In Niagara (5) Flat Rock Cellars

Website: Flat Rock Cellars

Flat Rock dates back to the late 1990s, and the vineyard was planted in 2001 and 2002 with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. It’s was founded by Ed Madronich Sr, and is now run by his son, Ed Madronich. The junior Ed gained experience by working for several years in charge of sales and marketing at Inniskillin. The first wines were made in 2003 (just 20 tons were harvested), but 2004 was the first proper vintage (100 tons). Currently, around 200 tons of grapes are processed here, and they keep stock of every wine made in their cellar.

This is an impressive vineyard located on two levels, one above the escarpment and one below, with the winery in between. It’s located on Twenty Mile Bench, and from the winery you can see Lake Ontario. On a clear day Toronto is visible on the horizon, looking north. The soils are clay loam over a limestone bed, and the flat rock that the winery is named after is a hunk of dolomitic limestone. There are 80 acres (35 hectares) of vines, and all the wines are from the estate except for Twisted, which is an affordable Riesling with a bit of residual sugar.

Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling block

When I first visited back in June 2015, they were going through a difficult period of replanting after significant winter damage over a two-year period. There are 69 acres of vines here, and 24 acres were in the process of being replanted. The previous winter, temperatures had dipped to -25 C for five hours or so, which is enough to kill the more sensitive vinifera varieties. At this stage, Jay Johnston was the winemaker, and his tenure was 2012-2017. ‘One thing I tried to bring to the project is looking for more diversity in the cellar,’ said Jay, when I was there in 2015. ‘I’ve been playing with wild ferments, yeasts, stems, cap management. The idea is to create a range of components so we could choose the bits for the different wines.’


After Jay left, there was a short tenure for David Sheppard, who was hired when Jay Johnston left for Hidden Bench. Dave finished up the 2016 wines and was responsible for the 2017s. He had plenty of experience: he’d been making wine in Niagara for 35 years, moving to the region to work with Inniskillin after working in Germany and Burgundy. He was then winemaker at Coyote’s Run for 14 years. His stay was never planned to be long-term, though, as retirement was on the horizon – it was more of a transition to the current winemaker, Allison Findlay, who was assistant winemaker from 2016.

Allison Findlay and Hayley Frankis

This visit, with Allison and her assistant winemaker Hayley Frankis, was my third. And it has been great to see the progression here, with the current releases the strongest ever.

Flat Rock have three emphases: Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Indeed, they were one of the first really to commit to Pinot Noir. ‘The challenge with Pinot in Niagara is the grape marketing board, which sets the price for grapes,’ said Ed, on a previous visit. ‘Most wineries historically purchased grapes from growers. The grower is given a set price for a ton of grapes.’ He explained that if the price of Pinot was set at $2000 a ton, this incentivizes the grower to get high yields, because they are not getting paid more for higher quality. ‘If you crop higher you get very poor Pinot: it makes light coloured bad wines. No one knew Pinot could be great because people weren’t farming it well.’ He adds that with Pinot Noir, quality doesn’t just diminish with higher yields: it falls off a cliff.

As well as winter kill, there are other viticultural challenges in Niagara. In particular, disease pressure is high. Copper is used a lot and they need to make 14 sprays a season against diseases because of the humidity in the warm growing season. Sour rot, powdery mildew and black rot are real problems.

Flat Rock is a corkless company. Everything is screwcapped, except for the sparkling Riesling, which has a crown cap.  

In 2020 Flat Rock did a rebranding, recognizing the importance of soils. The label is based on rocks that were crushed and then photographed.


Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Unoaked Chardonnay 2021 Niagara Peninsula
Some sourced fruit too. Juicy and lemony with nice purity. This is zippy and a bit stony with nice presence in the mouth, and good acidity. 90/100

Flat Rock Cellars Foundation Chardonnay 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Ripe with a nice smooth core to the pear and peach fruit, with some mealy detail. Has a sweet core to the palate. This is really expansive with that rich mid-palate that Niagara Chardonnay often has. 90/100

Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
13.5% alcohol. This is ripe with pear and peach, and a slight salinity. There’s some richness here with a touch of cashew and toast, with nice mealy notes. Broad and expansive with nice weight. 92/100

Flat Rock Cellars Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2009 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
This is youthful and fresh with sweet pear and peach fruit, some nuts, and some spice. Juicy and linear with nice brightness and focus, some creaminess and a bit of structure on the finish. It’s quite mealy on the finish. So youthful. 93/100

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted 2020 Niagara, Canada
Riesling/Gewurz/Chardonnay blend. Fruity, lively and spicy with nice citrus fruit core and some table grape notes, with just a hint of sweetness and refreshing acidity. 89/100

Flat Rock Cellars Foundation Riesling 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Beautiful citrus core here: aromatic and fine with lemony fruit and a touch of sweetness. Has really nice texture: there’s good acidity here that balances the sweetness (17 g/l residual sugar). 92/100 ($18)

Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
11.5% alcohol. Really pure and intense with lovely limey fruit and even a hint of melon and peach richness. Bright and expressive with nice integration of sweetness and acidity. This is so pure and linear with great precision. 95/100

Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2019 Twenty Mile Bench
Lively, pure, citrussy with lovely precision. Juicy and lemony with nice brightness. Has a lovely cherry quality as well as lime. Very stylish, with sweetness balancing the acidity. 94/100

Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2008 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Pithy, intense, limey, developing in really interesting ways with purity and high acidity. Has a dry finish. Really pretty. 93/100

Flat Rock Cellars Amplify Riesling 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Barrel fermented, with full malolactic. This is very fine and expressive with nice texture. Lovely citrus and pear with fine spiciness. It has lovely balance: it’s dry with a sweetness to the fruit and a soft texture. Very stylish. 94/100

Flat Rock Cellars Foundation Pinot Noir 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Highly aromatic with lovely cherry and spice notes, with a lovely sour cherry and plum notes as well as some liqueur-like raspberry notes. Has a lovely sweet fruit core, with a bit of grip and nice texture. 92/100 ($23 retail, making it an incredible bargain)

Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
13.5% alcohol. This is beautifully textured with soft sweet cherry and plum fruit, with elegance and weight. Very textural with a lot of sweet fruit and a bit of structure. This is really expressive with lovely depth. 94/100 ($34.95)

Flat Rock Cellars Hexa Pinot Noir 2020 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
This was a great year for reds, so Ali experimented with whole cluster. Clone 115, last pick, 17% whole cluster. Fresh, mineral, fine – lovely sweet cherry fruit with nice structure and fine spicy notes. There’s a silkiness here with a twist of sour cherry, and really nice acidity. Very fine. 95/100

Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2009 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Aromatic with notes of hay and silage as well as cherry and plum. This has a subtle metallic quality under the cherry, strawberry and plum fruit with a sour twist and notes of dried leaves and bacon as well as sweet fruit. Still alive, but fully developed. 90/100

Older notes from 2018

Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir 2016
Fresh with an iodine and blood edge to the sweet cherry and plum fruit. Sappy, fruity and nicely savoury. Great value at CA$20 a bottle. Fleshy and attractive but with a nice savoury edge. 90/100

Flat Rock Cellars Gravity Pinot Noir 2014
Complex with a savoury, mineral, ferrous edge to the sweet cherry and berry fruits. Has nice structure with some lovely grip sitting nicely under the fruit. A stony, mineral expression of Pinot. 93/100

Flat Rock Cellars Riddled Sparkling 2011
100% Chardonnay. Barrel-fermented, then spends 6 years on lees. 11 g/l dosage. Crown-capped. Fresh and focused with lovely taut citrus fruit. Linear and expressive with subtle toasty notes. Lots of presence here. 90/100

Flat Rock Cellars Unplugged Chardonnay 2017
Unoaked, partial malolactic. Fresh and lively with rich pear and white peach fruit, with a citrussy edge. Vibrant and fruit-driven with lovely fruit expression. Some pineapple on the finish. 88/100

Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay 2016
Supple and nicely weighted with delicate peach and pear fruit. Has a nice weight: open and expressive with fine toast and bread notes as well as sweet fruit. Very easy and accessible, with a hint of seriousness. A rich style. 89/100

Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2015
12.5% alcohol. Complex and nicely weighted with sweet pear and pineapple fruit, coupled with subtle oak. Spicy framing with nice sweetness to the fruit. Lovely freshness here. Easy but with some complexity. 91/100

Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed Chardonnay 2006
Bold and rich, but still with some freshness: there’s toast, hazelnut, spice and honey, alongside focused citrus and peach fruit. Mature but with lots of life in it still. Sweetly fruited and richly toasty, but with freshness. 90/100

Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2017
Bright and linear with keen citrus fruit. So juicy and focused with tangerine, lemons and some fine herby hints. Dry, pure and intense: needs time to develop. High acidity. 91/100

Flat Rock Cellars Riesling 2016
Perfumed, open and lemony on the nose. Some elderflower. Lovely weight on the palate with the acidity countered by some sweetness. Supple and expressive with lovely pure fruit. 91/100

Flat Rock Cellars Twisted Riesling 2016
A white blend made of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Chardonnay. Now has some bought-in fruit. Off-dry and rounded. Soft and sweetly fruited with a soft texture, with some grape and lychee fruit as well as a bit of citrus. Very attractive and detailed, with some softness. 88/100

And some notes from July 2015

Flat Rock Nadja’s Riesling 2007 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
This is a drier style of Riesling made from a higher portion of the vineyard where the dolomitic limestone is close to the surface. Complex and a bit waxy with some nuts and lanolin. Lively with a bit of pithiness and nice evolution with a lovely mineral character and great acidity. Lovely complexity with an amazing finish. 93/100

Flat Rock Nadja’s Riesling 2004 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
There’s a subtle creaminess here. Some mineral character under the citrus fruit, and lovely lemony delicacy. Has sweet fruit with good textured and delicacy, showing refined acidity. 93/100

Flat Rock Nadja’s Riesling 2013 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
Very linear and pure with delicacy and precision. Lovely fine, pure lemony fruit. Lots of potential here. 92/100

Flat Rock Estate Riesling 2006 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
This is 19 g/l sugar and pH 3.24. It has lovely weight. Off dry with a seamless purity and hints of honey and lemon. Quite mineral with lovely citrus fruit. 92/100

Flat Rock Estate Riesling 2008 Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara, Canada
37 g/litre sugar, pH 2.8. Amazing acidity here: lemony and intense with a fine spiciness. There’s some sugar here but it tastes just off dry because of the acid. So intense and pure, and quite lovely. 93/100