This Gal Just Wants to Have Fun … Seriously!
11th December 2023
Drinking wine is fun but making wine is serious business.
Somehow, Yvonne Irvine manages to do both. Yvonne is a busy winemaker at two Niagara wineries – Creekside Estate Winery and Queenston Mile Vineyard – where she works collaboratively with head winemaker and mentor Rob Power in all aspects of wine production.
There, Yvonne produces a range of wine styles including traditional method sparkling wines, but the fun really begins with her own brand – Maenad Wine Company – and a portfolio of innovative sparklers!
Maenad Wine Co. is Yvonne’s side gig and labour of love. Named after the female followers of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and in celebration of women and wine, Yvonne is crafting convivial, well made and interesting bottles that (in her own words) are meant to be enjoyed with laughter and exuberance. Just take a look at her labels (designed by a local artist) to witness a couple of maenads’ ecstatic dance.
With grapes sourced from some prized Niagara vineyards, local orchard fruit and her own garden herbs, Yvonne makes two types of bubblies: Pét-Nats and Piquette (in addition to still Chardonnay, Muscat and Cabernet Franc).
What is Pét-Nat? Pétillant-Naturel is naturally sparkling wine made in the méthode ancestrale. It is the oldest method of making bubbly. The winemaking technique involves bottling wine that is still fermenting to trap carbon dioxide gas in the bottle, creating a gentle carbonation (2.5-3 atmospheres of pressure). There is no addition of secondary yeasts or sugars. Some of these wines are dry, some are sweet (if the fermentation stops before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol by the yeasts), some are clear and some are cloudy. You never know what you’ll get – but that’s part of the fun! The wines are usually lower in alcohol and the bottle closure is a crown cap.
What is Piquette? It’s not really a wine and Yvonne says it is pretty hard to get it just right. Basically you add water and sugar to grape pomace (the leftover skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes after pressing) and let it ferment with naturally occurring wild yeasts – as in Yvonne’s case. The tricky part is to avoid bacterial infections which can occur because the alcohol levels of piquette are so low – around 5% abv. Yvonne’s version is bottled just before the fermentation stops. So, it’s unfiltered (containing lees) with no added sulphites.
What is so interesting about Maenad’s Pét-Nats is that Yvonne adds fruit – local peaches or blueberries – and garden fresh herbs (sage, tarragon) or foraged sumac from a nearby forest to the fermenting wine.
The concept is quite old actually. Adding “other” ingredients to wine was done in ancient Greece (e.g., Retsina, adding pine resin) and Rome (e.g., honey, spices and medicinal herbs were often added). Today, we still have Vermouth, Dubonnet, Sangria, and mulled wine as examples.
It was a sunny, brisk, late November day when I met Yvonne Irvine for this interview and to taste her sparkling wines. She had just completed harvest at the two wineries and had also managed to make the 2023 Maenad wines … so three harvests really.
Q1: What inspired you to become a winemaker?
Yvonne: Well, it took a while for me to make a clear plan. I took a year off after high school trying to decide what I wanted to do and many thought I would never go back to school. I knew I wanted a good job, something practical so I enrolled in bio tech because I liked science. That was okay but I did not like the repetitive nature of lab work so I switched to a business program focusing on human resources. Still not satisfied, I applied to the Winery and Viticulture Technician Program at Niagara College. However, I applied after the deadline and was turned down. I then did some independent studying and talked to local winemakers. I knew that winemaking was a perfect combo of science and art, a chance to use both sides of my brain. I saw that no day was ever the same – there were varied tasks requiring different skills. So, I applied again to the program and was accepted. For my practicum (co-op placement), I applied to only one winery because I loved the wines they were producing (in particular Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc) – that was Creekside Estate Winery. Once there, I realized head winemaker Rob Power and I were a good fit personality wise. I’ve been there ever since and now make wine also at our satellite vineyard, Queenston Mile.
Q2: At Creekside and Queenston Mile wineries, do you take the lead on any of the wines produced? Which are you most proud of?
Yvonne: I have taken the lead in crafting Queenston Mile’s Chardonnay. At first the winery was trying to make a Chablis-like wine – but it was not selling well. I understood that the vineyard had a warmer microclimate producing riper fruit. It just did not suit making crisp, linear and mineral-laden wines. Instead, I advocated for crafting fuller-bodied Chardonnays that went through malolactic conversion and oak ageing (more of a Californian style). It worked so well that now it’s one of our most popular wines.
Q3: As far as sparkling wine is concerned, what is the hardest part? When do you need to be the most vigilant in the production process?
Yvonne: I would say the picking date is most important when it comes to making sparkling wines. You want optimum natural acidity in the vineyard. The hard part is surviving the cold in January and March as you are doing tirage and bottling. [Yvonne laughs]
Q4: Maenad wines are fun, innovative. You’ve now made 3 vintages – what inspired you to co-ferment fruit and add herbs to your Pét-Nats?
Yvonne: I had made premium ciders using herbs and fruit and thought why can’t we do this with wine? Vidal Blanc, which grows well in our climate, is perfectly suited to doing this as it has plenty of acidity and classic tree fruit flavours. But it can be taken further. So I started experimenting with herbs, fruit and botanicals. I wanted it to be subtle with Vidal still being the centre. It expresses my creative side. I change it up every year and that’s fun!
Q5: Why have you chosen to make your wines unfiltered, unfined and bottled on lees?
Yvonne: My philosophy is the less you do to a wine, the better. I work making more conventional wines as well as raw, natural, low intervention wines for my own brand. With either style, I want to make the best wine possible. When doing wild ferments, like I do with Maenad wines, I want clean wines and so I am vigilant and ready to intervene when necessary. I do not believe one compromises when making natural wines. They are lots of work and my favourite aspects are their texture and structured backbone. With Maenad I change it up every year based on what grapes are available giving my winemaking the opportunity for creativity and freedom.
Q6: Who are your wines’ intended target audience?
Yvonne: Certainly natural wine customers but traditional wine drinkers also enjoy my wines and even non-wine drinkers who normally drink ciders, coolers and craft beers. I think my marketing is focused on women but I believe modern men want to celebrate women as well. My Pét-Nats are a great brunch or lunch beverage and an alternative to having a Mimosa cocktail.
2021 Piquette (5 1/2% abv)
Made with re-hydrated Sauvignon Blanc skins. It’s a refreshing, light spritz – citrusy, herbaceous, and hoppy – like a sour beer style. Bottled unfiltered with lees, no added sulphites.
2021 Vidal Pét-Nat (11% abv)
Made with Vidal blanc and co-fermented with peaches and sumac foraged from a nearby forest. Very subtle peach and lively citrus flavours. Sweet mid palate but finishing dry. Bottled unfiltered with lees, no added sulphites.
2022 Vidal Pét-Nat (12% abv)
Made with Vidal blanc and co-fermented with Niagara Concord grapes and tarragon from the winemaker’s garden. Lovely grape and orchard fruit flavours … but the tarragon takes it to another level and adds a savoury complexity. Winemaker’s notes: “an explosion of pink bubblegum with hints of anise.” Bottled unfiltered with lees, no added sulphites.
Many thanks to Yvonne Irvine for the interview and a chance to taste her delicious, fun bubblies! It is always refreshing to see a younger generation of well trained winemakers who are pushing boundaries and making interesting, quality focused wines.
Lidija Biro DipWSET
Canadian wine blogger/writer with eclectic wine tastes and an avid interest in lesser known grape varieties as well as sustainable vineyard/winemaking practices. She is a DipWSET Candidate, a French Wine Scholar (WSG), and a Graduate of Niagara College Winery & Viticulture Program.