Megalomaniac, Niagara, Canada – interview and tasting with Sébastien Jacquey
Sébastien Jacquey is winemaker at Megalomaniac in Canada’s Niagara wine region, but he’s actually a transplant from France. It was Thomas Bachelder who hired Sébastien from France to be his assistant at Le Clos Jordanne back in 2007. He was there for seven years, before moving to where he is now.
I visited Megalomaniac in May 2019, and recently retasted some of the wines, and did an interview with Sébastien over Zoom. He is a very thoughtful winemaker, working in a region that has a growing season very different to Burgundy, where he worked previously, even though some of the varieties are the same. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Jamie Goode: Hello, Sébastien. How are things at Megalomaniac?
Sébastien Jacquey: The season has finally started in Ontario. We had budbreak on May 20, whereas May 10 is normal. As usual, in Ontario it is now 30 C. We switched from almost winter – we had snow on May 8 – and we had 37 C last week.
JG: So it is a compressed Spring, then?
SJ: Everything grows very fast, and you have to be on all fronts at the same time. I always compare the seasons here to France, because that’s what I know best. In France, budbreak is usually at the end of March or early May, and bloom is in mid-June. For us budbreak is mid-May, but we bloom early July. So we do in a month and a half what in France it takes almost 3 months to do. We have a much more accelerated vegetative growth, during the spring and the summer, and then we drive things longer in the fall with the Indian summers. We have a shorter spring than Europe, but a longer fall.
JG: Can you tell us a bit more about where you are?
SJ: Megalomania is located on the escarpment. We divide the Niagara wine region into two main areas. There is the escarpment (or bench area), and Niagara-on-the-lake area. I try to define the escarpment by going back geologically in history. Millions of years ago the lake used to come all the way to the shore of the escarpment. The bottom of the escarpment was covered by water, and this explains why we have differences in soils. There is much more alluvial and sandy soil closer to the lake, and much rockier limestone soils on the escarpment. We are located in Twenty Mile Bench, which is between Jordan and Vineland. We about 5 km from the lake. One of the specificities of the vineyard where we are is that we are one of the highest in altitude on the escarpment. We are on the top of the ridge, facing the lake.
As you get to the ridge you are close to the limestone of the escarpment, so some parts of our vineyard are really poor in top soil. The dolomite limestone is visible in some parts. And because we are on top of the escarpment we get much more wind. It can be very humid here, so these winds help keep disease pressure under control. This can be quite high in our climate.
JG: So further down close to the lake, the cooler it is in the summer and warmer it is in winter. Where you are, presumably you have colder winters and warmer summers. Is that correct?
SJ: Yes, but we have less humidity we tend to have less sensitivity to frosts. It depends on where you are on the escarpment and how exposed you are to the wind. We can be hit with 35-40 C in the summer, and we can go down as low as -20 C.
JG: What are the challenges viticulturally of working in Niagara?
SJ: The challenges are diverse. Understanding the challenges is a challenge in itself! A lot of producers try to define their viticulture based on what we know from Europe or new world regions, and try to find some parallel. In Ontario, our climate is much closer to what you might find in Quebec, with less frost risk, rather than Europe or California. The challenges are related to many factors. The first is the dynamic of the growing season. You start late, and grow fast at an intense pace with not much breakdown between night and day. The night can be as warm as the day, and the vine doesn’t slow down: it just continues growing all the way to August. In Europe, inflorescence is going to happen when you already have a canopy that is a metre high. Here we have barely reached three leaves unfolded and we already start to see the inflorescence. So for the spray program you have to think about how you are going to protect your flowers where in the other region they are thinking about protecting leaves. The timing is really critical. For example, the fertilization or manure program, your window is so tight. If you spread manure too early there is no microbiological activity in the soil because it is too cold, and if the soil is wet it gets compacted. So you can’t do anything until early May, and all of a sudden it is getting dry, and you can’t integrate it into your soil. You don’t want to interfere too much with your soil because you want to be respectful to the soils, and bring a sense of humus in the top soil, but you have to in a way be a little technologically advanced and cultivate a little harder than what you wish, in order to have this integration, in a fast way. Because right after that you have to go through your vineyards to spray, and that window is about three weeks, and you have guys working in the vineyards and you don’t want to spray then. The timing is really important.
