I believe Harald Thiel, vigneron and proprietor of the landmark Hidden Bench winery, is the happiest he can be when tasting through his own wines. It’s in his eyes, his words, in the pure joy he gets when he lines up all his bottles and tastes from one end to the other.
I taste the wines of Hidden Bench once, sometimes twice a year, usually with Thiel orchestrating. It’s not that winemaker Marlize Beyers in unavailable (well, she was this time while on maternity leave), it’s just that Thiel loves pouring his wines and listening to what others have to say.
He has an open mind even if his vision for Niagara and, in particular, Hidden Bench, is somewhat ambitious. You see, Thiel is steadfast in his belief that Niagara can compete with the best wines in the world. He set out, rather successfully, to prove that by bringing the world’s best Chardonnay producers to Niagara for a celebration of Chardonnay through i4c (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration).
Niagara’s Chardonnays stood side by side with Burgundy, with Oregon, with California and Australia and i4c became an annual event that brings international producers, writers and winemakers together to taste and learn from one another. Niagara Chardonnay was front and centre and by no means out of place in some pretty lofty company.
Chardonnay is just one of the varieties that thrives in the cool climate of Ontario. And Thiel is just as proud of his Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and the somewhat more difficult Bordeaux varieties that can come together quite nicely given the right site, vintage conditions and the stomach to crop to yields that make it prohibitively expensive to produce at the level of quality he is happy with.
Hidden Bench, situated in the heart of the Beamsville Bench, spares no expense to make wines that are world class. From the finest oak, to organic farming practices, to hard sorting, hand picking and cropping to what the vintage requires, Thiel is not looking for ordinary. His vision is always focused on how to do it better and the results from vintage to vintage are nothing short of spectacular.
Hidden Bench is all about terroir, how to make the best expression from his key estate vineyards. It is not simply Niagara or even Beamsville Bench, it’s Rosomel, Felseck and Locust Lane. And he drills down further with specific blocks situated within those vineyards.
It’s about being the best for Thiel. It’s about making only the finest wines when it’s possible to do so. He laments the fact that he will not make his top red Bordeaux blends in 2014 after a horrible winter, the quality just isn’t there. Rose, yes, but no Terroir Cache, no La Brunante.
Soon, though, we will see a sparkling wine from Thiel, as he adds another spark to an already electric lineup, one of the finest in Ontario. If I know Thiel at all, it will be one hell of a bubbly.
Here’s what I tasted with Thiel recently.
Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling Rosomel Vineyard 2012 ($32, winery, 92 points) — A highly aromatic expression from this famed vineyard that’s farmed organically (like all Hidden Bench vineyards) on the Beamsville Bench. The nose show lime, pear and apple with subtle notes of ginger, honey, and flinty minerality. It’s a juicy offering in the mouth with a dry impression to go with pear, lime, apples and minerals all bolstered by tangy acidity.
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2012 ($28, winery, 91 points) — Even though this single-vineyard Riesling is farmed exactly the same way, made the same way and uses the same 21b clone, it is has a completely different profile. The fruit rises to the top on the nose and the peach, pear and grapefruit aromas are joined by a deep-rooted mineral component that’s hard to put your finger on. Such depth of flavour on the palate, a fleshier take than Roman’s Block, with a bit more weight to the orchard fruits, beeswax and swirling minerality.
Hidden Bench Riesling 2013 ($24, winery, Vintages, 89 points) — Hidden Bench releases the regular cuvee Riesling a year before its single-vineyard wines. It’s a blend of Locust Lane, Felseck and Rosomel vineyards and displays a rich nose of lime, peach preserve, quince, minerals and honey. It has slightly more residual sugar but is balanced out by the racy acidity of the vintage.
Hidden Bench Chardonnay Tete de Cuvee 2011 ($45, winery, 94 points) — Blockbuster comes to mind. So does enthralling and a few other superlatives. Such an alluring beauty and always vying for top Chardonnay made anywhere in Canada in any given year. Thiel combines the best of the Locust Lane and Rosomel Vineyards, applies 100% fine French oak, 25% new, 37.5% second fill and 37.5% third fill for 11 months with completion in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels. All the organic fruit is handpicked, meticulously sorted and whole bunch pressed. Malolactic fermentation occurred naturally and all barrels were stirred weekly during fermentation. It’s a mind-blowing experience, of course, like it is every year, but nonetheless a shock every time I taste the Tete de Cuvee and realize it can be done in Niagara or Ontario or Canada. I should learn to get over it. The poached pear aromas are joined by toasted vanilla and hazelnuts, a bit of marzipan enters the fray, and always that gushing Beamsville Bench minerality that gives the wine its sense of place, its complexity. It is so young with a glorious future awaiting, but in the mouth it still shows a juicy yet vibrant core of stone fruit and perfectly balanced spice and minerals. It is complex and finessed and all leads to a long, delicious, refined finish.
