Thirty Bench Wine Makers – A Winery Profile

Thirty Bench Celebrates its Big 25th 

by David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Thirty Bench Wine Makers.

A 25th anniversary in any endeavour or relationship is a great reason to party, but that is not the whole story with Thirty Bench. Just five more years until Thirty Bench turns thirty, and some of its vineyards are almost forty.

On the gorgeous evening of August 23rd in Niagara, the 25th anniversary was all the excuse needed when over 200 friends of Thirty Bench assembled on the lawn for an evening of music, gymnastic performances, great food and free flow of Thirty Bench wines, including several back vintages of historic riesling and cabernet franc.

For those who may not be aware, the small but mighty Thirty Bench sits in the heart of the Beamsville Bench, one of the most important pieces of vineyard real estate in Canada. Located on gentle slopes below the Niagara Escarpment, it is a pioneering property first planted to riesling in 1980 (of which more in a moment).

Thirty Bench

It was purchased in 2005 by Andrew Peller Ltd, and has gained stature year by year since that time, being named Best Performing Small Winery of the Year in Canada at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada in 2015. In 2017, it earned honours as the second-best winery of any size in Canada, and since then it has finished in the top 15 every year.

Abroad at big shows in England, the Small Lot Rieslings, in particular, have struck gold at the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge, and the 2015 Small Lot Cabernet Franc won a Decanter Platinum and Best in Show honours in 2018.

There are several reasons for all this attention, but as an observer who has been watching all along, I can assure you that the overall quality level has never been higher, and the current offerings that we WineAlign critics have recommended below caused considerable excitement during our tasting at the office. I also sampled some of them with winemaker Emma Garner before the August 23rd soirée.

Emma Garner has become one of the most accomplished and awarded winemakers in Niagara. While studying winemaking at Brock University in St. Catharines, she interned with JL Groux when he was head winemaker at Andrew Peller-owned Trius. In 2005, she was promoted to assistant winemaker at Thirty Bench under Natalie Reynolds, whose work I also admired. In 2010, Emma was named head winemaker, then in 2018 she became Senior Winemaker for all Andrew Peller VQA wines.

At the 25th Anniversary Party, John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd, paid special tribute to Emma and winery Estate Manager Fiona Muckle, for having brought the winery to its current pinnacle.

“At Andrew Peller, we’ve had the great privilege of working alongside Emma and Fiona. Together, they’ve put Thirty Bench on the map in Canada and abroad, creating exceptional wines that have been recognized for its quality and craftsmanship,” says John Peller, CEO, Andrew Peller Ltd. “On behalf of the entire team, thank you for your tireless efforts and dedication. Here’s to another 25 years!”

Fiona Muckle and Emma Garner

He also recounted the colourful early years when the winery was founded by a trio of “amateur” visionaries who included Fiona’s father Dr. Tom Muckle (a Hamilton based physician and McMaster University professor) as well as good friends and amateur winemakers Yorgos Papageorgiou and Frank Zeritsch.

The trio caused quite a stir back then, introducing “small batch” and often experimental winemaking that was all very new to Niagara at the time, keeping pundits like myself engrossed and entertained. Put it this way – some of the wines were brilliant and some were not, but in the context of today’s tolerance for more natural anything-goes winemaking, they might well be considered visionaries.

The underpinning of the success of Thirty Bench is its mature riesling vineyard, divided into now famous literally-name blocks like Steel Post and Wood Post (because they used steel posts and wood posts to anchor the trellising), and Triangle (because that is more or less the shape of the block). All were planted to clone 21B riesling (the Niagara standard) between 1980 and 1984. There were not many wineries or premium vineyards at that point.

When Natalie Reynolds, and then Emma Garner, began to elevate quality through separate bottling and techniques, like long, slow fermentation, the names became famous throughout Niagara. Garner has also made a new Wild Cask Riesling, fermented with wild yeasts in neutral wood puncheons and held in bottle for a year. The experimentation with her favourite grape continues.

As I tasted with her on August 23rd, we enjoyed a panoramic view across virtually the entire vineyard. With easy familiarity, she pointed out the famous blocks, the subtle differences in elevation and aspect, as well an area replanted to riesling 2014 and named the Muckle Vineyard (source of the new Wild Cask). They had pulled out some Bordeaux red varieties that were not ripening well on a slope closer to a tree line that was blocking sunlight.