The other element that can be difficult to understand, is that we talk of Niagara as cool climate, but our vineyards can react as cool climate or warm climate depending on the year. We are dealing with cool climate to a certain extent where we have acidity in our wine. We can have low pH, but we can also end up with 14.5% alcohol. With a variety like Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Franc, or Chardonnay, we have this idea that the lower the crop the better the quality. This is what I learned when I was at school in Burgundy.
But in Ontario, because our growing season is shifted, if you crop too low – for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay – you are going to ripen too fast and get to a point in September where you lose all your acidity without reaching the phenolic ripeness that you are looking for. Your grapes will be sensitive to any fungus, because we often have rain in early September. Pinot will fall apart by the time the desired phenolic ripeness is reached.
Sometimes you have to adapt the crop to be slightly higher in order to pass that period of high sensitivity to fungus, in order to push the grapes into the Indian summers that are really good for maturing grapes. This is our best friend: there are cool nights to preserve acidity, and the 20-22 C days good for ripening without burning the aromatics. If you crop too low, you won’t get there. Cabernet Franc is a little different because this is late ripening. You have to adapt your crop in late June at bloom.
Also, as winemakers, we have to understand we aren’t in a region where we can make warm-climate Cabernet, or warm-climate Pinot Noir. Our wines will always flirt with a little bit of vegetal character that could be perceived as violets or floral notes. We need to find the winemaking approach to work around this to define the uniqueness of the climate. I’m not here to make a wine like California or Burgundy. I am making an Ontario wine. How do we define this? We need to accept our challenges.
JG: What are the strengths of Chardonnay in Niagara?
SJ: Chardonnay is one of the most successful white varieties in Niagara, along with Riesling. The challenge with Chardonnay is downy mildew, and lack of acidity if we crop too low. With Chardonnay, I am not trying to expose the fruit. I am trying to keep the leaves protecting the fruit, and I keep the crop at about 3 tons/acre. We do different picks, too: one early on for freshness. I pick by hand and do whole cluster pressings. On the old vines I did a later pick because they retain their acidity longer. I was able to push the ripening to 22.5 Brix without losing freshness. With the young vines I had to make the call at about 21 Brix.
I pick early in the morning. I am not overly protective during pressing: I let the juice breathe. I don’t mind a bit of oxidation because I know Chardonnay will always come back. After, I do a light settling, I don’t want the juice to be overly clear. I work with 80-100 NTUs to leave enough nutrients for the ferment. We ferment in barrels, with quite a lot of 500 litre barrels. I have about 10% new oak. All my oak is French: I like the light, long toast. Chardonnay tends to have a fat texture in Ontario, so two-year dry seasoning rather than three years helps out bringing some tighter tannins to balance the fatness. There are also some stainless steel barrels to add freshness. We adjust malolactic levels depending on the year. I do almost no stirring of the lees, just a bit at the end to help fermentation to finish. For the Reserve Chardonnay we select six or seven barrels after 11 months and rack it and then put it in stainless steel for six months. The extra ageing on fine lees polishes and refocuses the wine.
In 2017 [a high alcohol year] we tried to minimize our extractions. We normally do a good 30 days extraction. During the cold soak we minimize oxygen to keep the colour, and then we maximized extraction early on when there was not much alcohol, up to 4%. Because of the ripeness, everything was extractable, so past mid-ferment we really held off and didn’t push anything. As soon as we got into dried fruit we pulled off the grapes and pressed. I usually like the extended maceration on Pinot Noir, and reds in general, because you can manage temperatures and extraction post-ferment to control the dynamics of the extraction.
We move temperature up if we want more extraction, and lower them if we want less. We also control the length. We try to combine a bit of firmness in our tannin with freshness in our pHs in order to generate a light salivation in the wine.
JG: Do you do any whole-bunch with Pinot Noir?
SJ: I have been consistently using 5-10% Pinot Noir, but I go to nothing when I have powdery on the stems. I usually do it on the last layers as I fill my tanks, and then put some crushed grapes on top. This is because of Ontario. The Pinot Noir here is so sensitive, and by doing it like this I have the option to crush the whole bunches if it starts going wrong.
