Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery is a premium estate winery located on the Short Hills Bench at the base of the Niagara Escarpment (a United Nations biosphere) in St. Catharines, Ontario (roughly 110 km from Toronto on the southern shore of the lake Ontario). The estate has been owned and operated by the Speck family since 1984. The property consists of 300 total acres under vine (130 hectares) with production levels of over 100,000 cases each year.
The namesake of the winery, Henry (Smith) of Pelham was an early settler in Upper Canada’s Niagara Peninsula. His father Nicholas, the first settler, was Pennsylvania Dutch and a United Empire Loyalist who sided with the crown during the American Revolution of 1776.
In 1984 Paul Speck (Sr.), an educator from Niagara who lived in Toronto, and his wife Bobbi (Barbara) Speck, a book editor, enlisted their three young sons Paul, Matthew and Daniel to remove the original vineyards and shovel plant wine grape vines on the newly contoured, under-drained hills along the Short Hills Bench to begin the process of becoming a wine producer.
After doing research including studying heat scans to determine if their vineyard was suitable for growing wine grapes, the three Speck bros, along with their father Paul Sr., tore out the existing Concord and Niagara grapes. At the time, everybody thought it was a huge risk.
The Henry of Pelham Family Estate vineyards are located within the Short Hills Bench VQA where the soil is clay silt. Numerous streams originate from the base of the Niagara Escarpment including Fifteen Mile and Twenty Mile Creeks which provide excellent water drainage in the vineyards. Short Hills Bench is only 7 km south of Lake Ontario and typically sees a long, warm summer and a dry, sunny autumn.
To picture the Short Hills Bench, imagine a shelf of land jutting out of the Niagara Escarpment midway up. It’s bounded to the east by a valley of short hills carved by small creeks. The south and west are bounded by the limestone and dolostone (dolomite) rock-face of the Escarpment. The Bench has a shale and limestone basin with 30-40’ of glacial clay under silt and a 1-2’ mixture of clay mixed topsoil. Air and water flow to the east and the north and are required to drain the vineyards to remove excess moisture from the slow drying clay. This same clay naturally restrains the vines’ tendency to produce large crops which results higher concentrations of sugars, acids, minerals and other flavour compounds. The non-uniform glacially deposited soils do contain different minerals at different depths and locations. The result is wines with unique flavours specific to each parcel of land particularly as the vines grow older, sending their roots deep into the uncharted depths.
In the 1980s there were only a few estate wineries dedicated to producing premium wines made from 100% Ontario-grown grapes. In 1989, Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery was a founding member of the regions' appellation of origin system, the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). Today, Henry of Pelham is one of two wineries located in the Short Hills Bench appellation, though numerous other wineries source fruit from the many independent vineyards in the area.
Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery's focus is on Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites, and Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends for the reds. They are also well known for their Baco Noir. Riesling and Cabernet Franc icewine along with their well-regarded Cuvee Catharine sparkling wines are also in their portfolio.
Most wine, including wine made in USA and Canada, is a product of Vitis vinifera — a European grape vine import that’s the source of almost 99% of the world’s wine today. Many moons ago, when the phylloxera louse wiped out the vineyards of Europe, botanists set to the task of creating a super vine that would resist the pest. Nothing much came of it and European winemakers instead chose to take American Vitis vinifera (which had proven resistant to phylloxera) and graft it to their remaining rootstock. Grape growing returned to normal, save for one outlier: Baco Noir, a disease resistant hybrid created by Francois Baco, a native of Southwestern France. What’s interesting is that Baco’s hybrid contains a blend of Vitis vinifera (Folle Blanche) and Vitis riparia, which is a purely North American, not European, species.
In 1951 Baco Noir was brought to the cooler viticulture regions of North America, such as British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New York, Michigan, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon. In 1955 the variety was brought back to Canada, where the "George" clonal variety is commonly used. Baco Noir was the target of a vine-pull program in Canada in the early 1980s, which means that there are few older plots of this varietal left in Canada.
Baco Noir is an extremely versatile grape. It can be big and brawny, similar to a Bordeaux style wine when blended (it’s a great blender), or something special on its own.
“Real sustainability is never done. It's an ongoing process of improvement, finding and applying the best new practices while not being afraid to break with the past”. – Daniel Speck, Co-Owner/Operator Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery. Basic viticultural practices include integrated pest management which is encouraged by the World Wildlife Fund. More significantly our vineyards have been farmed since 2004 in accordance with the world leading standards established by Sustainable Winemaking Ontario.
By leaving stands of trees, the Speck bros have preserved more than 11% of their total acreage as forest. Combined with the many acres of wetlands on the property, they have been able to create very well traveled wildlife corridors that run between our forests and the Short Hills Provincial Park as evidenced by paw and hoof-prints in the winter snow. These corridors particularly benefit deer, wild turkeys, pheasant, coyotes and foxes, some of which can be vineyard pests in the winter. Instead of fencing these animals out, the growers have adapted their vineyard practices to include innovations like state of the art fine mesh netting to protect the plants but accommodate the animals. We also make it a practice to leave dead trees standing for raptors to perch, a side benefit being that the hawks scare off grape eating birds which are a pest at harvest.
A byproduct of wine making is pommace (skins, seeds, stems etc), organic matter which we compost and then return to the soil. Almost all other materials are reusable (vineyard netting, etc.), recyclable (i.e. bottles, pallets, etc) or biodegradable (wood etc). Even barrels find a new life after their use in the cellar is over.
Steep Hill imports Riesling, Chardonnay, Baco Noir (including the Reserve tier), late harvest Vidal and the iconic Riesling Icewine.
In a nutshell
- Who: Henry of Pelham
- Where: St. Catharines, Ontario
- What: Riesling, Chardonnay, Vidal, Baco Noir
- Hectares: 130
- Quantity: 1.5 mln bottles
- Plus: A pioneer estate in Short Hill Bench
henry of pelham