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Feb. 24, 2020 | Monday
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Wine Country: Perridiso: A bit of paradise in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Joe Perri of Perridiso Winery. (Victoria Gilbert)

Victoria Gilbert

Special to The Lake Report

In the south of Italy, a farmer and his donkey, laden with a barrel of wine on either side, make their way down the mountain as the sun is rising.

The ancient town of Nicastro, within the slenderest part of Calabria, Italy, is bustling on Saturday mornings. The market is vibrating with locals buying wines and herbs which the town is known for.

At 216 metres above sea level, the donkey and his master have a fine view as they make their way, but with eight children to feed, the man needs to sell everything he produces to take care of his family.

“The stories were alive,” Joe Perri, founder and winemaker of Perridiso Winery in Niagara, says of his childhood.

Perri’s family left Calabria when he was a baby, but his humble Italian heritage stayed with him and ultimately led him to following in his parents’ footsteps.

“My parents were winemakers in Italy. I can still remember my dad saying, ‘Leave the wine alone. Let it do its thing, let it mature on its own, do not interfere or intervene because then it will curve the process of maturation.’”

Perri, who grew up in Hamilton, returned to Italy when he was older and was inspired by the place of his childhood. “The grapes get so sweet, you can smell them in the fields.”

Perri had four children of his own and was living in Niagara Falls when he encountered like-minded wine and food lovers who began experimenting with making their own creations.

“We started making wine when we were 40 years old, as amateurs. The passion that this group of individuals had for making wine, soppressatas, charcuteries, cheeses – it brought me back to a time of the past, and I thought, ‘This is the way we should be doing things,’” recalls Perri.

He took a leap of faith and purchased a property with 29 acres of land above Niagara College in the mid-1990s. By the year 2000, he had planted six acres of vineyards above a lush Carolinian forest, where maples, oaks, birch and elm trees flourish.

“People want nature,” he says with a stroke of his greying ponytail.

Located in the middle of the Niagara Escarpment along the St. David’s Bench, it’s an ideal spot to successfully grow the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling and Pinot Grigio grape varieties Perri planted.

“You’ve got this cyclical effect of wind current. So the warm air rises, the cold air hits, pushes it back down and this whole cycle of up and down and moving winds is wonderful for the grapes or orchards.”

There is another advantage which Perri discovered after planting his vineyard.

“We have in front of the property a very high berm which the CN rail uses. The trains come all times of day and night, maybe 10 times a day. As silly as it might sound, when a train is coming by, I can tell it is coming five minutes before it actually gets there because it creates a wind current. It really does work as a wind machine and moving things.”

Perri is convinced the temperature of the environment is affected by the trains and this unique advantage keeps the leaves dry in his vineyard.

“Moisture is an enemy. When you have these damp and humid summer days, moisture sticks to the leaves and invites critters and creatures and flies and mildew and mould. That’s not welcome in this vineyard.”

His philosophy of wine-making and grape growing comes directly from the stories of his parents. “Picking grapes by hand, pruning, training the vines to grow a certain way, minimal mechanical intervention, spraying to a point where you are not excessive, those kinds of things.”

When asked why his wines taste as robust and polished as they do, he holds up his hands and shakes them gently in the air:

“These hands have touched every wine, and they have caressed every vine. They control what and how I’m going to treat the wine.”

Perri produces about 10,000 litres of wine a year and sells his wines to high-end restaurants locally or directly from his winery.

“We do not want to become this commercialized institution. The best experiences that I’ve had with wine is going to Italy, France or Portugal and going to these small boutique wineries or houses and we sat down and had the best time. That’s how I feel when family and friends come over. We eat and we drink, and I want to share that.”

No one works in his wine boutique, other than Perri and his partner, Antonia Mori, and that’s how he likes it.

“We are small and we want to stay small. We’re family-oriented, I have a wonderful partner with Antonia Mori, who assists in any way she can to promote our commitment to quality and identity to what we do.”

With no plans to plant more grapes, and a firm desire to stay small and humble, Perri’s hope is people will discover his “hidden gem” and feel a little as he does when he returns home to Italy.

“I see Perridiso as a destination. When you see it, it takes you away to another place.”

To book a tasting, call Perri directly at 905-358-4222.

NOTL resident Victoria Gilbert has been telling the stories of wine people in Canada and abroad through print and video for 15 years.