JG: Do you ever use whole berries?
SJ: Yes, it’s mostly what I do. I pick early in the morning, and destem gently. I go to a stainess steel bin and then fill my tank using a fork lift. I don’t go through any pump. I try to have this intracellular pre-ferment: I like what the Klockera are doing early on, giving this forest fruit character. I also like picking at different times, with some tanks with fresher, crunchy fruit, a little less opulent. And I have a tank that’s a later pick, and then one a week and a half after the first.
JG: Cabernet Franc is one of the signature varieties of Ontario. How do you feel about it?
SJ: I was a Pinot producer all my life before I came to Ontario. When I came to Canada, I was not convinced by growing Cabernet Franc here. But I began to understand better the dynamic of grapes in Ontario. I find Cabernet Franc to be really exciting. It fits our climate really well. First, it is pretty winter hardy. Second, it has loose clusters. With the humidity we have, it is quite resistant to disease. It also has this ability express the pretty floral elegance of a cool climate, but it can also adapt well to a warm climate, where it loses its rusticity of tannins and becomes much more lush. I found with our climate being between a cool climate some years flirting with unripeness, but also being so warm in the summers, Cabernet Franc is almost laughing at temperatures that would burn Pinot Noir. Cabernet Franc has been the black sheep of Bordeaux, where people have used it to bind their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot together.
The great thing about Gamay and Cabernet Franc is their ability to remain fresh because of a slight rusticity. The light firm tannins of Cabernet Franc and the violet and lavender flavours really help to preserve tensions. Our climate is adapted to this: it burns enough to get it ripe, but not too much that it can remove its prettiness. When I started working with Cabernet Franc I decided there were two things I needed to do. First, I need to make sure I pick it as late as I can, without losing the floral character. I want to be able to loose up those rustic tannins a bit. And the second thing is that I don’t want to extract the wine too much. I want to make Cabernet Franc that is unique to Ontario, and I need to preserve that freshness by every practice in the winery. I choose to start off with a Pinot-like approach, with a cold soak. I want the prettiness of the fruit and to preserve the freshness, but when I get into the extraction I want ripeness on the mid-palate. Everything that is ripe should be extracted easily. The skin to juice ratio is much higher than in Pinot. You have more skins and less juice, so I can push a little longer to get these tannins. But post-ferment is crucial in all the polymerizations of these tannins, with the colour of the wine. But I don’t want to be too high in temperature, because I will lose the lavender and the violets, so I keep it at 24/25 C, and as soon as ferment is finished I go to 18-21 C. This way I won’t get vegetal green notes, which you can get if you are too demanding on the cap extraction.
I can pick our grapes at 14% every year in the first week of November. They are almost perfect when they come in. You barely have to sort, and they come in really cold, and it’s 2 C in the morning. It is easy to manage the grapes. When you go through the destemmer and the grapes are cold, it is easy to have whole berries.
JG: Do you do quite a bit of whole berry ferment for Cabernet?
SJ: Yes, until the fermentation gives me the kinetics I need to break it down. I start punching down at 2% of alcohol.
JG: What is your view on yeasts?
SJ: I try to use yeasts that are not enhancing any particular aromatics. My pH is 3.4 after malolactic which helps a lot. My pH with Pinot is 3.6. This makes no sense, but Ontario makes no sense anyway, so you have to learn as you go. We try to build Cabernet Franc a bit like an architect. When we go through ageing, I use some stainless steel barrels: I want crunchy fruit and I want the lavender to be alive. It is just a portion of the blend. I use Burgundy and Bordeaux coopers, because I always find my Bordeaux coopers with their thin staves will help me build the midpalate I don’t have. Sometimes it helps the rustic tannins of Cabernet Franc to be a bit more polished. Bordeaux coopers tend to bring more oxygen to the wines, and polymerize and refine the tannins, with thinner staves and dry seasoning, as well as different toasting and oak selection. In Bordeaux they rack more often, too. Burgundy barrels are usually thicker staves, the toasting is different and the wood selection is different too. There is usually tighter grain. Pinot is a sensitive child and doesn’t want too much oxygen. Cabernet Sauvignon needs to be bitten a little bit in order to loosen up and release the aromatics. For Cabernet Franc I play both sides. I play the side of the Burgundians where I try to focus, and on the other side I try to loosen up my tannins with the Bordeaux coopers. When I blend I want the best of both.
