It’s a new tradition; local Niagara wine scribes gather at Mary and Thomas Delaney-Bachelder’s beautiful Fenwick home and uncork the new releases from the tri-regional Bachelder wine project.
Niagara, Burgundy and Oregon wines are poured one after the other while winemaker/owner Thomas Bachelder pulls out topographical vineyard maps and talks a mile a minute about limestone, schist-y soils and oak forests. The orgy of wine is followed by an orgy of food … and, of course, more wine, usually from older vintages.
I do not tell a lie here: It is one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me. His portfolio from three key regions that perform at the upper echelons of terroir-driven Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs is a lot of fun and educational. And rest assured, no other winemaker in this big ol’ world is doing anything quite like Bachelder.
So, yes, it was a little out of the ordinary to get a text asking to meet up with Bachelder at his “working” facility up on the well-appointed Locust Lane on the Beamsville Bench in the middle of summer. It just felt weird.
Bachelder rents a portion of an old winery where he nurses his Niagara Chardonnays and Pinots to maturation, or at least to the point where he can bottle them and ship to wherever they are going.
It’s a nondescript space, just a bunch of oak barrels in varying degrees of age and a tiny desk with a couple of chairs (which, quite frankly, could use some upgrading) to sit and taste.
We are there to taste, and, unbeknownst to me, perform a sensory evaluation of the wines still in barrel. He wants my opinion, though kind of him to ask, I highly doubt that what I have to say informs his decision one bit. But I play along.
Bachelder is a perfectionist in a chaotic way (does that make sense?). He has a lot of things going on in his head and an incredible capacity to remember what is what in his barrel cellar. He uses code words to write on the barrels from the last time he tasted. He uses words such as earth, bramble, tannin, fresh, spice and mineral to describe what each barrel brings, or could bring, to the final blend.
For Bachelder’s single-vineyard wines (at least from Niagara) he ferments all the grapes from that particular vineyard and then separates them into various oak barrels from different forests in France, different toasts and new to old wood. He spends a great deal of time tasting them while he conceives the final blend for his “grand cuvees” and leaving the rest for his less sub-appellation-driven “Niagara” wines (these make up his de-classified wines, which are still pretty darn good).
It’s a laborious task and one he repeats in both Burgundy (though nothing is declassified there) and Oregon, where he also crafts wines for his Bachelder label.
Each tasting brings him closer to his final blend of oak barrels. What he looks for more than anything is a fair and accurate reflection of the vineyard where he sources his grapes: Wismer, Wismer Park, Lowrey, Saunders etc. He wants a vein of similarity from vintage to vintage while also keeping the integrity of the vintage in tact. Vintage matters as much as terroir and style and Bachelder works hard to balance those three things.
He tastes fast and I try to keep pace. Remove the barrel bung, throw in the thief, draw in some wine, pour, taste and spit. Repeat with each and every barrel full of Chardonnay and Pinot.
“Gorgeous fruit,” I shout, then spit and pour what’s left in the glass back in the barrel. “Aggressive tannins,” I declare, spit and move on. “Such freshness.” “Earthy.” “Violets.” “Spicy.” I’m starting to envision a final blend and Bachelder tests me: “So, should barrel B make the final cut?” “Yes,” I say. “Should barrel C make it?” “Maybe not,” I stammer. Now I’m losing track of barrels, in fact, I’m starting to guess like it’s a quiz with multiple-choice questions and he is the evil professor. This is hard. Too much information!
Bachelder says I’ve helped him a lot with the tough decisions ahead. I doubt that, but I appreciate the ego boost. I won’t be throwing away my pen anytime soon.
This exercise is one of the keys to Bachelder winemaking. He has no secret sauce. He is a pure winemaker who sources amazing fruit, uses minimal intervention, has an uncanny ability to use his oak program to perfection, always in balance, never overpowering, and finds the right blend from his barrels.
He looks toward the barrels we just tasted from: “You take all that there and make a wine that will knock your socks off … a wine that is true to the terroir,” he says.
Terroir is crucial for Bachelder, but not the only thing that drives his style.
“I have to work in the moment, in respect to the vintage.” In other words, no over (or under) compensating for a cool or hot vintage; stay true to the vintage, maintain the style, bring out the terroir, but no drastic intervention. The vintage is was it is.
He believes strongly is place, in terroir from specific sub-appellations in Niagara and, in some cases, specific blocks within a vineyard. He admittedly makes these wines for “geeks” while his Niagara blends are for a broader clientele.
It goes without saying, that after just a few vintages, he’s really on to something here.
