Malcolm Jolley: From Cape Town to Canada: Niagaran wines with a South African spirit

If you're looking for exceptional Niagaran wine, grab a bottle made by Marlize Beyers

In 2005, Marlize Beyers, who has a Bachelor of Science in Viticulture and Oenology from Stellenbosch University, had been making wine in South Africa for a couple of years when her husband, Meiring, got a dream engineering job in Canada. He was to apply his specialty, researching the fluid dynamics of snow, and when Beyers landed in the Great White North she must have wondered if she’d have to make a career change.

“Luckily, there was a wine region, Niagara, nearby, so I could get a job and continue to make wine,” she explained in a Cape Dutch accent when I spoke to her recently over Zoom from her home in Hamilton, Ontario.

Beyers began making wine in Niagara at Flat Rock Cellars on the elevated lands of the Twenty Mile Bench. After she took a break to have her first child, Harald Thiel, the founder and proprietor of nearby Hidden Bench, invited her to make wine a little further west in Niagara, which she did for the better part of seven years.

Geographically, the Niagara wine region is best known for its limestone soils and the micro-climate created by the interaction of deep Lake Ontario and the continuous cliff of the Escarpment. But Niagara’s other great geographical advantage is its proximity to Toronto. It’s 400 kilometres from Vancouver to Penticton and more than 600 between Calgary and Penticton. By contrast, it’s less than 100 kilometres from Toronto City Hall to Beamsville and the western end of Niagara wine country. (Though many may prefer having to scale mountain passes to battling the traffic on the Queen Elizabeth Way.)

In the 2000s and 2010s Beyers was in the middle of a heady time in Niagara as the Toronto restaurant scene exploded. Times were good and discretionary income and expense accounts grew. The new trend of interest in local food quickly translated to interest in local wines and Ontario wine went from a term of derision to a shibboleth of gastronomic savvy. Money, thirsty collectors, and curious sommeliers power charged the scene, and the winemaking was innovative and forward-thinking.

In 2017, when Beyers left Hidden Bench to join her old South African employer, Bruce Jack, she took that energy and spirit of adventure with her. Beyers, who kept her principal address in Ontario, became a flying winemaker. She became a winemaker at Jack’s The Drift Estate in the Overberg Highlands, about 170 kilometres southeast of Cape Town. She also formed a consultancy partnership with Jack, Resolute Wine Works, with projects in South Africa, Chile, Napa, Spain, and… you guessed it: Niagara.

Resolute Wine Works currently consults at Beyer’s first Canadian employer, Flat Rock Cellars. But I came to talk to Beyers, who I knew from her days at Hidden Bench, because of a bottle from the first vintage of an entirely new project: The Long Way Home Chardonnay 2022.

Made from fruit picked at Hidden Bench’s Felseck vineyard, I received the bottle by way of South African serendipity. My friend, the winemaker Norman Hardie, whose family immigrated to Canada when he was a schoolboy, was making a personal Christmas delivery on my street when I ran into him walking my dog.

“Malcolm,” he said excitedly as he went through the boxes of wine in the back of his car, “you have to try this Chardonnay, it’s amazing.” I briefly looked forward to one of his own, but he explained with a smile that the bottle he was handing me was made by Marlize Beyers who was making wine in Canada again: “You’ll love it.”

He wasn’t wrong. The Long Way Home is an impressive, rich, and powerful yet lean wine, like a long-distance runner. Crisp and citrus with food-friendly acidity, but tempered with a luxurious touch of custard cream. And, though it’s bone dry, I found honeyed notes on a marathon finish, once it’s opened up. I had looked Beyers up and sent her an email before I finished the first glass.

When I spoke to Beyers, and said I thought her wine would make a very good excuse for a long lunch at a fancy restaurant, she laughed and protested a bit. “I’m not a fancy winemaker,” she said, “I just try and bring out the best from the fruit I’m working with. Once you’ve done all the work in the vineyard, you shouldn’t have to do too much in the cellar.”

Then, as Beyers walked through how she made the wine, she surprised me by telling me that the yellow straw-coloured wine had in fact been subject to skin contact, the process that normally turns white wines into orange ones. There was no sign of pigment in the glass, by my eye, and no sign of skin tannin by my palate. 

Winemaker Marlize Beyers.

What was going on?

Beyer explained that she became interested in skin contact and maceration for white wines a few years ago when she was more or less forced to experiment with a co-fermentation of Viognier and Malbec at The Drift. When she applies skin contact on white wines, like The Long Way Home Chardonnay in Ontario, or Chenin Blanc in South Africa, she explained she said she does it as gently as possible and likened the process to steeping tea. 

Other than keeping the top of the skins from drying out, she really doesn’t do too much in the cellar. There are no “punch downs” or other manipulations to stir up the fermenting juice and crushed skins. She also ferments the wine at cold temperatures. Beyers explained that she is looking for “floral and fruit character” from chemical compounds in the skins, but without the tannins from the pigment in them that gives red or orange wine a drying or textured mouthfeel.

The 2022 Long Way Home Chardonnay ($50) is available through the Niagara Custom Crush Studio website. The 2023 is being made there now, this time with fruit from just down the road at Malivoire. Since it ships directly from the winery, consumers can order one bottle at a time rather than committing to a whole case.1Contact Niagara Custom Crush about shipping outside of Ontario.

Bruce Jack wines are frequently available across Canada. Right now in Ontario, two of The Drift wines that Beyers makes can be ordered online by the bottle through the LCBO Classics program. The Ghost in the Machine Chenin Blanc 2022 ($29) is also a skin contact but is very much a white wine with peach and grapefruit flavours that remind me of mid-Loire white wines from Angers like Savennières or the dry versions of Coteaux du Layon. The grapes are from Beyer’s brother’s farm.

The Ghost in the Machine Shiraz 2021 ($38) is made partly with carbonic maceration, where whole bunches of grapes are piled on top of each other, keeping out oxygen so fermentation happens with carbon dioxide instead. Primarily used in Beaujolais, it gives the wine a big wine fruit character. Look for sour cherries, like in a pie filling, and raspberry seasoned with peppery notes.

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