JG: It’s still early days in Ontario. Would you agree?
SJ: We are just the second generation after Mr Bosc and Vincor [Paul Bosc was one of the pioneers of vinifera here in the late 1970s, and Vincor was a group that included pioneering winery Inniskillin, established in 1975). We are the pioneers. Now we are starting to narrow down the varieties, people are starting to ask themselves the right questions about how we should work in the vineyard. Even with my team, I am still teaching people how to prune properly, and we are in 2020. Viticulture has been around for thousands of years and I am still dealing with people who don’t know how to prune. It is not a simple task, but if you don’t prune properly you pay the consequences for year after year. This is one example. This morning we are going to sucker, and I’m telling my guy that we need to bud thin at the same time. He says, we don’t shoot thin now. I explain that I don’t want to shoot thin in July when I’ll have sucked all that energy from my vine to a shoot that I don’t need. Small practices like make a difference.
Megalomaniac Bubblehead NV Niagara Peninsula
2013 and 2014, 100% Pinot Noir, from the bottom of the block which gets picked early. Traditional method. Sebastian uses whole clusters, does a bit of maceration in the press with some enzyme to get colour, then doesn’t use the beginning of the press. He presses to 0.8 bar then the rest is declassified to rosé. Cold ferment with a non-aromatic yeast, fermented to dryness. He then does a rough filtration and keeps it on five lees for four months before tirage. The wine spends 18 months on lees with one remuage. 12-14 isn’t enough and if you go longer than 18 months you get autolysis which isn’t great for rosé. Dose at about 6 g with sparkling base Pinot Noir. Tight, fresh and juicy with bright raspberry and cherry fruit, with some citrus. Fresh with good acidity and a touch of sweetness. Impressive. 90/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Narcissist Riesling 2017 Niagara Peninsula
20 year old vines from the home vineyard. Looking to find the vines closest to the dolomite limestone for this one. This is bright and fresh with a limey kick to the sweet fruity palate, and a hint of sweetness on the finish. Good acidity with nice weight and a nice blend of opulent fruity notes with some steely structure. 90/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Insensitive Fumé Blanc 2018 Niagara Peninsula
‘Sauvignon Blanc is a bit like Merlot – we have the ability to ripen it in a beautiful way,’ says Sebastian. Some skin contact (a couple of hours), destemmed, it just wants to reduce, a bit like Gamay, so he allows some oxygen during the ferment. Goes to barrel when there are 10 g of sugar left, with some of them stainless steel. This has nice precision with some peachy richness as well as fresh citrus notes, with a rounded texture as well as some fine green hints. It’s nicely textured. 89/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac My Way Chardonnay 2017 Niagara Peninsula
This was a warm-ending year so he left higher crops to keep alcohol in check. Picked at 21 Brix. Used winemaking to counterbalance the heat. Barrel fermented with 10% new (puncheons are the only new ones) and some stainless steel barrels. There’s some creaminess to the palate, with fresh pear and peach fruit. Generous and smooth with generous fruit, and a twist of apricot. Nice weight with the oak taking a back seat here. 89/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac My Way Chardonnay 2018 Niagara Peninsula
13% alcohol. This is lively and bright with good freshness to the pear and white peach fruit, but also a touch of spice and some subtle woody vanilla notes adding volume and richness. Very attractive. 89/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Gamay Avant Garde 2017 St David’s Bench
Old vine Gamay, 25-30 years old. 2017 was rainy until the end of August, and September was the warmest month of the year. He did a bit of cold soak to extract colour. ‘I like to extract reds during the first phase of fermentation, and what’s easily extracted is best,’ says Sebastien. ‘I put 10% whole cluster on the top, and then massage the caps, sometimes extracting for 30-40 days. I like wines with salivation.’ Supple and fresh with lovely cherry and raspberry fruit, showing a juicy quality to the sweet fruit. Has a bit of structure here, as well as lovely expressive fruit. Pure and delicious. 92/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Sonofabitch Pinot Noir 2018 Niagara Peninsula
