo standing in their very own backyard vineyard at Leaning Post.

Below is more of our conversation from the fall of 2018, including a sampling of some of his recently released wines – now available to order online and/or purchase and pick up curbside – and a couple of gems from the 2016 vintage that deserve to be fondly remembered:

Q: How excited were you (and are you) to have your own vineyard, right in your own backyard?

A: It really is the greatest feeling. I was a winemaker for 10 years before we bought the property and I used to lay awake at night dreaming of buying my own vineyard. So when we finally purchased the property in 2011, and then planted, it really was a dream come true. 

Will you be keeping fruit from these vines for single vineyard bottling or do you plan on blending the fruit in with other Niagara fruit that you acquire each fall?

We have had fruit coming off the vineyard for a few years now and it always seems to be some of the best fruit we get all year. We are definitely releasing them as separate bottlings. As a matter of fact, we have released two chardonnays from our property from two different parts of our vineyard (one that we call Clone 96 and the other we simply call Senchuk Vineyard chardonnay) in addition to our Senchuk Vineyard pinot noir.

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Talking and tasting with Ilya Senchuk at Leaning Post on Family Day 2018

Why do you think Ontario compares to Burgundy when it comes to terroir-driven wines?

We are very lucky to live in such a beautiful place like Niagara. It has the perfect mix of moderate but cool climate allowing us to grow grape varieties (like chardonnay and pinot noir) that can really express terroir. Then we have many different soil types and aspects in relatively short distances (clay, limestone and gravel, slopes and flatter areas) which also give different expressions of terroir. In all these ways we are quite similar to Burgundy, although definitely not identical but that is the definition of terroir! So we have all the natural elements to make great wine, meaning we already have great terroir. I think the big change in the last 15 years or so is that we now have winemakers with enough experience to coax the best out of our terroir. Along with the fact that we now have a consumer who wants to go on that journey and explore these terroirs of Niagara with us. It has allowed us to finally put our best foot forward.

Where do you think Ontario ranks among other regions and countries when it comes to pinot noir?

I believe we are right at the very top when it comes to pinot noir. I studied to be a winemaker here in Ontario (at Brock University) but my original plans were not to stay in Ontario at all. I thought I would finish my schooling and then go explore some of the great wine regions of the world. I did travel a bit of course, but over time I began to realize that I already lived in one of the greatest places on earth – at least when it came to the kind of wine I wanted to make, which was cool-climate and terroir-driven. We believed in it so much that eventually we started our own winery. I think that is perhaps the greatest proof of how much we believe in this place.

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Has your practice or technique changed over the years? How so?

It has definitely changed over time. My philosophy has always been to only intervene during the process of winemaking when absolutely necessary. But as a younger winemaker I worried more and perhaps intervened more often or earlier than I do now. With more experience came more understanding of how to let things go. I have gotten to the point where we are releasing some totally natural wines that essentially have no interventions at all (other than actually picking the grapes and pressing them etc.). Most of our wines are now wild primary fermenation, wild malolactic fermentation and low-sulphite. Perhaps the only intervention I really still believe in is the proper (low) use of sulphites.

Is there an art or specific playbook to maturing a wine and knowing when exactly it should be ready to bottle and drink?

That comes with experience, both as a winemaker and with the specific terroir. As an example we will make pinot noir from several different sites and they each usually require slightly different time in barrel and often age differently in bottle. That is the essence of why terroir is important! You have the same grape variety grow in different places and we generally end up with very different resulting wines. So I would say it is not a formula at all. It is about knowing each place and growing season and learning about each one. Over time with experience one can start to project what a wine might do, but even then we’re often proven wrong.

What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out? Conversely, what do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker?

I would say that the thing that is most difficult is also the most rewarding. In a cooler climate like ours, we can have very large swings from vintage to vintage. We can have hot and dry, cool and wet or any combination of those, often in the same growing season. It can sometimes be challenging to get those grapes to the point where they are ready and can make good wine. That is also the most exciting thing about making wine in Ontario. We are putting out consistently great wine, but wines that are definitely not the same every year. That is also part of terroir. It is what keeps me excited and interested every year.

Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post

Often times owner and winemaker Ilya Senchuk can be seen pouring wines for his guests.

What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

Because we are attempting to explore and find the greatest terroirs that Niagara has to offer, I believe there are still many places that we haven’t yet found. We are still a relatively young region in winemaking terms so all the great terroirs are not discovered and codified like they are in Burgundy. That makes our area incredibly exciting. Our own vineyard is a great example. It was a vineyard but was abandoned for about 30 years. We have brought it back and I believe it has already shown it is a very good terroir. I believe there are still more places like ours that are yet to be discovered.

If someone were to call you an Artisan Winemaker, would that be an accurate descriptor of who you are? What’s your definition of an Artisan winemaker?

I think so.  I would say that I am making wines exactly the way I want and then trying to make the economic case for that. We are in no way market driven when it comes to our winemaking philosophy. We are not making wine for a particular demographic or person, we are not making wine with a particular style or result. We want to always release wines that are indicative of place and high-quality. I believe that is the definition of Artisan.

