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Fruit Wines Worthy of the Name

A bottle and glass of raspberry wine from Shady Lane Estate Winery

Shady Lane Estate Winery

“This tastes too much like wine…”

That was what my wife said. But when that is the only criticism there is for a bottle of fruit wine that you happen to be drinking, then things could be worse.

Fruit wines have a well-earned reputation for being sweet and simple. In fact, they normally taste like fruit juice with alcohol in it – a selling feature to many people, I’d say, and something I’m rather surprised hasn’t been capitalised on to a greater degree, given the trend for alco-pops and the like. Except that fruit wines – especially strawberry wine – can be a real pain to make, due to how delicate the fruit is. Bruising and oxidation can be a problem, and lead to off flavours.

But I digress.

I come from Alberta, Canada. East of the Rocky Mountains, there are not many grapevines to be found until you get all the way to the Niagara region of Ontario – which is a good 3000 km from where I grew up and where my parents still live. I grew up on the prairies. Cattle country. The heartland of grain production.

But there are also berries. Lots of berries. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries – and a couple of local sorts that you may not have heard of: chokecherries and saskatoons. Both of them are delicious, particularly saskatoons (great for pies and jams), but I loathed going out in the bush and picking them as a child.

A couple of months ago I was back “home” visiting my parents and showing off my infant son. One evening my father brought out a bottle of raspberry wine from Shady Lane Estate Winery that he was really fond of. I remembered him telling me about how good he thought the fruit wines from Shady Lane were, but I had written them off. Forgotten about them. After all, they couldn’t have been much better than literally every other sweet, sticky fruit wine I had had.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

A bottle and glass of raspberry wine from Shady Lane Estate Winery
This is the culprit. I love it!

The vintage was 2015. That raspberry wine was already three years old! I was not optimistic. But then I pulled the cork and the room was awash with the scent of raspberries picked fresh from the bushes in my grandma’s garden. It was an immediate, visceral memory triggered by an unmistakable aroma. I was captivated.

I tasted it. The wine wasn’t sticky, but light and fresh. Yes, there was plenty of fruit (raspberry, haha), but there was also an intoxicating herbal quality, and good length. There was something happening with this raspberry wine that went beyond simple fruit flavour. It captured my interest and held it for a couple of glasses – there are plenty of grape wines that don’t even manage that. I needed to know more. Try more.

Unfortunately, though my father had a dozen bottles of the fruit wines, he only had one other type: saskatoon. As it turned out, all of the other wines made by the estate, including strawberry, chokecherry and rhubarb, were impossible to get in the limited time I still had in Alberta. But at least I could talk to the producers.

The Family

The business is very much a family affair.

Shady Lane Estate Winery is owned and operated by the Zdrodowski family. The owners of the farm, Dan and Edie, have two boys, Caleb and Nathan. Caleb married Emi, who comes from a winemaking family. They are in charge of all the winemaking, including the recipes. Nathan, with whom I had the pleasure of chatting, is married to Veronica. Together, they are in charge of marketing. Auntie Judy is also on hand to help out as necessary. All other assistance and work is supplied by local students hired seasonally for the tasks.

The Zdrodowskis have German roots, something which is reflected in the choice they have made to use the German names for the fruits making all of their fruit wines. Raspberry = Himbeeren, Strawberry = Erdbeeren. And so on.

You couldn’t ask for people who were much newer to winemaking than these folks. They’ve only been making wine for the last five years – almost all with fruit grown on their property. A little is bought in from friends. Nobody at the estate has any formal training in winemaking. The learning process consisted of a lot of microvinifications and trial-and-error. But they seem to have found a system that works for them.

The Winemaking

Everything is made in steel tanks. No sulphur – or anything else – is added. I’m not sure if they realise it, but their fruit wines could fall into the “natural” wine category with relative ease, except that they are using cultured yeasts and the wines get a coarse filtration.

Fruit is harvested and then frozen, to encourage the skins to begin to break down and release more colour and sugars. All of the fruit wines (with the exception of strawberry, which has too many proteins leading to unstable wines) are macerated on the skins for up to two weeks. The wines are filtered after the second racking, and each wine will be racked from three to 14 times, depending on needs.

Fermentations are permitted to continue until they stop naturally, which means that the wines generally ferment dry. This also leads to some pretty impressive alcohol levels, for a fruit wine: 15% for the 2015 saskatoon wine, for example, and 13% for the raspberry wine of the same vintage. Fermenting dry is the kind of thing that virtually nobody else does, since “everybody knows” fruit wines need to be sweet. It seems that there might be a couple of advantages to having no formal training: if nobody has told you that something is risky, you might not think that it is.

“We make fruit wines, not fruity wines”, says Nathan. I couldn’t agree more.

The Wines

Himbeeren 2015 13% abv

Unbelievably fragrant nose of fresh raspberries. Light and refreshing on the palate, with a delicious undercurrent of fresh herbs. Just enough sweetness to carry the fruit, and with a nice, lingering finish that, incredibly, doesn’t go out sweet. Drink well-chilled, but not cold.

Junibeeren 2015 15% abv

Yes, if you have smelled saskatoons before, you will recognize them in the nose of this wine. Slightly earthy, a bit like blueberry and with a hint of blackberry. The palate is big, full and verging on port-like, nutty and with notes of caramel and plum, chased by a hint of menthol. This wine is brawny compared to the raspberry wine, and offers a completely different – and unexpected – experience. Great length, great body. Also to be drunk chilled, but can handle being a bit warmer than the raspberry wine.

A bottle and glass of Saskatoon wine from Shady Lane Estate Winery
Saskatoon wine, anyone?

The Estate

Shady Lane is located in Barrhead, Alberta, which is about around 100 km northwest of the provincial capital of Edmonton. It is also just 25 minutes due west from Westlock, where my grandma lived most of my life, tending her garden and her precious raspberries. It is a very rural part of a very rural province.

The estate processes around 2000 kg of fresh fruit annually, at least 75% of which must be estate-grown in order to satisfy the provincial winemaking licence. In fact, the total is far closer to 90%, and the family is looking into sourcing more fruit. Especially now that they have started distilling.

Yes, moonshine is being produced at the family farm. But, beyond that, they are starting to distill the fruit wines themselves to make fruit brandies, instead of refermenting the skins of the fruit after pressing, like is done with grappa. The first steps are being taken with chokecherry and saskatoon.

With such a small operation, much of their sales are done directly, but the family also visits several farmer’s markets around the province. That’s how my father came to try their wines, and it’s something the family really believes in, since it lets them meet their customers. Nevertheless, even a small producer needs some visibility; the wines are also found in many different Sobey’s locations around the province, as well as at select smaller specialty shops. You can see the list of shops carrying them here.

In one of life’s little ironies, the laws for shipping alcohol across provincial borders in Canada are so restrictive that it is actually easier for the Zdrodowskis to ship internationally – and international markets are what they will be focusing on soon, with Germany on the list of places they would like to be.

I can hardly wait!

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