Hidden Bench Chardonnay Felseck Vineyard 2011 ($38, winery, 92 points) — A richer expression of Chardonnay with a more forward nose of creamy pear, grapefruit, apples, toasted spices and flinty minerality. It, too, is complex with depth of fruit on the palate and layers of pleasure that open up as you sip this wine. There is a citrus zing on the finish that soaks up the oak spices and keeps everything wonderfully balanced.
Hidden Bench Chardonnay 2012 ($29, Vintages, 90 points) — If this is going to be your entry-level Chardonnay, let it be this. As with the Riesling, it’s a blend of all three organic vineyards and it is released a year before the two Chardonnays from the “Terroir” series. Quite opulent and expression on the nose with pear, cream, oak spice and a touch of butter and spice. It has good weight on the palate, a product of the warmer vintage, with integrated fruit and spices. It’s a delicious drop that is anything but entry-level. Will keep going strong for up to five years in the cellar.
Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2012 ($40, winery, 92 points) — And there it is again, Rosomel Vineyard; it shines brightly on the Beamsville Bench, the vineyard built and nurtured by Roman Prydatkewycz and now in the hands of Thiel who tends to it with loving care. I can’t help but think of Prydatkewycz, now with the Vineland Estate team, every time I sip one his former vineyard’s wines now owned and made by Hidden Bench. Such a gentleman, such a brilliant viticulturalist. The 2012 Nuit Blanche is gorgeous, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (95.5%) and the rest Semillon, that lovely grape that suffered so greatly during the terrible winter of 2014. There is grapefruit, melon, hay, baked apple, gunflint and layers of fine oak spice on the nose. On the palate, there is an integrated concentration of fruit with a lovely kiss of cream and spice, yet it is young and needs time to impart its greatest pleasures. It will come, oh, it will come.
Hidden Bench Pinot Noir Felseck Vineyard 2011 ($38, winery, 91 points) — The Felseck Pinot is aged in 100% French oak in a combination of new and older barrels. Both the single-vineyard Pinots are unfiltered and unfined. The nose displays rich layers of cherry, field raspberry, pencil shavings, deep spicy notes, minerals and subtle earth and loam. It has a richness hard to fathom on the palate, with texture, purity of red fruits and touches of tar, anise and spice all sitting on a bed of firm tannins. This will need time to fully integrate.
Hidden Bench Locust Lane Pinot Noir 2011 ($45, winery, 92 points) — Nearly the same regime as the above wine, with a touch less new oak. The fruit is darker on the nose, with cherries, yes, but also blackberries, currants, plums, violets and integrated oak spices. It is complex on the palate, finer tannins than the Felseck, not as overt, with a nice mix of red and dark fruits, a silky feel through the finish and a delicate balance that makes this wine approachable now but still with cellaring potential.
Hidden Bench Pinot Noir 2012 ($30, winery, Vintages, 90 points) — A three-vineyard estate blend that’s aged in French oak, 33% of which is new oak. Quite rich and expressive on the nose with black cherry, beetroot, currants and spice. It’s simply yummy Pinot in the mouth with dark cherry flavours, savoury spices and touches of plums and currants that echo on the finish.
Hidden Bench Terroir Cache 2011 ($38, released in January, 89 points) — A bold effort from the 2011 vintage where Thiel let the fruit hang for as long as possible and drastically reduced yields. It’s a blend of 52% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and the rest Malbec. It has a rich and meaty nose with black currants, blackberries, cherry and a bold array of oak-driven spices. On the palate this is a big wine, with firm tannins and highly structured. The dark fruits are waiting to emerge from the spice and oak; time is needed to let the currants, cherries and blackberries rise to the top. Cellar five years or more.
Hidden Bench La Brunante 2011 ($75, winery in January, 91 points) — This is the flagship Bordeaux style blend from Hidden Bench and contains 56% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec and 9% Cabernet Franc from the best blocks in the estate’s three key vineyards. The wine is unfined and unfiltered and aged in 100% French oak, 90% of it new oak, racked after six months and aged in 26% new oak for a further 14 months. A heady and rich nose of black cherry, cocoa, cigar-box cedar, currants, anise, black licorice, graphite and a range of spices. This is a powerful wine on the palate with bold, assertive tannins, layers of cherry, currant and cassis fruit with spices and a touch of eucalypt on the finish. Best to cellar this for five or more years.
Hidden Bench Select Late Harvest Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2013 ($30 for 375 mL, or $25 a bottle if you buy a case, winery, 90 points) — Thiel is not a huge fan of super-sweet icewines, but he does appreciate an off-dry “late harvest” wine to pair with foie gras. This is delight with a spicy-tropical nose and added grapefruit, lychee and honey notes. Lovely texture on the palate with exotic flavours including grapefruit, tropical fruits, lemon drop, and hints of marzipan and nutmeg-clove spice. Semi-sweet, but not cloying, and balanced out by decent acidity.