 

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Leaning Post 2017 ‘Senchuk Vineyard’ Pinot Noir

It’s just the third vintage of his namesake home vineyard pinot noir but already Ilya Senchuk has touted this particular wine as the best pinot noir he’s made to date. Back when the 2016 vintage was released, Ilya told me he wanted to release wines that were indicative of place and high-quality. For a wine coming from vines so young, the 2016 was astonishingly complex. This 2017 version kicks things up a notch and, thankfully, he’s made more of it (2016’s vintage only saw 59 cases produced, while 2017’s output has almost doubled at 110 cases). If you’re into terroir – like really into terroir – this is a wine that’s sure to excite you. There’s a real earthy vibe happening on both the nose and the palate. Beet root, mushroom, pine needle, floral and herbal notes. It’s further complemented with savoury fruits, spice, a dose of minerality and vibrant acidity. It’s got structure that will allow it to age throughout the latter half of this decade. This is a snapshot of a place and time that oenophiles shouldn’t hesitate to buy multiple bottles of. The journey of evaluating and contemplating it over the next several years will be an exciting one. ($65)

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Leaning Post 2017 ‘Wismer-Foxcroft Vineyard’ Chardonnay

Before their own chardonnay vines were ready to yield fruit, the Wismer-Foxcroft site was Leaning Post’s go-to locale for their premium-level chardonnay. Senchuk describes it as being a “classic spot on the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation” and you can really identify the pedigree of this particular terroir. It’s great to see that it’s still a valued installment for the winery’s portfolio, and at a very reasonable price point considering the wine’s stand-out quality. It’s complex, full-bodied, rich and expansive with notes of peach, pear and pineapple wafting from the glass. There’s vibrant flavours of orange, lemon zest and ripe stone fruits on the palate that lead to a clean and refreshingly mineral finish. It’s a wine that will certainly age for the next 5+ years if you so choose. ($40)

 

Leaning Post 2018 Sauvignon Blanc

This is just the second vintage of Leaning Post’s sauvignon blanc from fruit sourced out of a couple of different spots within the Niagara Peninsula. Niagara might not be widely considered as a place that can successfully harness this grape’s wonderful attributes, but it seems to me that as each year passes, more and more producers are embracing it and expertly showcasing what this varietal can do. This achieves all those classic benchmark aromas of mango, passionfruit and gooseberry we love to associate with the grape. The palate has bursting acidity that allows the exotic kiwi and grapefruit flavours to really shine. Some fresh herbs help to nicely round things off with a bit of bees wax on the lasting finish. ($28)

 

 

Leaning Post 2018 ‘Wismer Vineyard’ Gamay

This Leaning Post gamay seems almost akin to pinot noir as it is layered with complex flavours that I wouldn’t have expected to find in most Ontario gamay wines. The nose presents aromas of earth, underbrush and brambled fruit in addition to cedar and pine if you really dig deep enough. Palate flavours are savoury and accented with subtle blackberry, spice and beet. Nothing particularly jammy or ripe about this wine and that’s okay. Will satisfy the contemplative imbiber. Pairs nicely with herb crusted chicken and roasted potatoes. ($25)

 

 

Leaning Post 2017 ‘Lowrey Vineyard’ Pinot Noir

When I first visited Leaning Post back in February of 2018 it was in fact the 2014 vintage of the Lowrey Vineyard pinot noir that got me excited about this winery. Three vintages later and this wine hasn’t lost its mojo. It is pure elegance and sophistication in a glass, with such delicate framework and yet a taut core. The Lowrey pinot noir was the first ever wine Ilya Senchuk made under the Leaning Post label and he remains one of only three winemakers allowed to source fruit from the historic first plantings at the Lowrey farm on the St. David’s Bench in Niagara-on-the-Lake (Thomas Bachelder and Five Rows Craft Winery’s Wes Lowrey are the others). “It’s the ultimate example of terroir,” says Senchuk. “It’s an exciting property and really exemplifies the magic of terroir.” Senchuk likes to compare the wine’s aromatics to flowers and smoked sausage. “There’s structure and tannin there but it doesn’t look it.” Cranberry, forest floor, raspberry and meaty notes are just some of what makes up the wine’s complex flavour profile. And yet, this promises to be so much better in 3-4 years as it develops more with age. ($45)

 

Leaning Post 2016 ‘Senchuk Vineyard’ Chardonnay     

I got to taste this wonderful and crafty chardonnay while attending the 2019 International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. It was simply remarkable and quite truthfully blew me away. To date I’d say it’s one of the 10 best chardonnays I’ve ever tasted. Such precision and focus from such young vines. Remember: this was just the second vintage of this chardonnay that comes from the winery’s home estate in Winona. If this is what we get after just two vintages, then the future is most certainly bright for these estate vines. Honeysuckle, lemon rind, minerality and mouth-watering salinity are just some of the flavours I so fondly remember. If you’re one of the lucky ones to have gotten your hands on a bottle, don’t hesitate to think that you can lay this down for 10 years. Oh, to have those first moments with this wine all over again. (Sold Out)

 

Leaning Post 2016 ‘Senchuk Vineyard’ Pinot Noir

Originally reviewed in October 2018, this was just the second vintage of their flagship pinot noir from their very own estate. Wow. Beautiful expression of the variety and of what is happening here in Ontario right now. Fresh fruit flavours over a medium body with added notes reminiscent of a forest floor on a beautiful autumn day’s walk. Add to that a balanced acidity and tannin structure that will help this wine age gracefully over the coming decade. Only 59 cases produced. (Sold Out)