Nestled on 23 acres on the beautiful Niagara Escarpment, Featherstone Estate Winery was the first in Canada to bring sheep into their vineyard. Why? – you ask … well, I guess you’ll have to keep reading.
In 1999 husband and wife Louise Engel and David Johnson decided to sell their successful Guelph Poultry Gourmet Market and open Featherstone. Thank goodness they did! This family owned and operated estate started in produced 6000 cases – that’s around 72000 bottles in 2011. In 2012 it’s expected that they will produce 5000 cases, a little less than last year due to the dry summer. This, however, isn’t a negative number as the dry summer promises a higher quality in wine despite the “smaller” yield.
Commonplace at Featherstone, Louise and David take pride in showing patrons through their beloved vines and I had the pleasure of being guided by Louise. We started first by sampling a 2011 Rosé — it was a divine cool refreshing teaser full of the flavour of berries. To my taste, it was dry and not sweet as you might expect. Not to mention, it looked mouth-watering in my glass and I ended up taking a bottle home with me.
Our next taste was of the 2011 Black Sheep Riesling – looking clearer than the freshest spring water it was cool, crisp and full of citrus. And it was on that note that we learned about the sheep at Featherstone.
It was during a 6-week trip to Sileni Estate Hawkes Bay in New Zealand in 2007 that David noticed how clean their vines were – not many weeds below the vines and fewer leaves covering the grapes themselves. As it turns out vineyards in New Zealand have been using lambs to do this job for many years – I guess that’s what happens in a county where they have over 50 million sheep!
This year Featherstone is home to 40 sheep – a certain hop from the first 5 that they employed in their first year. The sheep eat the weeds, add “fertilizer” to the vines, and most importantly eat the leaves that shade the grapes from the sunlight that helps them grow. Featherstone gets their lambs from a local Willow Haven Farms in St. Anne’s, Ontario who make sure the sheep are born in March (instead of the usual January schedule) so that the sheep are nose-level with the vines when they arrive at Featherstone in July. With this maximized sun exposure the grape’s flavour is improved and it reduces humidity which reduces the chance of mildew and crop-loss.
Come August, when the sheep have grown and the grapes are ripening, the sheep will be sold to local restaurants who already partner with Featherstone in carrying their wines. Because of the delicacies these sheep nosh on during their summer, they are incredibly popular with local restaurants and Featherstone often has a waiting list.
Alas, the sheep were fun to look at and I wish I had been able to get closer without them running away. Apparently I lack the grace required to sneak lovingly towards a sheep without them sauntering away for a meal in the vines. As luck may have it, however, it gave me the opportunity to speak some more with Louise.
Turns out that the sheep, along with the great benefit, have added a few extra dimensions to wine-making that Louise was happy to share. Birds are natural predators in any vineyard but with the more exposure the grapes are appetizing to the robins and starlings. Keeping the birds away is especially difficult when the colour on the red varietals starts to turn. For this reason, Louise has become a certified falconer and flies birds of prey in the vineyard in order to reduce the populations of birds threatening their yield. As it turns out – one must have quite the varied skill-set to keep a winery thriving.
And thriving it is! Sheep and all, Featherstone Estate Winery was a wonderful place to visit and I hope to return again for one of their last chance noshes on their picturesque veranda in early September.