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Jay Johnston taking over winemaking duties at Hidden Bench, plus spring release reviews

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By Rick VanSickle

When Jay Johnston takes over the winemaking duties at Hidden Bench Estate Winery on Aug. 1 he will inherit one of the most complete and important domaine portfolios in the country.

Filling the Blundstones of Marlize Beyers, an extraordinary winemaker who is stepping down to spend more time with her family and young children, will not be an easy task, but it is a task Johnston is willing to tackle.

“Marlize (below photo) and the winemaking team have created such a strong foundation (that) it makes the transition more seamless,” says Johnston. “It will take a few seasons to find my stride in the winery. I have so much respect for what they’ve accomplished at Hidden Bench and aspire to maintain the style they’ve developed through years of hard work.”

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— Photos of Johnston and Beyers are by Steven Elphick

Johnston, winemaker at Flat Rock Cellars for the past five years, says he’s ready to finally accept the challenge that Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel has put before him.

In making the announcement, Thiel said: “Jay returns to Hidden Bench Estate Winery with a wealth of knowledge and experience working with premium Niagara Bench fruit, particularly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.”

Johnston was previously the associate winemaker at Hidden Bench from 2009 to 2012 and “very familiar with our vineyards, winery and the high industry standards set by Hidden Bench,” said Thiel. “We are confident that under his winemaking leadership we will continue and expand upon the successes we have achieved and are excited to enter this new phase with him.”

Johnston is a graduate of the Niagara College Wine and Viticulture program and has worked with many of the top wine producers in Ontario.

Working in the vineyards and cellar at Le Clos Jordanne for three Vintages exposed Johnston to the demands and rewards of growing world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In 2007, Johnston took a winemaking position with the Trius, Thirty Bench and Peller brands.

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In August of 2009 the “nature of domaine winegrowing” was a huge attraction for taking on the associate winemaker role at Hidden Bench. That led to winemaking gigs in Prince Edward County, a couple of short stops in Niagara and eventually to Flat Rock where “Jay has worked diligently to hone his craft and explore what it means to grow authentic, pure and award-winning wines along the Niagara Escarpment,” said Thiel, in above photo.

“The opportunity to take on the winemaker role at Hidden Bench and work with the iconic Rosomel, Felseck and Locust Lane vineyards and certified organic fruit is the next step and hopefully last step in Jay’s terroir adventure,” Thiel added.

Three questions for Jay Johnston

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Wines In Niagara: Seems like a natural path, like coming full circle, to be named head winemaker at Hidden Bench. Was the goal always to go back to Hidden Bench?

Jay Johnston: Since starting my career in wine I’ve always wanted to work with the best producers. The opportunity at Hidden Bench is very attractive. It’s one of the true “domaine” producers in the region with a very focused approach to winegrowing. I wasn’t looking to leave Flat Rock Cellars but couldn’t resist the temptation to head back to Hidden Bench and work with Harald, their exceptional team and of course the fruit from very distinct estate vineyards. While not premeditated, it does seem like a natural step.

Wines In Niagara: Harald tells me the head winemaker job was offered to you once before but you chose to get more experience. What was the preparation that made you ready for the big job at Hidden Bench?

Jay Johnston: Before Harald hired Marlize to fulfil the winemaker vacancy in 2010, he asked in very simple terms “are you ready for this job?” I had only been there for six months as the associate winemaker working with J-M Bouchard. I knew how important the position was, how dedicated Harald is and what the expectations were. I had to be honest and not take on more than I could, so continued there for another two years before tackling a couple of smaller winemaking jobs. When the Flat Rock position opened up, I knew it was the best place for me to continue my development as a winemaker (and a stunning vineyard!). I’ve been at Flat Rock now for almost five years working primarily with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. It’s been the essential ingredient to “being ready” for the move to Hidden Bench and I have great respect for Ed (Madronich), the Madronich family and the crew here.

Wines In Niagara: What are the challenges ahead for you at Hidden Bench? It’s a big job, one of the most important in the Canadian wine industry, in my opinion, with an enormous reputation to uphold. How do you envision the job ahead?

