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Top Rated: A standout Niagara cabernet made in a very ‘cool’ way

January 27, 2022

The year 2021 will be remembered as a year where my eyes were opened to the possibilities of cooler-climate cabernet sauvignon, and specifically from Ontario. Fact: four of my picks for the year’s top Ontario wines were cabs, including my pick for red wine of the year, the Big Head 2018 ‘Select’ Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s said that cooler vintages can make more opulent, aromatically intense and complex wines than overly warm vintages. The 2018 vintage in Niagara began with a cool spring, which was followed by summer heat waves throughout much of June through August and ended cool and wet heading into harvest season.

Read Also: Top Rated: An Okanagan riesling with texture, complexity and balance

A blend of Beamsville Bench, Twenty Mile Bench and Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation fruit, this ‘select’ cabernet is definitely an exciting wine, if not for how it comes across your palate, then for how it’s made.

According to Jakub Lipinski, who oversees the operations and marketing at Big Head (and is the son of winemaker Andrzej Lipinski) “the vintage was difficult, but we sorted grapes both in the vineyard before drying, and then at the crush-pad post. We prefer the complexity from cooler vintages for Bordeaux varieties specifically, and this was produced using carbonic fermentation.”

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Big Head Winemaker Andrzej Lipinski. (photo: Big Head Wines)

Carbonic fermentation (perhaps more commonly known as carbonic maceration) is a technique that includes fermenting the fruit in whole clusters, in either steel or concrete tanks that are sealed and filled with carbon dioxide, creating an anaerobic atmosphere without any oxygen. Essentially, during carbonic maceration, alcoholic fermentation begins inside the grape itself and eventually the grapes end up crushing themselves under the weight of the alcohol they are producing.

Big Head has built a reputation as a winery that’s always been one step ahead (via these cool and exciting methods), capable of making full-bodied wines, many of which also use the appassimento method of drying the fruit to concentrate and add complexity to a variety of styles for various tiered labels within the brand.

“We are not the only ones using (the carbonic fermentation method) in Niagara – although maybe we’re the only ones using it post-appassimento,” says Lipinski.

Lipinski adds: “We use oak and concrete for various purposes. We like the slow temperature shift that comes from concrete, which results in a slower fermentation, and in our experience, more complex flavours with wild fermentation (we only use wild for our wines).”

“Cooler vintages have more structure and gradually develop more complexity…” – Jakub Lipinski

This is unquestionably a layered wine that’s packed with flavour. There is an intense plum and black cherry that moves into more savoury notes of brambled fruit and underbrush, all caressed with a hint of roasted pepper and spice. The palate is dry, and the tannins are grippy, but the freshness throughout the entire mouthfeel is on point. The wine’s acidity balances out the weight with exacting precision. The finish is long – very long and savoury, as a matter of fact – with forest floor and spice notes that left me contemplating this for minutes.

“This is a wine that can age, and will develop over time,” says Lipinski. “Cooler vintages have more structure and gradually develop more complexity, especially with the concentration and pre-development of appassimento.”

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Concrete tanks used for carbonic fermentation. (Photo by: Wine Anorak)

Understanding that Ontario’s vintages can certainly vary from one year to the next, there’s no guarantee that each vintage of this particular expression of cabernet would taste the same as the previous or following year. But that’s what makes this wine even more thrilling to taste and experience. It’s truly a liquid time capsule.

“We take whatever the vintage brings and try our best through many techniques to unlock the full potential of the vintage,” says Lipinski. “Niagara has such dramatic swings between years that we have to be very quick to adapt to anything. The last two vintages (’20 and ’21) are a great example of how things vary.”

Despite many who argue the notion that cabernet sauvignon has no place in Ontario, this is a terrific expression of it, and it’s bound to make one re-think their proposition. Priced at $48, it’s not even the winery’s most expensive cabernet, yet it stands out for its complexity and intriguing method for which it is made.


Big HeadThe 2018 Big Head Select Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded a score of 95 points and named most outstanding red wine of the year for 2021, as published in our VineRoutes Newsletter. To discover more exclusive newsletter-only wine scores, awarded by VineRoutes editors, sign up here.