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Niagara’s Hidden Bench basks in the glow of new orange wine; plus new wine releases (Malbec?, yep)

wines in Ontario

By Rick VanSickle

The emergence of skin-fermented white wines in Ontario has been more cautious experimentation than an avalanche of these so-called “orange” wines.

Since VQA announced a category for skin-fermented whites to thrive in July of 2017, 16 single varietal wines and two proprietary blends have been submitted for consideration (I suspect many more will show up with the full 2018 vintage). VQA won’t say how many were actually approved, but, historically, there is about a 3% failure rate. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say all but one made the passing grade.

The varietals being made into these wines run the gamut from Pinot Gris and Vidal (four each), Chardonnay (three), Riesling (two), and one each of Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier (plus the two blends)

Orange wines and “natural” wines are not synonymous, of course, but many put the two in the same category. Orange wines are skin-fermented white wines, which gives the wine their orangey/marmalade/amber hue and are generally made unfiltered/unfined and appear cloudy in the bottle and glass. They don’t have to be made without added sulphur, but most that I’ve come across take that approach.

Natural wines are a whole new ball game — depending on your definition, they start with organic (often biodynamic) grapes and have nothing added. Some would say you can’t use oak to be considered natural, some don’t agree. Natural wines can include both red and white wines, not necessarily skin-fermented. Orange wines can be natural; natural wines cannot have sulphur or any additives.

Niagara wine
This photo was from the first time I saw and tasted Harald Thiel’s (very top photo) orange wine, which was still in tank last in July but had already picked up its colouring from nearly 50 days on the skins.

Both categories spur wide and caustic debate, a lot of it silly, really. Those who hate them, hate them a lot. Those who like them, can’t understand those who hate them and figure something must wrong with them.

A raging debate recently on social media encapsulated the two sides perfectly. The post asked for people’s thoughts about a column written by one of Canada’s most respected wine journalists where he lumped raw, natural and orange wines into the same category. This was a provocative column and had the calculated affect of drawing the ire of many in support of natural and orange wines and a scant few others who agreed with his premise.

To quote the author in the Quench piece:

“To forego the use of sulphur in the winemaking process is akin to walking around with body odour. A soupçon of sulphur protects the wine against oxidation, stabilizes its colour and gives it shelf-life.”

And later:

“… I predict this orange wine fad will not endure and I for one will not mourn its passing. After all, the first duty of wine is to be drinkable.”

Clearly, he’s not a fan and expressed in perfect prose the reasons why (and spoke for more than a few, I would guess, as not everyone gets or enjoys these wines).

Ontario wine
An array of colour from a tasting with Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel.

His column elicited a visceral response, mostly because the writer lumped orange wines into the same category as natural wines.

One commenter to the piece pointed out that a skin-contact wine can be made without the use of sulphur. And, by the way, the writing is “shitty.”

I love it (sarcasm alert) when one person expresses their opinion, which is what he’s paid to do, and another person comes along and calls them a “shitty” writer because they do. The journalist who wrote the piece is clearly not a shitty writer and has the credentials and body of work to prove it.

Another commenter called it a silly piece and the writer should know that orange wine and natural wines are not synonymous and went on to point out there are amazing natural wines out there.

Ontario orange wine
The Hidden Bench Rachis & Derma Skin Fermented Orange wine sits on a vineyard post at the estate.

But, really, lumping the two in the same category isn’t a capital crime. Defending your love for natural or orange wines would be a better avenue of debate, in my opinion.

Point is, there is a growing market for orange and natural wines in Ontario (and the world) right now. Toronto somms love them, a sprinkling of highly engaged consumers dig them. No one knows if it’s a trend that will pass or if mainstream consumers will embrace the categories to such a degree that this debate will be moot and we can all live in peace and harmony together. I suspect orange and natural wines will only grow in popularity.

On a personal note, I seek out orange and natural wines whenever and wherever I can. I find interest in them and have found many that I like a lot. I certainly appreciate the effort, passion and determination that go into making them as winemakers continue their quest to find a style that their customers will embrace. I have also noticed a trend to make them just a little less “funky” and “dirty,” and accessible to more people.

Helping orange wines gain traction is a steadily growing cabal of winemakers and vignerons who have made the leap into the orange and natural wine world. As mentioned above, part of the surge is due to VQA Ontario adding a skin-fermented white category that now allows wineries to make these wines without it being financially debilitating.

Southbrook led the charge and was making an orange wine before the category was even invented in Ontario (above photo) and made a hard push for VQA to include it as a category. Many others have joined the fray: Niagara’s Reif, Rosewood, Vineland Estate (on its second iteration), Pearl-Morissette, Big Head, Fielding and, in Prince Edward County, Trail Estate and Lacey, to name a few.

And, you can now add Hidden Bench to the list.

Owner/vigneron Harald Thiel, like Southbrook, has the added benefit of calling its skin-fermented orange wine 100% natural because it uses only estate organic/biodynamic fruit and no sulphur or anything at all is added.

It’s a big step for Hidden Bench, a highly respected winery that prides itself on vineyard-specific, appellation-specific wines made by winemaker Jay Johnston and his crew that express precisely where the grapes are grown.

Thiel’s first orange wine is made under a separate brand called Rachis & Derma, loosely translated to skin and bones, and is 100% Chardonnay from the estate’s Beamsville Bench vineyards. See video below of Thiel explaining his orange wine.

