I sat down with Bill Redelmeier in the tasting room at his Southbrook Vineyards winery in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake during a warm spring day. As I sampled several newly released wines, we were engaged in a discussion that covered a variety of hot topics, and I could tell that he was enjoying the chance to share his thoughts (on the record). Despite having met Bill on previous visits to the winery, this was an opportunity to really get to know the farmer-turned-wine-proprietor who has become a leading organics advocate.
With a passion for entrepreneurship, Bill Redelmeier is a fountain of knowledge on just about all things farming – including its economics. His success is noted within an evolving industry. After all, he and his wife Marilyn have been agriculturalists for five decades, having begun their journey on the family’s century cattle farm in small town Ontario, north of Toronto.
“Nothing has ever been planned in my life,” he says, with a slight chuckle. “Rather than get bored with what I’m doing, I just keep re-inventing what I farm.” When you look at what he’s done since those early cattle farming days, you begin to realize he’s not just kidding around.
In the 1980s, Redelmeier pivoted from dairy farming and began running a successful roadside vegetable stand that would eventually transition into a thriving garden market. When he hired Derek Barnett to help around the farm in those early years, little did anyone know that something special was about to soon take shape. Something that would forever change the dynamic of Ontario’s wine and grape growing scene was on the move.
In 1991, Redelmeier launched a wine label on his farm called Southbrook Winery, with Barnett transitioning to winemaker and using grapes that were sourced in Niagara. They made around 2,000 cases of wine back then, which would steadily increase to 5,000 as they progressed. Their portfolio was diverse, but the winery’s signature wines seemed to be Bordeaux style blends – the type of wine Bill loved to drink and collect.
“I have far more Bordeaux than Burgundy in my cellar,” says Redelmeier. But French wine isn’t what he’s trying to emulate with his own project. I asked if there is any particular wine region that he is inspired by, or a region/winery that he’s tried to mirror at Southbrook, and he was quick to point out that “mirror means one and I’d rather make a mosaic,” he said. “A little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
He goes off on a bit of a sidenote, saying: “If I look at the wines I’ve been buying recently, they’ve been dominated by Spain and Tuscany – mostly for their food friendliness,” added Redelmeier. López de Heredia – from La Rioja, Spain has been on his must buy-list ever since he visited almost 10 years ago. “They produce a wide range of wines, including a fabulous rosé. They make you feel so welcome. I was so well treated when I visited.” One could feel the same way after a visit and a tasting at his own winery.
In fact, the customer experience has always been top of mind for Bill, even dating back to those early years on the farm, when he and his wife would regularly attract 125,000 visitors per year for events such as pick-your-own berries and school pumpkin tours.
A move into biodynamic farming
Inevitably, the Redelmeiers were bound to leave the confines of their sprawling farm in Maple, Ontario and stake their claim in something that would help satisfy their desire to produce quality wines by growing their own grapes. In 2005, Bill and Marilyn bought a 74-acre property in Niagara-on-the-Lake and transitioned the winery to becoming Southbrook Vineyards – and in 2008, they would double their holdings to approximately 150 acres of prime viticultural land. More importantly, and holding true to his re-inventive nature, this winery would grow its grapes organically, and – in more ambitious fashion – they would be farmed biodynamically.
Biodynamics takes organic farming to the next level. The whole farm is treated as a living entity and holistic ecosystem, from the earth beneath to the stars above. Like organics, biodynamic wines are free of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, but the eco-balanced regimen is even more stringent. One of the main aims is to strengthen the soil and, therefore, the vines.
“We never used the word sustainable until we were certified sustainable.”
Says Redelmeier: “My father, right from the very beginning, said if you’re running a farm, you cannot ask your workers something you’re not willing to do yourself. I did not want to spray herbicides on my crops.” Redelmeier understood that all chemicals, including herbicides, are potentially hazardous to human health. “I could not ask my farmers to handle chemicals that could potentially kill them. We decided to convert to organics and biodynamics.”
After Barnett moved on in the early 2000’s, Ann Sperling was brought in as Director of Winemaking and Viticulture – someone who has just as big a passion for organic and biodynamic practices as the Redelmeiers. Through her experience, she would help propel Southbrook’s wines to a next level of quality and international notoriety. The torch has since been passed to Casey Hogan, who is now head winemaker, with Ann acting as more of a consultant.
A thoughtful winery
One can understand why Southbrook is widely recognized as Canada’s most thoughtful winery. The Redelmeiers have actively pursued and secured certifications for both the vineyard and the winery – including LEED®, Demeter for biodynamics, Ecocert for organics and Sustainable Winemaking Ontario – demonstrating ongoing leadership and commitment to environmental concerns, quality winemaking, and an outstanding customer experience. In fact, Southbrook Vineyards was the first to be certified organic and biodynamic in Canada.
“We never used the word sustainable until we were certified sustainable,” says Redelmeier. On whether or not using the term sustainable on your wine label has become an over-reaching “marketing ploy”, Redelmeier adds that “as a consumer, you need to be looking and greenwashing, and ready to cry bull-shit.” He’s, of course, referring to the many farmers, and not just winegrowers, who like to say that they are sustainably farmed – and will market themselves as such – despite not being officially certified.
“But it does also need to be a marketing tool because we spend a lot of money to be sustainable,” he continues. “And so, if you think me being sustainable is worth while, then please support me, and if you don’t think it’s important, then go and buy some other shit.”
“In Ontario, the LCBO talks about wanting to support sustainability. But to the best of my knowledge, they don’t,” says Redelmeier. “And I can back that up by how little organic and sustainable wine they buy vs. how much the SAQ in Quebec buys, for example. We sell five times as much wine by way of the SAQ than the LCBO. The SAQ really believes in local. And they believe in Canada.”
