Canadian Wine Insider – August 2021

Niagara’s Regeneration

By David Lawrason, photos by Michael Godel

Nothing like a good old 18-month pandemic to bring things into focus. While we were all dutifully staying home, Niagara’s viticulturalists and winemakers were working away, dealing with the best vintage in their lifetimes in 2020, and having some breathing room to think things through, bring new talents along, dally with more natural winemaking concepts, and contemplate Niagara’s potential.

The reason for my first trip to Niagara post COVID was the end of lockdown on the weekend of July 24/25.  Our WineAlign gang accepted a last-minute Stage Two invitation by the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario to spend two days visiting Niagara wineries. We did seven ‘visits’ in all, and I recount each below in turn.

We tasted dozens of wines. The pace was so fast and furious and the tasting circumstances so diverse that I decided not to attempt recording quality tasting notes in some cases.  Rather than be distracted grappling for descriptors in less than clinical situations, I sat back to listen and observe and I came away sensing that a major regeneration is underway in Niagara. There are bright new voices, solid new ideas, new depth around viticulture, and a sense of inter-connectedness among the region’s best winemakers.  Here is how it unfolded.

Le Clos Jordanne

The first event was a vineyard lunch hosted by Arterra Wines at the Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench near the village of Jordan. It featured the new Jordan Village Chardonnay and Pinot Noir launched in July and already reviewed on WineAlign.  As it was also an event officially linked to the International Cool Climate Celebration, attended by several media and consumers, we also tasted great international chardonnays including Dalrymple Le Cave of Tasmania, Hamilton Russell of South Africa and Gary Farrell’s Olivet Lane of Sonoma. The 2018 LCJ Le Grand Clos was lost in the lunch somehow on course four and will be reviewed fully next chance.  Lunch was catered by Tide and Vine of Niagara Falls and the quality was superb and portions bountiful, a great hello to live wine dining in the post-Covid era (touch wood).

Le Clos Jordanne is the regeneration of a very ambitious, originally Franco/Canadian chardonnay and pinot noir project born in the first 2004 vintage, but dying out after 2010 due to corporate implosions and a couple of bad winters.  Quebec born and raised, Burgundy and Oregon trained winemaker Thomas Bachelder was the winemaker then, and has been brought back to lead the redux, without any French involvement in the project.

The original LCJ project had five labels each of chardonnay and pinot noir. Smartly, that has been pared back to two labels per variety – Le Grand Clos and Jordan Village.  The focus this day was on the latter wines, selling at a reasonable $24.95.  The 2019 Chardonnay is notably oaked and ample but well structured, while the 2019 Pinot Noir is very fine indeed given the predilection of this cooler year. Pinot needs cooler years in Niagara.

My take away comment from Thomas Bachelder’s always far flung and intriguing remarks was a hope that this special site in Jordan might forever remain without a winery being built. It is a beautiful and soothing oasis, to be experienced in moderation and appreciated as a vineyard.  Ontario needs this respect for its places, not just more tasting rooms.  There is something profound about the importance of quality intrinsic to his idea, which Europe has long grasped.  Thomas will be back later in this article.


Quails' Gate Rosé 2020
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On Seven Estate Winery

This tiny, ambitious new venture in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation of Niagara-on-the-Lake, speaks to the confidence some have in Niagara and its ability to compete globally.  I was struck by the opening comment by owner Vittorio de Steffano when he said, and I paraphrase, I am making wine for the international market and it must compete on the world stage.  Often during the tasting Burgundy was used as a reference point.

Almost ten years ago he began to plan his tiny five-acre project. He brought in Peter Gamble, Canada’s top winery start-up consultant (Stratus, Ravine, Benjamin Bridge, Lightfoot and Wolfville, Icellars to name some).  I won’t mire you in the details, but the depth of viticulture focus, from rootstock selection, to virus-free vine selection and clonal selection, and vine spacing decisions took over five years to actualize. And this attention to detail speaks volumes of the knowledge now residing in Niagara.


