Niagara wines

By Rick VanSickle

“I could concentrate just on Niagara wines and be happy for the rest of my life.”

Those words from winemaker extraordinaire Thomas Bachelder shook me to the core. Is he going through a winemaker’s mid-career crisis? Is the travel to make his Burgundy and Oregon wines, the other two planks in a pretty awesome trilogy of terroir-driven wines, becoming far too difficult to navigate?

“I’m not saying I’m done in Burgundy and Oregon, but it’s so good here. Niagara is hitting at a time when cool climate wines are cool,” he says.

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Any tasting with Thomas Bachelder is pure chaos … but really good chaos.

Part of Bachelder’s questioning of what the future holds for him comes from his experiences travelling the world and pouring his wines. He always brings a representation of what he makes — Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from regional blends to his more vineyard-specific bottlings at the top end.

“Everywhere I go people want the Ontario wine,” he says. “Maybe (and this is a big maybe) I should downsize the Burgundies and Oregons and upsize Niagara.”

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Niagara vineyards

I know Bachelder is thinking (dreaming? plotting?) out loud over a nice evening of home-cooked BBQ chicken, salad and asparagus with a plethora of wines to try — from Chile, Bordeaux, Chablis, Italy and, of course, his own range of wines — with this writer and an old friend Peter Boyd (pictured helping Bachelder prepare dinner in very top photo), the long-time and brilliant sommelier at Scaramouche in Toronto, a pretty awesome guitar player and one of the most fun wine dudes I’ve ever travelled with to far-flung wine destinations.

We are picking Bachelder’s brain on this wine-soaked evening, trying to put the pieces together as the winemaker meanders from thought to thought. We feel like we’re caught in the very conflict that haunts Bachelder as he charts his future course. We’re trying to decipher what’s “on the record” and “off the record.” I’m asking questions and he’s answering them 20 minutes later after veering off on a passionate tangent on matters unrelated to the original query. Interviewing Bachelder is hard work. Putting the puzzle together is even harder. So, I proceed with caution.

Bachelder wine

I first tasted Bachelder’s new releases in barrel, before the blending process, a year ago.

The undeniable truth that Bachelder wrestles with in his tri-region portfolio is this: He can make the best of the best wines from the finest terroirs in Niagara but he cannot replicate that in either Burgundy or Oregon, they will always be the weaker sisters in the portfolio. So, at the only place he can sell his wines at the retail level, because of his licence and the fact he doesn’t have a winery and therefore no retail space, is the LCBO. They devour the Niagara wines but the other two regions are not as easily purchased by the mega-monopoly; they can be a harder sell. He has an easier time with the SAQ, especially for Burghs, but it’s all about the hustle … endless travel, endless selling, endless worrying, endless endlessness of stuff that takes him away from what he does best; making wine.

Top Niagara wine

Thomas Bachelder is a winemaker, one of the best in Canada. He makes beautiful wine, wines that are at their best when they reflect the limestone-rich soils from which they are grown. He understands the intricacies of Niagara, he lives and breathes the dirt and soul of the vineyards and specific blocks where he sources his grapes. He’s intimate with Niagara, he is at the top of his game here.

But there is a problem with that, well, two problems.

The first?

“There’s not enough fucking vines here,” he says (sorry for swearing). Which brings us to the next roadblock.

He’s at the mercy of a limited number of growers to source the grapes he wants, which for now has been absolutely top-notch fruit, but nothing is ever certain if you don’t control the source.

I’ll be blunt here, and these are my words, not his. Thomas Bachelder needs help, he needs a financial partner or some arrangement that can enable him to buy dirt and mortar to become the full-fledged winery he needs to be to make great wine and sell it from the cellar door. Even a partnership with another winery is not out of the question.

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These are his words: “If someone said to me, let’s make a killer Chardonnay, I’d think about it.” He does do that now, of course, as the winemaker at Queylus, but what he means is he’d make someone else’s “killer” Chardonnay if he can make and sell his “killer” Chardonnay in some sort of beneficial partnership.

Killer Chardonnays and Pinots are what Bachelder is all about and always has been (and, I suspect always will be). As a purist in those genres he is at the top of the class with few peers, in my opinion. He raises the bar for the entire region, province and country when he pours his wines and shows the international wine community what Canada can do at the highest level of cool-climate winemaking. I don’t think I’m alone when I say it’s in the best interest of the industry in Canada, more specifically Niagara, for Bachelder to succeed. I believe that success will eventually mean an entirely new direction, but that’s just me talking.