Challenging words as they may be, he’d be one qualified enough to communicate them. After all, he’s a proven leading organics advocate. Having his stewardship of and dedication to quality organic viticulture that supports the environment has provided a benchmark for others to aspire to. His passionate lobbying efforts for provincial and federal standards and regulations have moved the needle forward for the entire industry, as has his advocacy for others to transition to organics. Simply put, Bill believes that building a better, more sustainable planet is quite simply, the right thing to do.
But ask Bill what he really wants, and he’ll tell you that aside from wanting to see others embrace and even adopt the organic growing methods his winery has become so well known for, he just wants to see more people enjoy Ontario wine – especially Ontarians.
He admits that “there’s a huge amount to be learned at the consumer level. The percentage of Ontario wine drunk by Ontarians is lower than any other significant wine country’s consumer in the world. Other countries that make wine are well supported by their own consumers. We seem to struggle with this.”
Time will tell if Bill Redelmeier will see a positive shift in local buying habits. For now, he’ll continue to be an ardent voice for organics and the reigning champion for sustainable viticulture on behalf of Canada on the global stage. It seems that this was always meant to be his true calling.
Below is an overview of the wines I sampled while chatting with Bill at his Southbrook Vineyards winery:
Southbrook 2020 ‘Laundry Vineyard’ Chardonnay
Aromas of yellow plums, honeydew melon, Bartlett pear and wet stone come to mind when contemplating this certified organic and vegan chardonnay. The mouthfeel is medium bodied, with crisp acidity and tree fruit flavours that lead to a pleasant finish. ($35)
Southbrook 2020 ‘Whimsy’ Clone 95 Chardonnay
A delicious expression of the classic Dijon clone 95 that originated in the Cote D’Or in France. Grapes for this chardonnay are grown on the organically farmed Saunders Family vineyard in the Beamsville Bench sub appellation of Niagara. Citrus aromas lead to a rich and flavourful palate of peach, lemon curd and baked apple. Acids are appealingly crisp, and the finish is fresh. (Exclusive to wine club members only)
Southbrook 2020 ‘Estate Witness Block’ Cabernet Franc Rose
Beautiful aromas of strawberries and watermelon. On the palate, it’s dry, yet fruity, with its cran-cherry flavour and grapefruit finish. Its texture and complexity is a result of the wine aging on its lees in barrel for six months prior to bottling. This adds a certain roundness to the wine, making it an excellent choice to pair with a wide selection of lighter foods. Certified organic and biodynamic. ($35)
Southbrook 2019 ‘Triomphe’ Gamay
When it comes to Ontario gamay, this is surely one that continues to be singled out, in my mind. I have enjoyed this gamay consistently over the years, and this 2019 is just so fresh and inviting, with abundant aromas of raspberry, strawberry, and roses. The palate is dry and vibrant, with cherry, raspberry and brambled fruit that finishes savoury. With its fine acidity, it’s a wine that’s a sure bet to complement a variety of dishes. A real joy to taste again. ($27.95)
Southbrook 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
This cabernet, produced from the estate’s ‘block 113’, shows pronounced black fruit and spice aromas that echo onto the palate. Bold tannins and bright acidity give this wine approachable balance, yet this should age well over the next 5-10 years. Fifty percent new French oak was used and after 13 months, selected barrels were blended with small amounts of merlot and then aged for a further five months in neutral oak. In total, 150 cases were produced. For the biodynamic geeks: grapes for this cab were picked on a ‘flower day’ where the moon was in a descending phase. ($45)
Southbrook 2019 Estate ‘Witness Block’ Cabernet Sauvignon
A compelling cabernet, but what makes this even more interesting and enjoyable is the ability to taste this expression after tasting the winery’s ‘Estate’ Cabernet Sauvignon. There are differences, and it’s more to do with where the vines for this wine are situated on the property vs. any winemaking style – though the styles do vary slightly. Blackberries, black cherry, menthol and sweet spice aromas waft from the glass. Flavours are rich, with blueberries taking centre stage, but there’s also an earthy core to this wine that offsets those fruitier notes. Aged in French oak barriques for 19 months before blending and bottling. ($45)
Southbrook 2019 ‘Poetica’ Red
This particular vintage of the winery’s flagship red is comprised of 65 percent merlot and 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, and of course, it’s biodynamic and organically farmed. What’s interesting about this 2019 edition is the fact that merlot is the dominant variety. Typically, it is cabernet sauvignon that leads the way. My feeling is that Poetica enthusiasts won’t mind the sudden reversal at all. It has intense dark plum and earth aromas, with a hint of baking spice. The palate flavours are rich with focused notes of cherry, cassis, and smoothened tannins that pave the way to a lengthy finish. Easily drinkable now, it is a wine that’s undoubtedly built to withstand a decade of cellaring – typically expected from this top tier expression. Just 120 cases were produced. ($70)
Southbrook Canadian Cassis
Believe it or not, this is a fortified bottling made from 100 percent Ontario black currants, and it’s a stunner of a wine. Deep purple in the glass, it oozes mouth-watering aromas of richly flavoured black currant jam, with spice and earth notes playing into the mix. It’s generously flavoured, boasting a sweetness that’s balanced with plenty of lip-smacking acidity. A terrific dessert wine, or perhaps the perfect ingredient in your next cocktail idea. A very respectable 13.5% ABV. This is one of the highlight wines of the year. (A steal of a price point at $22.95)