It is completely unfiltered, unfined with nothing added, no sulphur and raw, raw, raw. It spent 46 days on the skins and picked up a rich tangerine/amber (and cloudy) hue in the glass.

“I wanted to have some fun,” Thiel told me during a tasting of that wine and others recently. “I wanted to try something that’s new and different.” 

Toronto somms pretty much bought the entire small production when word got out.  The only way to order bottles of this wine is to email and request an order form.

It should be noted, the second wine in the series will be a red wine, a blend of Malbec and Pinot Noir, which will also be 100% natural.

Here’s my review, plus some new releases coming up from Hidden Bench, including the estate’s first Blanc de Blancs and 100% Malbec. All wines are from estate certified organic/biodynamic fruit from the Beamsville Bench.

Rachis & Derma Skin Fermented White Chardonnay 2017 ($35, 91 points) — The colour is a murky tangerine/marmalade in the glass — like a sensational sunset on hot and hazy summer evening in Muskoka. The nose shows citrus rind, marmalade, mature stone fruits and some earthy notes. There is weight on the palate and texture with pulpy grapefruit and blood orange, earth, citrus zest, tannins and rousing acidity that Thiel says would work well with a roast chicken or a heavier fish. It’s best to drink up these orange wines, they generally aren’t made to cellar.

Hidden Bench Blanc de Blanc Zero Dosage 2013 ($48, 93 points) — This is the first 100% traditionally-made Chardonnay sparkler made at Hidden Bench, a sister wine to the Chard/Pinot sparkler called Natur (also zero dosage). The wine spends 7 months in oak barrels and 47 months on the lees in bottle before disgorging this past July. This is a zero dosage sparkler, so no back sweetening. It has a gorgeous nose of brioche, green apple, toasted vanilla, cream, citrus and almonds all flowing from a fine bubble in the glass. It’s texturally beautiful on the palate with razor sharp acidity that yields crisp citrus and apple fruits that all framed by toasty/nutty/creamy/baked bread accents through a perfectly dry, lively and elegant finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2016 ($40, re-reviewed, 92 points) — The blend is 94% Sauvignon Blanc and 6% Semillon aged in 100% French oak, 13% new barrels, 13% second fill and the rest neutral for 9 months. This is the second time tasting this wine. Such distinctive flint and smoke on the nose of this Rosomel-bred blend, then the apple, pear, herbs and spice follow. It’s a riper, more powerful style of Nuit Blanche due to the warm vintage, but maintains complexity, texture and signature minerality while supporting more overt apple, citrus, herbs and spice flavours through a finish supported by medium+ acidity.

Notes from original review in July:

What a gorgeous wine with an expressive nose of apple blossoms, beeswax, pear with subtle herbs, spice and flinty minerality. It’s rich and textured on the palate with a range of flavours including pear, bin apple, grapefruit, herbs, spice and minerals that remain gorgeously fresh through the finish. Fantastic job here.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($39, 92 points) — This is crafted with a complicated French oak barrel regiment of 8% new, 70% 2nd fill, 23% 3rd fill and the rest neutral for the first 9 months; racked to 17% new, 50% second fill and the rest 3rd fill and neutral oak for a further 5 months. Got it? The result is this beautifully nuanced Chardonnay with a range of baked apple, lemon, creamy pear, stony minerality and such wonderful elegant barrel spice notes on the nose. It’s rich yet finessed on the palate with all those lovely apple/pear/citrus flavours melded to rousing barrel spices, minerality and mouth-watering acidity.

Hidden Bench Malbec 2016 ($39, available January, 91 points) — This is the first bottling of Malbec from Hidden Bench, which farms a few acres of this grape and found the ideal warm conditions of 2016 conducive to a single varietal bottling. Like all reds at Hidden Bench, it’s bottled without filtering or fining and aged in primarily older oak barrels. The nose shows an interesting profile of plums, red fruits, tobacco, leather, savoury blackberries and licorice. It has firm structure on the palate, fine-grained and grippy tannins, a complex array of red and dark fruits, interesting spice and cedar notes with a juicy finish.

I also retasted both the Terroir Cache 2015 and Estate Pinot Noir 2016 at this tasting. Both wines garnered the exact scores given in July. I’ve tweaked both reviews with notes from the current tasting.

Hidden Bench Terroir Cache 2015 ($45, November release, 91 points) — This blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the three estate vineyards is aged in 100% French oak (25% new) for 20 months and is bottled unfined and unfiltered. Such richness and depth on the nose, with layers of plums, raspberries, cherries, cassis, black currants and peppery spice. This is a well-structured red on the palate with fine-grained tannins and a rich broth of primarily darker fruits, some savoury accents and elegant wood spice notes. Age 5+ years.

Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($32, Vintages Essential, 90 points) — This Estate Series Pinot is a blend of all three vineyards and is aged in 100% French oak (27% new) and bottled unfined and unfiltered. The warmth of the vintage has provided generous aromas of raspberry bramble, cran-cherry, minerals and spice. It’s silky smooth on the palate with some tannic structure and gushes red berries and integrated spice notes that are somewhat balanced by the minerals and acidity of all fine Beamsville Bench wines. Can drink now or cellar up to 3 years.