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Horses and Chickens and Sheep [Oh My!]

Tawse Winery is a blue-chip Niagara producer that focuses its efforts on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Franc, varieties that thrive in Ontario's cool climate conditions. No synthetic chemicals or fertilizers are employed in its vineyards, but horses, sheep and chickens are.

    As a result, the dedicated organic winery sounds more and more like a version of Old MacDonald's Farm and less like a conventional vineyard, which suits winemaker Paul Pender just fine. He believes bringing animals into the farming mix helps the foster the biodiversity of the vineyards.

    Fifty sheep arrive in June to help prune the leaves around the ripening grape clusters. The chickens come next month and will eat lots of bugs and provide good amounts of natural fertilizer in return.

        The talented young vintner explains that Tawse is taking its cue from a growing number of organic wineries in the Burgundy region of France who are embracing old farming techniques in a bid to create more natural wines - what you might call genuine regional wines. The goal, Pender says, isn't to make merely acceptable wines, but compelling reds and whites that are marked by the unique conditions of the sites where the grapes are grown.

    From the 2007 vintage, Tawse produced four Cabernet Francs, four Pinot Noirs and two Chardonnays from different vineyard blocks as well as a range of other wines. Each wine from these single vineyard sites tastes remarkably different from another, despite the similarity of grape variety, farming practices and winemaking techniques. Location matters.

    Two houses and a ploughman worked at the Cherry Avenue winery for two days as an experiment. According Pender, ploughing by horse is the next logical step to improve the health of the soils. The traditional method of ploughing avoids compaction of the soil caused by the weight of tractors and other heavy machinery. Compacted soils are less able to absorb rainfall, air and other beneficial elements for grape vines.

    "I certainly don't miss the sound of the tractor," he said earlier this week while observing a magnificent Belgian named Danny pull the plough between rows of Pinot Noir vines behind the winery.

    "We're hoping to get our own horses next year. We're quite excited about the prospect of this."

Wines of the Week:
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Tawse Winery 2008 Sketches of Niagara Rosé
Niagara Peninsula $12 (130245)
    This new release is noteworthy for many reasons, not least its amazing quality versus price ratio. Made in a dry style, this rose is beautifully clean, balanced and refreshing. It's a far cry from White Zinfandel or off-dry blush wines. The emphasis is on fruit (an abundance of berry and rhubarb) and freshness making this a versatile wine to enjoy with food. Currently available at the winery, it will be released June 6 at Vintages outlets in Ontario. www.tawsewinery.ca

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Yellow Tail 2008 Pinot Grigio
South Eastern Australia $11.45 (068254)
    This widely available white from Australian wine giant Yellow Tail is notable for its affordable price point and its pleasant citrus and stone fruit flavours. Zesty citrus notes nicely balance the palate. Good value.

(Ratings are out of five stars)

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