With so much focus on riesling at Thirty Bench, the reds have long flown under the radar – until the big win in the UK for the 2015 Small Lot Cabernet Franc. Part of the reason has always been that the Beamsville Bench, set farther back from the warming autumn waters of Lake Ontario, was not considered ideal for ripening Bordeaux red varieties. The Bench, according to local accepted wisdom, is riesling and chardonnay turf, except perhaps for pinot noir. But that wisdom is waning, and vintages are playing a role.

John Peller

So, let’s start with pinot noir on the discussion of the reds, with which I was very impressed. The 2017 Small Lot Pinot Noir is displaying one of the most fragrant aromas I have encountered in Niagara Pinot Noir. The 2017 Winemaker’s Blend Red from a cooler vintage, surprisingly led by 43% cabernet sauvignon, is again very enticing on the nose with slim tension that reminded of a Tuscan red from the Bordeaux varieties. The 2016 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon, estate picked and aged in American and French oak, is a revelation (unfortunately sold out to Thirty Bench Wine Club members only). And the 2016 Small Lot Cabernet Franc is simply terrific, and a great follow up to the Decanter Platinum 2015, and one the great Cabernet Francs in Niagara (an increasingly strong category).

What impressed me about all of them was their varietal acuity and purity, from aromatics through texture, balance, acid and tannin levels. They are textbook reds (and whites for that matter). There is a precision and brightness in the wines that let flavours reveal themselves with ease. But nor are they simple. The top rieslings and reds are very complex, yet easy to diagnose within their complexity. In other words, very well thought out and well made.

Overall, I was also surprised by the breadth of the Thirty Bench portfolio, which included a brilliant new, riveting Sparkling Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Rosé. Several of the offerings are indeed limited in production, and sometimes only available to Wine Club members, who receive a curated collection of six bottles (with the option to customize) every quarter in March, June, September and December. Members also get early invitation to new releases and winery events.

The Thirty Bench wines are divided into two price tiers – Winemaker’s Blend and Small Lot. They are all available at the winery, with some also available at The Wine Shop locations in Ontario, and occasionally at VINTAGES. Below are some of the picks by the WineAlign cru. Full reviews of all the wines and many more can be found in the WineAlign database.

The Thirty Bench Whites

Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Riesling 2017, Niagara Peninsula ($22.95)
David Lawrason – Something of a flagship that is always available as a VINTAGES Essential, this is very good value in classic Bench riesling. The nose is generous with peach, lemon, spice and an herbal note. It is medium weight, quite bold, tart-edged and viscous with a touch of rounding sweetness. A minor classic.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Steel Post Vineyard 2016, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
John Szabo – Gold Medal at the 2018 National Wine Awards. Although the Winemaker’s Blend riesling is excellent, for the price of a fancy loaf of bread more, I’d be tempted by the superlative 2016 Steel Post. This single vineyard riesling has genuine concentration and an especially impressive, almost endless finish, the sort of stuff you just can’t fake – it’s all in the meticulous farming of a great site. If you can hold off on a few bottles, I guarantee you it’ll be worth pulling out on a special occasion in 2030.
Michael Godel – Nothing if not quintessential small lot, single-vineyard, Beamsville Bench riesling and the one that speaks the purest Thirty Bench vernacular. This citrus is exceptional, as is the balance in which acid infiltrates, dissipates and widens through great swaths of pleasure. Oh, my!