Jay Johnston: While feeling very up to the challenge, if you think “I’ve figured it out” then you will quickly fall behind. Marlize and the winemaking team have created such a strong foundation it makes the transition more seamless. It will take a few seasons to find my stride in the winery. I have so much respect for what they’ve accomplished at Hidden Bench and aspire to maintain the style they’ve developed through years of hard work. It will be great to walk the vineyards again with Harald and Joel (Williams, vineyard manager) and be a part of the hospitality culture within the winery that Meg (McGrath, retail manager) and Harald have curated. I hope that I’ve picked-up something along the way that will add my own nuance to the wines in the coming years. But the vineyards will speak louder than anything I wish to do in the finished wines — the fruit is so good!

I also had the opportunity to taste through the spring releases with Thiel.

Here’s what I can recommend.

Hidden Bench spring releases

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2016 ($22, May 15 release, 91 points) — Hidden Bench is releasing two rosés this spring, this more subtle, lighter-in-colour version, and a darker, bolder style. The decision to make two different rosés was made after input from wine club members who were torn between the two styles. “Some wanted the lighter one, some wanted the darker, so we made both,” said Thiel with a chuckle. This version is the more traditional style, a “pressed” rosé, not an “after thought,” says Thiel. It’s not a Locust Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir (plus a smidge of the secret ingredient, Viognier) per se, but is named after the home vineyard. The grapes for this wine were grown with rosé in mind from the get-go. Thiel likes to think of this as his “signature” rosé. The colour is pale salmon with a restrained, delicate nose of raspberry, peach and strawberry cream. It’s bone dry but offers a ripe impression on the palate with gorgeous fruit flavours, a bit of weight and structure and a creamy feel on the finish. Love this summer wine.

Hidden Bench Nocturn Rosé 2016 ($20, May 15 release, 88 points) — So, a combination of Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Pinot Noir from the three estate vineyards with five months of aging in neutral oak barrels. A bolder, ruby red in the glass with a nose of cherries, strawberries and rhubarb. More depth of fruit here, more forward flavours and riper but still dry on the palate. Thiel calls this a “food rosé” that would pair well with stone grilled pizza or a favourite Mediterranean dish.

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2015 ($25, May 15 release, 90 points) — One of the cool things you’ll now see on the back label of all estate wines made from 2015 on from Hidden are the words: Certified Organic by Pro-Cert. While Hidden Bench’s vineyards have always been organically farmed, the certificate now adorns all bottles as an assurance for consumers. The estate Riesling is a blend of the three estate vineyards and has a nose of lime, peach, grapefruit and oozes limestone minerality. It’s austere on the palate with perfect balance between ripe fruit and acid with citrus, minerals and peach flavours through a zesty finish.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2014 ($29, May 15 release, 90 points) — Like the estate Riesling, a blend of the three vineyards owned and farmed by the winery. This Chardonnay spends 9 months in barrel, the majority of which is neutral oak, with 14% of the fruit spending time in a concrete egg. So, obviously, a pure expression of the farm with little oak influence. The nose shows ripe pear, baked apple with creamy, but subtle, barrel spice notes and underlying minerality. It’s seamless on the palate with caressing and creamy orchard fruits, smooth and textured with a bright finish. Straddles new and old world styles.

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2015 ($29, May 15, 91 points) — This 100% Sauvignon Blanc sees 100% French oak, 93% neutral, fermented and aged in barrel for 7 months then racked to concrete egg (43%) and stainless steel tanks for 4 months before bottling. Thiel calls it more of a “Loire” style, then new world, with a nose of gooseberry, grapefruit, melon, subtle herbaceous notes and integrated spice notes. It has good weight on the palate with a well-balanced range of fruit and spice and plenty of zip through the finish. A certain flintiness plays nicely in the background of this well made savvy.

Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2014 ($31, May 15, with half the production going to the Vintages Essential list at the LCBO, 90 points) — This is a blend of all three estate vineyards, spends 12 months in a combination of new and older French oaked and is unfined and unfiltered. A bowl of fresh-picked cherries is the initial impression on the nose with a range of spice, pretty violets, cassis and minerals following. This is a wonderfully balanced Pinot on the palate with rich red fruits working harmoniously with woodsy-spice notes and smooth, silky tannins. I also had a preview of the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir with Thiel, who describes the year thusly: “2015, to me, is the best Pinot Noir vintage Niagara has ever seen.” At this early stage, it’s showing great promise with profound depth of fruit, deep-veined minerality and silky tannins that melt in the mouth. Looking forward to tasting this one when released.