To his Twitter followers he’s know as @BenchVigneron, an “active winery owner from the Beamsville Bench who loves good food and wine, cares about the environment and people who care.”
In his previous life, Harald Thiel, proprietor of the Beamsville Bench winery Hidden Bench, owned a large audiovisual services company with his brother that had 35 offices and 1,500 employees spread across North America. You can add banker, law student and MBA to his resume, as well.
In 2001 he sold the business and, with the blessing of his wife Ann, pursued the dream of building a winery in Niagara.
Thiel takes his job as a vigneron seriously. He walks the vineyards almost every day during the season and works closely with vineyard manager Steve Roche and winemaker Marlize Beyers to “constantly improve our product,” he says.
“When people ask me what the title on my business card ‘vigneron’ means, I respond that it is as close to being a player-coach as you can get. That is my role.”
And as such, Thiel strives for perfection in all aspects of the operation with a singular goal of making wines that best represent the terroir of the estate vineyards that he owns and farms.
Thiel has firmly planted himself in Niagara, not just at Hidden Bench, but in the farming and the wine community at large.
He is the chairman of the i4c board of directors, a successful celebration of cool climate Chardonnay that brings the world’s best Chardonnay producers to Niagara annually. It was his initiative to bring the event to Niagara to showcase what was once an overlooked variety in the region.
On any given day you find Thiel at the winery pouring his wines or holding court with whoever has decided to pop into the wine shop. He is always there for special events and seems happiest donning his kitchen apron, firing up the raclette maker and serving friends, wine lovers and, well, pretty much anyone who wants to drop in, for a taste of his homemade Niagara Gold (made at the Upper Canada Cheese Company, which he also owns) raclette, all gooey and smeared on a bed of Yukon gold potatoes and served with Mario Pingue’s double smoked pork loin. He’ll pour you a generous helping of his Estate Riesling so you’ll never forget the pairing.
Thiel has built Hidden Bench into a terroir-driven, small cuvee winery whose underlying philosophy is to create premium wines that have a sense of time and place.
“That’s what we are all about — terroir-driven wines,” Thiel tells me as we settle in to taste the new vintage of his Pinots, Chards and Rieslings on a recent autumn day.
Each and every wine at Hidden Bench is made under strict conditions:
• Sustainable practices, which means 100% organically certified fruit from only estate vineyards.
• Individually bunch sorted white wine varietals and bunch sorted and then individual berry sort all of the red wine varietals.
• Non-interventionist, minimalist winemaking approach with gentle handling of the wine throughout the winemaking process.
• All wines are made with wild yeast and anything that doesn’t ferment naturally is inoculated and declassified into the winery’s bistro label.
“I love reflecting the terroir,” says Thiel, and that means an understated approach to French oak aging in the finished wines. “Wood is in the wine as opposed to on top of the wine,” he adds. “I’m a purist, what can I tell you?”
It is that uncompromising approach to quality that has made Hidden Bench wines much sought after by discriminating wine lovers. And, as Thiel will tell you, it all starts in the vineyards. And he owns some of the best in Niagara:
• Locust Lane Vineyard: Consists of approximately 33 acres and is the first vineyard purchased by Hidden Bench in 2003. It is the winery’s “home” vineyard.
• Rosomel Vineyard: Situated approximately 6 km to the east of the winery, at the base of the Niagara Escarpment on the Beamsville Bench, lies the prestigious and enchanting Rosomel Vineyard purchased by Hidden Bench in the fall of 2004. Consisting of a total of 26 acres, Rosomel was planted some 30 years ago by Roman Prydatkewycz (now at Vineland Estate) in 1976 and has produced award-winning wines consistently over the years.
• Felseck Vineyard: The name Felseck means “corner of the cliff” and, as this vineyard is situated where the Niagara Escarpment takes a dramatic turn from an East/West direction to a North/South direction, Hidden Bench chose to name this newest Hidden Bench vineyard, Felseck. This vineyard consists of approximately 45 acres and was originally planted in 1992 and was acquired by Hidden Bench in the spring of 2007.
Here’s what I tasted with Thiel in the Hidden Bench tasting room, all available at the winery:
Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2011 ($24, 88 points) — The estate Riesling is always released a year ahead of the single-vineyard Rieslings. It’s a blend of the three vineyards and shows plucky grapefruit and lemon citrus notes on the nose with just a whiff of stony minerality. This all about the fresh and vibrant citrus fruit on the palate with a subtle wet-stone minerality streaming through the core.