To put an exclamation point on all this, his new releases are simply stunning.

Here’s what I can recommend from some scattered notes I took during a long (and fun) evening at Bachelder’s home.

The Niagara wines

Let’s just say I’m a little sketchy on both when these wines will be available at Vintages and exact prices; generally, the blend of sub-app wines are in the $25 range and single vineyard wines in the $45 range.

Bachelder Niagara Wismer Vineyard #1 Wingfield Block Chardonnay 2013 ($45, 94 points) — This was the last wine tasted in a long night of tasting and talking, but it was jarring. A superstar in the making, one of the finest Chards Bachelder has made — and that’s saying a lot. It is tightly wound, yes, at this moment, but the limestone minerality and salinity speaks to the soul of this specific block that Bachelder chose for his top Niagara Chardonnay in 2013. Such aromatics, even at this early stage, suggests the best is yet to come. Pear, apple, for sure, a vein of fresh citrus and all intertwined with the subtlety of fine oak spice and flint. It’s deep, layered and seductive on the palate, a pure and exhilarating Chardonnay that never shows too much of any one component and stays in perfect balance all the way through the finish. Um, wow!

Bachelder Niagara Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($45, 93 points) — The Wismer Vineyard bottling is a staple in the Bachelder Niagara portfolio and maintains a similar style vintage to vintage with only minor tweaks in the winery to maintain a consistent style. It’s rife with river-rock minerality, apple skin, pear, quince and a touch more oak spice on the nice. It is so fine on the palate, no hint of the hot vintage of 2012, with lovely integration, length, fine oak spice, orchard fruits and maintaining a certain freshness through a long finish.

Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2014 ($25, 90 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. It’s quite rich and fragrant on the nose with juicy orchard fruit, underlying minerality, citrus and spice. This is about purity of fruit and toasted oak spices with good energy through the finish. It’s proof that brilliant Chards can be achieved at this enter-level price point.

Bachelder Niagara “Parfum” Pinot Noir 2014 ($25, 89 points) — Textbook Niagara Pinot with earthy red fruits, barrel spice notes and subtle mineral notes on the nose. The fruit is quite juicy on the palate with a balanced approach to oak spice all presented on a silky, smooth frame with well-rounded tannins.

Bachelder Wismer-Parke Vineyard Old Vines Pinot Noir 2014 ($45, 93 points) — A sublime take on Pinot, with complex aromas of cran-cherry, violets, meaty/earthy notes and swirling minerality with oak barrel spice accents. The red berries and dark fruit notes are rich and layered on the palate with plush tannins and minerals that combine with fine, elegant spices. Such a beauty.

Bachelder Lowrey Vineyard Pinot Noir Old Vines 2014 ($45, 92 points) — Lowrey Pinot reveals itself in myriad permeations from the few who share the fruit from this fascinating vineyard in St. Davids. Bachelder uses a gentle hand to shape his rendition. It’s a more berry-scented, prettier style on the nose with persistent red berries, bramble and fine integrated spice. It shows restraint on the palate with bright raspberry/cherry fruit, tightly woven fine oak spice with a mineral edge, lovely texture and length through a finessed finish.

The Oregon wines

Bachelder Oregon Chardonnay 2013 ($25, 88 points) — A generous, open-knit style of Chardonnay with a range of orchard fruits and barrel oak spices. On the palate it is rich but in balance with firm acidity, lovely spice accents and ripe fruit concentration that holds through the finish.

Bachelder Oregon Pinot 2013 ($25, 89 points) — A pretty, fragrant Pinot Noir with a nose of dark cherry fruit, sweet cedar notes, lightly spiced with just a hint of cassis and darker fruit accents. It’s juicy and ripe on the palate with plump black cherries, cranberries and balanced oak spice with a silky, smooth delivery through the finish.

Bachelder Oregon Johnson Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 ($45, 91 points) — This takes Bachelder’s Pinot project in Oregon to a whole new level; it’s a beauty. The nose shows violets, mineral, restrained red fruits, subtle integrated spice and earthy/bramble bits. So beautiful on the palate with depth of fruit, juicy red berries, gorgeous mouth-feel, integrated and elegant spice through a long, silky smooth finish.