Vittorio de Stefano of On Seven
Vittorio de Stefano of On Seven

The quantities of wine available are so small as to be immaterial to most readers and already allocated.  This is barely a commercial enterprise, but it exists for now to prove a point about quality potential. And the levels of intensity, depth and textural finesse in the wines are remarkable.  On Seven resides in an un-signed, suburban house, so don’t even bother driving to track it down. Instead, go to https://www.onsevenwinery.ca, where the landing page says “Don’t worry about us. We’re just quietly obsessing over making great wine here”.

Stratus Vineyards

Stratus provided a vertical multi-vintage tasting of chardonnays, and the 2012 was remarkably intact.  Two other things struck me about this tasting. One was the transition to an overtly “aged on the lees” style in 2018 and 2019, which is an adventurous evolution in a premium priced wine and a nod toward the natural wine movement.  The appearance becomes clouded and bready/hay aromas come to the fore ahead of fruit and oak. Texture and depth are excellent.  A neck label informs about the intent.

And speaking of natural, our tasting ended with a peek at the first bottling of Stratus 2020 Field Blend Ancestral, a sparkling blend led by semillon bottled part way through fermentation to retain the CO2 effervescence. It is cracking good, gentle and very tasty.

But I was most impressed by erudite, next generation assistant winemaker Dean Stoyka, who was standing in for vacationing veteran J.L Groux.  Stoyka is a Niagara College grad who was hired in the Stratus tasting room in 2010 and has worked through almost every position until becoming Vineyard Manager and Assistant Winemaker in 2019. I loved his comment that since its beginning in 2005 Stratus has been in a constant state of “research and development”. Estate Director Suzanne Janke calls him “the future”.

Trius Winery

Day One ended with an outdoor dinner in the bell tower at Trius, the menu designed by veteran chef Frank Dodd who served up a fantastic meal proving he has not lost an inch during the pandemic. There were a wide array of Ontario and international chardonnays this night, the situation again not conducive to note-taking. But at one point I zoned in to comparatively taste three premium chardonnays made by Andrew Peller wineries – Trius Showcase Chardonnay, Andrew Peller Signature Chardonnay and Thirty Bench Chardonnay. There was indeed a familial style. Lots of precise fruit and oak and maturation detail, with textures being bright and lively, with a little more textural elegance in the Thirty Bench.

Hidden Bench Estate Winery

Day Two began on the Beamsville Bench.  The first highlight was listening to conversations among winemaker Jay Johnston and viticulturalist Joel Williams as we toured the new installation of seven very large concrete egg fermenters, then walked the Locust Lane and Felseck Vineyard sites. The depth of knowledge and interaction of ideas expressed by this pair made such total sense on the spot, but again ranged into concepts and details that don’t belong in a consumer report. Rest assured that the team in place at Hidden Bench will keep this house front and centre for years.


Jay Johnston of Hidden Bench Estate Winery
Jay Johnston of Hidden Bench Estate Winery

The second highlight was a vertical tasting of Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay from 2013 to 2019, which of course included the 2018 Best in Show Winner at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards in London, England. There is pedigree in this site in the heart of the Beamsville Bench, and all vintages were excellent, if varied.  The 2018 was my favourite as well, a wine with uncommon elegance, depth and poise – all understated somehow, but once recognized so alluring. I also loved the still energized 2013, the richer 2015 and the bright and promising 2019 not yet released.

And finally we got a look at Hidden Bench’s natural wine projects under the Rachis and Derma label, which is code for ‘research and development’. A pair of skin fermented orange wines I found exceedingly tannic. And then came the real surprise of the tasting – the Rachis & Derma 2019 Gamay bottled on its lees from an organic, estate owned Lincoln Lakeshore site, alongside the more conventionally produced 2019 Gamay. Both very successful, and joining ranks for a big gamay future for Hidden Bench and Niagara overall.

