Q&A: Ontario winemaker Ilya Senchuk on merlot, becoming a winemaker and what it’s like to raise three kids on a farm

Q&A: Ontario winemaker Ilya Senchuk on merlot, becoming a winemaker and what it’s like to raise three kids on a farm

Ilya and Nadia Senchuk hail from Winnipeg, where you can’t grow wine grapes. But they fell in love while sharing a passion for the noble grape, and they set out for Ontario to take a shot at creating great wine. They launched Leaning Post as a virtual winery in 2009 before acquiring an 11-acre plot in Winona. They planted pinot noir and chardonnay and transformed a beat-up old barn into their winery, where they raise outstanding wines, along with three children and some chickens. We talked to Ilya about his incredible merlot, which was included in January’s Toronto Life Wine Club box, along with his favourite Winnipeg bands, his passion for riesling and his advice for anyone looking to start their own winery.

Toronto Life Wine Club

You’ve now made wines for more than 17 vintages in Niagara. Is there anything you’re still trying to figure out?
The most frustrating and fascinating thing about wine is that you can’t know everything. As the vines mature on our property, and as we add fruit from other properties into our portfolio, there is always something new to learn. Often what worked for fruit from one specific place is not necessarily optimal for fruit from another vineyard—even if it is just down the road. Sometimes grapes from the same vineyard are not the same depending upon what part of the vineyard they are from.

Are there any secret techniques you employ, like playing Bachman Turner Overdrive to the wines as the age in the cellar?
Our secret is an unrelenting commitment to finding the right blend of barrels that make the best wine. We don’t just put it all together and slap a label on it. Specific blends can take months to meet our quality requirements. Wine quality trumps pretty much everything else at the winery, which sometimes makes things difficult because we sell out of something, or the lineup of wines isn’t exactly the same every year.

Speaking of music, what’s your favourite Canadian band?
Since I am a Winnipeg boy, my top two are The Weakerthans and Neil Young.

Should more people be drinking merlot?
I love changing minds about merlot. Honestly it makes some of the greatest wines in the world, and especially so in cooler climates like Niagara.

What do you love about your merlot?
Nadia describes this wine as Christmas in a glass. Think amazing fruitcake: deep cherry, date and the smell of baking with nutmeg and cinnamon. Light hints of herbs and meat also linger in the background. The thing I like best about our merlot is that it is full flavoured, ripe and well structured but in no way heavy or overdone.

What do you like to pair it with?
It pairs wonderfully with flatiron steak and blue cheese, or lamb burgers—two personal favourites.

What wines should Ontario be world famous for?
Definitely chardonnay and pinot noir. They are really special here. They make great wine pretty much every vintage. Riesling and cabernet franc also belong on that list.

Where is your favourite place in the world to drink wine?
Ontario, of course. So many amazing producers making spectacular terroir-driven wines. If leaving the continent, however, our hearts are rooted in Burgundy.

Why are you a winemaker?
I honestly can’t think of a better medium for me to express myself. It allows me to use my scientific/geeky side and also my artistic/creative side. Add to that the connection to place, people and history and it is what I love to do most.

What’s the hardest thing about being a winemaker?
Having patience. Nothing in winemaking comes easily or quickly. Everything is on a time horizon of months and years. That and the fact that it is still an agricultural product. So you are dependent on Mother Nature for your main ingredient.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a winery in Ontario?
Prepare for an intensely wild ride that is exhilarating and exhausting. A bit like parenting really.

What’s great about raising your kids on a farm? Do you put them to work?
That was the dream when we purchased the farm: raising the kids in the country, at the vineyard and having them help. We still have the same struggles every parent has trying to engage the kids in the business and getting the kids away from the screens but at least they are outside and active.

What do you like to eat and drink?
We love traditional-method sparkling wine. We have it as often as we can. We love it so much we started a sparkling wine program at Leaning Post, not because it makes any financial sense but because we just like it! We also drink a lot of craft beer, from Niagara and Hamilton especially. We always love a good negroni.

Outside of your own, who’s making the best wine in Ontario?
I think Thomas Bachelder is making some of the best wines in Niagara, both under his own Bachelder label and with Kelly Mason at Domaine Queylus. I also think Pearl Morissette is making really good and innovative wines that are pushing the envelope.

What’s your favourite wine and food pairing?
Pinot noir and beef Bourguignon is a classic that I still love. Perhaps not so trendy but one of my favourites.

If you could be drinking any wine in the world right now, no matter the price or scarcity, what would it be?
A great small producer from a great Grand Cru site in Burgundy is always top of my list. I had a fantastic wine from Mazis-Chambertin recently that I would have again. Honestly a close second is Mosel riesling. Outside of the Burgundy varietals (chardonnay and pinot noir), I think riesling is it.

What’s your favourite farm animal?
We have chickens so I would say they are our favourite. There is something so relaxing seeing them strut around the farm.