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2010 ($28, 91 points) — A more opulent style, a product of the warm growing season in 2010, with lemon, honey and grapefruit aromas. It has an unctuous feel on the palate with layers of minerals and complexity to go with fresh lemon-citrus fruit. A touch of petrol is just beginning to emerge.
Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling Rosomel Vineyard 2010 ($30, 93 points) — Such a beauty, and a must-have wine for the serious collector of Niagara Riesling. The old vines deliver a complex and intricate bouquet of peach, lime blossom, apple and limestone. It is quite rich and bold on the palate with ripe fruits, beeswax, lanolin, lemon-honey, summer peach and even a touch of white pepper all delivered on a long, lush finish. Such a wonderful Riesling that will age nicely for five years or more.
Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2010 ($32, 88 points) — A big, showy nose of ripe citrus, pear and creamy spices. There is a fullness on the palate in this big robust Chard with ripe citrus and poached pear fruit turning creamy and lush through the finish. A wine to enjoy in the near term.
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 ($38, Vintages Saturday, 92 points) — I prefer the 2008 and 2009 Chardonnays to the 2010s and 2007s because they are more balanced for my palate and have the stuffing to improve in the cellar. The Felseck 09 is tight on the nose but beginning to unwrap lovely lemon-citrus, pear, mineral and toasty oak and spice aromas. It is perfectly ripe in the mouth with beautiful integration of oak to go with alluring spiced apple, pear and citrus fruits. A vein of minerality runs through the mid palate of this wine that’s lifted by the racy acidity the vintage delivered. Buy, hold and watch this beauty evolve.
Hidden Bench Tete de Cuvee Chardonnay 2009 ($45, 93 points) — The 2008 version of this top Chardonnay, sourced from the best barrels from Felseck and Rosomel vineyards, was my white wine of the year in 2011 and the 2009 vintage follows closely in those footsteps. Tete de Cuvee is such a complex and contemplative wine. It makes you think and challenges your senses with the evolving nuances that change constantly in the glass. “A wine drinker’s Chardonnay,” says Thiel. For me, it’s exactly what I look for in a good wine; complexity, balance, integration of flavours and a finish that lasts for minutes. This is a young wine and quite tight on the nose, however, the baked apple, brioche and elegant oak stylings are beginning to emerge and rise above the stony bed of minerality. It is chock full of creamy-toasty pear-apple fruit and roasted hazelnuts on the palate. A minute later there’s a shot of citrus zest chiming in. All of those swirling flavours are bolstered by fine oak spice and lifted by a vein of acidity that brings balance to the package. For deep thinkers and those who like to be challenged by their wine.
The Pinot Noirs
Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2010 ($38, 88 points) — This is, I would say, a big Pinot with thick red fruits, earth and lavish spice on the nose. It’s not what I expect from Hidden Bench but it is a direct result of the hot 2010 vintage. It has immediate appeal for its lush core of cherry-strawberry and cassis fruit, fine texture and silky tannins. And it shows beautifully from the get-go and I would imagine is selling like crazy at the winery. For drinking and enjoying in the near term.
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($48, 91 points) — This is old school Pinot with an earthy nose of black cherry, barnyard funk, cigar box cedar, spice and dirt, yes, the loam, soil and minerals from where it came. It is a bold and sassy Pinot with red fruits, dark plums, a mineral edge, firm structure and acid verve that provides a backbone that will carry for many years in the cellar. This will get better and better as it integrates and comes into harmony.
Hidden Bench Locust Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($55, 93 points) — It is with this more feminine style where my tastebuds are happiest. Like a seasoned ballerina, it shows elegance and poise from the first whiff of black cherry, raspberry, currants, violets and forest floor. It dances nimbly on the palate, with balanced and evocative red and dark fruits that mingle nicely with the cedar, spice and beetroot nuances. This is the kind of stuff I look for in top Burgundian reds and it will only get better with age.
Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2010 ($40, 92 points) — This classic blend of Sauvignon Blanc (88%) and Semillon (12%) sees aging in older French oak barrels. The Sauvignon Blanc is picked once for acidity earlier in the harvest and later for riper flavours to provide the balance in a hot vintage. It is a style that very few attempt in Niagara, made along the lines of great white Bordeaux. It has a nose of creamy peach pie, passion fruit, subtle lime zest, smoke, integrated spice, herbs and minerals. It is complex and interesting on the palate with intense stone fruit and lime cordial, marzipan, spice and surprising verve and energy through the finish. In its youth the Nuit Blanche shows freshness but it will soften and develop lovely honey and nut notes if cellared properly.