Tawse Winery

Next stop, Tawse Winery, where the tasting room was thriving. We were shown into the barrel cellar by Paul Pender, now Director of Viticulture and Winemaking, and new Winemaker Jessica Otting. Jessica is a Niagara College grad, class of 2011, who worked in Tasmania and B.C. for two years before taking up residence in the lab at Tawse. She too has worked through the ranks, being appointed winemaker in June 2020. More regeneration! The focus of our tasting was barrel sampling 2020 chardonnays and pinots from various sites, plus cabernet franc. The wines were very impressively ripe and well balanced, so we have something to look forward to from 2020.  Both Pender and Otting enthused over the ripeness, healthiness and balance in the grapes this very even, long ripening vintage, and the ease of the winemaking. Although they felt the aromatic varieties perhaps were not showing quite the same class.


Jessica Otting of Tawse Winery
Jessica Otting of Tawse Winery

Over yet another first-class lunch at the Tawse-owned Redstone Winery & Restaurant, we dabbled among some younger and older vintage pairings of Tawse wines, and the library wines were holding very well. I was taken by the intensity of the 2013 vintage, both here and earlier in the day at Hidden Bench. Plus a 2011 Quarry Road Chardonnay. The cool to moderate years are key to Niagara’s white wine success.

Bachelder

Our last visit was actually three visits with Thomas Bachelder, a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm anchored in insight and intellect.  We met him above in this article as the re-seated winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne, but he has his own growing production, sourcing from many growers, with reds being made at Bat Cave Number One on Beamsville Bench, and the whites at Bat Cave Number Two on Greenlane Rd in Lincoln Lakeshore.

We visited both facilities for lengthy barrel tastings, but first stopped at the Wismer Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench, a large site whose various blocks are used by Bachelder and several other Niagara wineries. This might one day be considered a “grand cru” site in Niagara when we get that deep into mapping such things. I don’t think we are that far away, with Thomas Bachelder being the white-haired Gandalf brandishing the divining rod.


Thomas Bachelder of Le Clos Jordanne & Bachelder Wines
Thomas Bachelder of Le Clos Jordanne & Bachelder Wines

At both the white and red Bat Caves we barrel sampled 2020s from east to west in Niagara, starting with the Lowrey, Willmes, Jackson-Bai and Bator sites in Four Mile Creek, then working across to Wismer Hanck (East and West), Wismer Wingfield and Wismer Foxcroft in Twenty Mile Bench, to Saunders in Lincoln Lakeshore and finally to Grimsby Hillside and Red Clay Block in the far west near Winona (which is technically Hamilton). Chardonnays and pinots from this latter sub-region were new to me, and a stunning revelation, but will be no surprise to Leaning Post also located in this area. One day soon I will sit down with finished samples of all these wines and try to arrive at their details.

Thomas Bachelder has become the soul searcher of Niagara, diving deep into Ontario’s terroir and possibilities, and bringing everyone along for the ride.  As proof, he has become the winemaker for one of the most inclusive projects Ontario has ever seen. It is called Cuvees From the Heart, wherein dozens of Ontario wineries, from Niagara and Prince Edward County, have contributed equal amounts of pinot noir and chardonnay to be blended and aged by Thomas, to create rare, auction wines sold at charitable events this fall. Watch for further developments on this story.


NWAC Medal 2021

So that’s it for this edition. It was gratifying to be back in circulation and seeing so many friends and witnessing the on-going energy and striving in wine country. I am also looking forward to continuing visits to B.C. and the arrival of the National Wine Awards of Canada in Penticton October 1st.  Ontario wineries should note that the deadline for entries and shipping to the consolidation point is Tuesday, August 31, 2021.

See all entry details here: https://www.winealign.com/awards/2021/05/31/nwac-home-2021

David Lawrason

VP of Wine

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