Thirty Bench 2017 Small Lots Triangle Vineyard Riesling, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
David Lawrason – Gold Medal at the 2019 National Wine Awards. At 9.9% alcohol this is lightest, most tender and juicy riesling in the impressive Thirty Bench portfolio. There is real textural elegance here, a certain satiny finesse. The nose is nicely lifted with green apple, vague honey, lemon-lime and flinty notes. Tasted at the winery.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Wood Post Vineyard 2006, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
Michael Godel – If any Thirty Bench riesling might exist in exemplary physical condition it surely would be the frim, prim and proper Wood Post going way back to 2006. The advancement is noted and also hard to believe so little evolution has taken place. Great visit with this piece of Thirty Bench longevity.
David Lawrason – Only available at the winery, this 13-year-old riesling is showing a soft, ripe, complex nose of honey, ripe banana, evergreen, lanolin and a touch of white mushroom. It is full bodied and almost waxy in texture with still lively acidity. Very intense and long favours.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Chardonnay 2017, Beamsville Bench ($34.95)
John Szabo –
The Beamsville Bench is by now synonymous with terrific chardonnay, and Thirty Bench’s rendition, from one of the pioneering sites in the sub-region, is properly rich and ripe, gently toasty and caramel-tinged, but not overly oak influenced, complex and complete. I love the fresh orchard fruit-peach and nectarine flavours, the robust substantial frame and the long finish.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Gris 2018, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
John Szabo – This surely counts among the province’s top examples of pinot gris, even if there’s a relatively small pool of contenders; it’s a shame that more producers don’t take the variety more seriously. Thirty Bench’s latest falls decidedly on the ‘gris’ (rather than ‘grigio’ side) of the style spectrum, ripe and floral, with lush, suavely textured palate, and creamy acids. Low yields and careful winemaking are evident.
David Lawrason – This bright, pale lemon-shaded white nicely catches the peaches and honey character of pinot gris made in the riper Alsatian style. The acidity of the 2018 vintage is pronounced yet framed by a touch of sweetness and glycerol texture. Quite elegant.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Gewurztraminer 2017, Beamsville Bench ($29.95)
Brent Mueller – Gold Medal at 2019 National Wine Awards where judge Brent Mueller tasted this wine blind. This is serious Gew – showing a strong spice and leesy nature to its ripe tropical density. Weighty and oily, yet not overbearing, it is very complex, very Alsatian, and very good.

Thirty Bench Reds

Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Red 2017, Beamsville Bench ($24.95)
David Lawrason – This is youthful blend of 43% cabernet sauvignon, 40% cabernet franc and 17% merlot that were separately vinified and aged in 50-50 American and French oak. It is drinking very well for a young 2017, with a mid-weight, fairly elegant yet firm and tensile, which reminded me of the structure of Tuscan Bordeaux blends.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2016, Beamsville Bench ($75.00)
John Szabo – Cabernet Franc is my pick for Niagara’s best and most reliable red grape, based strongly on the evidence provided by Thirty Bench’s example, among others. The 2016 is very pretty, perfumed, fragrant and floral, a fine follow up to the gold medal-winning 2015 Small Lot. The texture still needs some polish, so tuck in the cellar until 2021-22, or hold into the mid-late twenties.
Michael Godel – In many respects this is the flagship of all the Thirty Bench wines, a varietal exploration like no other. It’s an extracted and concentrated cabernet franc but stays free of encumbrance, hinderance or adulteration. We’ll be tasting this at an Expert’s Tasting in the mid 20s.
David Lawrason – This cabernet franc vineyard is isolated from the rest of the property and is farmed organically, and to me it pays off with the added depth and veracity. Such a gorgeous nose! One the best examples of Niagara Cab Franc in memory.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Cabernet Franc 2012, Beamsville Bench ($85.00)
David Lawrason – The 2012 vintage was a hot one, similar to 2016, so it is very useful to taste this now and discover how well it ages. Even better that it is still available at the winery. This has a soft yet refined and fragrant nose of maturing classic and very well integrated raspberry jam, vanilla, forest floor and spice. It is quite full bodied (14.5%), again fairly soft and rich. Will age through 2023.

Thirty Bench Small Lot Pinot Noir 2017, Beamsville Bench ($36.95)
David Lawrason – Love the nose of this pinot, with strawberry/cherry jam festooned with well-integrated cedar, nutmeg, toast and vanillin. It is mid-weight, warm (13.6) spicy and slightly bitter green but the flavour intensity and length are very impressive.
Michael Godel – More than admirable follow-up to the super chic and stylish ’16 from the vintage that meant serious business for Emma Garner’s grippy pinot noir. Firm moves forward to warm and fleshy with underlying heat and that 2017 quick to ripen pinot fruit after having survived a long, cool and wet summer.

This feature was commissioned by Thirty Bench Wine Makers. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries and wine agents pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.