13% alcohol. This is fresh and supple with attractive sweet red cherry fruit, showing some nice texture with fine-grained tannins. Really pretty and expressive with just a hint of vanilla and spice under the light, fragrant wild strawberry and herb notes. Very pure and enticing. 91/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Bigmouth Merlot 2016 Niagara Peninsula
A blend of Merlot from here with some from Niagara on the Lake. Normally pick at the end of October with 23 Brix. ‘Merlot takes time to digest oak, and it takes a year to come back to life after bottling,’ says Sebastien, who is not looking to extract what the climate won’t give him. An elegant style with a smooth mid palate, which a nice savoury, spicy, gravelly dimension and nice cherry and berry fruits. Has a hint of spicy oak. Good structure, with a tight, fresh finish. 90/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Frank Cabernet 2016 Niagara Peninsula
From the home property. ‘Cabernet Franc has a bright future in Ontario,’ says Sebastien. ‘I’m trying to understand what the challenges are and how to ride with it. One of the advantages here is to work around the greenness to get to violet and lavender.’ Picked mid-November. Supple and fresh with a taut plum and berry fruit core. Has some mint and lavender notes, with bright damson notes on the finish. Nice freshness and depth. 91/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Frank Cabernet 2017 Niagara Peninsula
14.5% alcohol. This is dense and spicy with some grippy tannins as well as berry and cherry fruits, with a touch of oak spice and a nice contrast between the sleek, ripe fruit and the grippy tannins. Nicely poised with lovely focus to the fruit. 90/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Reserve Chardonnay 2018 Twenty-Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
12.5% alcohol. This is concentrated and has nice freshness, with a pixelated citrus fruit framing to some richer pear and white peach notes. It shows nice focus, with some stony minerality. And a bright, slightly pithy finish. No obvious oak character, but good fruit intensity. Potential for development. 92/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Reserve Pinot Noir 2017 Twenty Mile Bench
Got a lot of concentration of the fruit at the end in 2017. 10% whole cluster and stopped extracting after 5% alcohol. Fresh and vivid with supple, juicy red cherry and plum fruit. Nice grippy structure with some damson notes and a hint of bitterness. Lovely fruit intensity, and quite structural. Has some potential for development. 91/100 (05/19)
Megalomaniac Reserve Pinot Noir 2017 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
14.5% alcohol. This was a tricky vintage that flirted with disaster. There was a very wet early summer, with standing water in the vineyards. Then, in September, it was hot and sunny, and this saved things. Really fine and fresh on the nose with a spicy edge to the sweet red cherry and berry fruits. The palate is bright, focused and spicy, with some good tannins underpinning the supple red fruits. There are some dried herb notes, too. Very fresh and focused, and finishing with Nebbiolo-like tannins. Carries the alcohol well. 93/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
14.5% alcohol. 18 months in French oak. Lovely nose, combining lavender, spice and dried herbs with berry fruit and some gravel and spice. The palate has some tannic bite and grippy structure, but also fresh fruit with nice black cherry, raspberry and red cherry notes. It’s fresh, but also has some fruit sweetness. Real finesse here, with structure that suggests this could age well over the next decade. 93/100 (06/20)
Megalomaniac Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Twenty Mile Bench
‘Everyone says we don’t have the climate for Cabernet Sauvignon, and I agree with them,’ says Sebastien. ‘But if we look at the problem from another angle what can we do to make it? If you handle cool climate wines well, you can make something very interesting. Drop the crop, pick late, and then in the ferment you need to go to 28 C to break the skins.’ Powerful and spicy. Some goes to new barrel for malo, and the rest stays in tank. He does some microoxygenation in tank then malolactic. Has a little more new oak and some higher toast for the barrels. Dense and quite structured with some fresh acidity and sweet blackcurrant fruit, as well as a bit of cherry and raspberry. Dense and grippy on the finish. 90/100 (05/19)
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See also: a tasting of Niagara wines with an introduction to the region