And then it was on to the tasting.
Here’s what’s coming up from Bachelder’s new Niagara releases:
Note: Bachelder’s wines are only available at restaurants and wine stores such as Vintages in Ontario and the SAQ in Quebec. You cannot order directly from Bachelder, as per the conditions of his licence. Because of his reputation, Bachelder has excellent representation at both provincial monopolies.
Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013
($45, tentative 92 points)
Note: This was only bottled in May and, as you can see from the photos, had not been labeled at the time of my tasting.
Lowrey Vineyard: Lowrey Vineyard is located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation on the 5th generation Lowrey Vineyards property, a 35-acre vineyard that produces craft wine grape varietals for wineries in the area including the estate wines of Five Rows Craft Wines. Lowrey wine grapes have supplied some of Canada’s most prestigious wines by accomplished winemakers and garnered many awards. The Lowrey family has farmed the area for five generations. Current generations, Howard Lowrey and his son Wes Lowrey, tend to the vineyard with a focus on achieving the most characteristic and complex examples that their varietals can produce.
The notes: A far different Lowrey than the hot 2012 vintage. Here we have a tight/closed nose but starting to show scented cherry, cassis, bramble, loam and mineral-spice notes. A much more delicate, fruit-driven wine on the palate then I’m used to from Lowrey with smooth, fine tannins and emerging mineral and spice notes. It can be described as a complex and “pretty” wine, less earthy than previous vintages, but it’s recommended you lay this down for a little while.
Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Niagara Pinot Noir 2012 ($45, 93 points, re-tasted and evaluated) — One of the finest vineyards in Niagara for Pinot Noir, especially if you can acquire even a bit of the coveted original five rows on the property, which Bachelder does. The Lowrey Pinot is extroverted, with a ballsy nose of mulled red fruits, cassis and lavishly spiced notes. It has far-reaching depth and power on the palate with integrated cherry-cassis-raspberry fruit mated to gritty tannins and length through the finish. After re-tasting with Bachelder, this is showing great progress with a bright, almost electric feel on the palate that displays ripe cherries, wild raspberries, earth and a long, long finish.
Bachelder Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2013
($45, tentative 92-93 points)
Saunders Vineyard: The Saunders vineyard, presently undergoing organic certification, is planted to old-vine Chardonnay on the gentle slope of the Beamsville Bench, just off Mountainview road. Warren and Ivy Saunders moved to Niagara when barely 40 years old to escape the Hamilton steel mills and get “back to the land.” What they ended up with was a prime piece of the Beamsville bench.
The notes: The nose reveals poached pear, apple skin, lemon chiffon, subtle spice and a note of saline minerality that is just gorgeous. It is beautifully balanced, even at this young age, with creamy pear and fresh citrus with an interesting vein of minerality that defines this Chardonnay. The subtle oak spice notes echo through a long, freshening finish. This is a very fine Chardonnay.
Bachelder Niagara Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 ($45, 91 points, re-tasted with Bachelder) — Pure Beamsville Bench minerality on the nose with pear, spiced apple, lemon and lovely creamy vanilla. This is a voluptuous Chard in the mouth with rich, layered fruits, a vein of stony minerality and touches of nutmeg-cinnamon spice that’s all propped up by fresh acidity. After re-tasting this wine, I would raise the score to at least 92 or 93 as it has come into its own. Such lovely and pure quince fruit with touches of nougat, toast, spice and minerals. The flavours explode on the palate and are kept fresh by a healthy dose of natural acidity.
Thomas Bachelder Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay 2012, Niagara ($45, 92 points) —This is a highly elegant wine, a bit closed at the moment but still imparting spiced apple, creamy vanilla and pear aromas. On the palate, look for layered fruits, stony minerality, oak spice and finesse through the finish. After re-tasting, this is beginning to open up. It is fleshier than both the 2013 and 2012, with more opulent fruit and spice that comes at you in layers.
Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2013
($29, Vintages Essentials, 91 points)
This is Bachelder’s “regular” cuvee, if you can call it that. It’s labeled Niagara but is a blend of the three sites where he sources Chardonnay: Wismer Vineyard, Saunders Vineyard and Wismer Park Vineyard. It falls in line with Bachelder’s style, nothing out of order, a deft touch with oak and always a thought-provoking, complex wine. Here we have plenty of minerality, apple and pear fruit with a touch of lemon and spice. It’s well-rounded on the palate with juicy fruits and toasted spice notes but retains its poise and gracefulness through the long finish. Actually drinking quite nicely at the moment.