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A Chardonnay that will blow your mind (plus the other terroir-driven wines from Niagara’s Hidden Bench winery)

By Rick VanSickle

Since its founding in 2003, the goal has never wavered at Hidden Bench Estate Winery — to craft terroir-focused, non-interventionist wines solely from certified organic estate vineyards on the Beamsville Bench.

Owner Harald Thiel has always focused on what performs best in the limestone rich, clay based, glacial till soils of Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, which means Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. But there are also limited quantities of the estate’s white meritage blend, Nuit Blanche, the red meritage blends, Terroir Cache and La Brunante (only in extraordinary vintages), two Pinot Noir rosés and two traditional method sparkling wines, Natur and a Blanc de Blanc. Thiel also continues to explore other wines, like his first single-variety Malbec released last year and the edgy Rachis & Derma Skin Fermented Orange wine also released last year.

The three estate vineyards, all located on the Beamsville Bench, yield an annual production of around 120,000 bottles, or 10,000 cases, which makes it a truly boutique winery with one of the smaller productions in Niagara that performs at the highest end of Ontario wineries.

Thiel, winemaker Jay Johnston (both in very top photo tasting) and the entire team strive to make complex and mineral-driven wines with Old World charm from New World terroir.

Niagara wine

Thiel uses the word terroir a lot to describe his sweet spot in the heart of the Beamsville Bench where his three key vineyards — Rosomel (pictured above), Locust Lane and Felseck — frame the portfolio of wines made there. Terroir, says Thiel, refers to the natural environment in which a wine is produced, including soil, topography and climate, and the impact this has on the taste of the wine. “Our estate vineyards benefit from the exceptional terroir that comprises the Beamsville Bench VQA sub-appellation.”

The winery farms its low yield vineyards using certified organic and biodynamic practices “to produce wines of pronounced complexity and character which bear a sense of place and time.”

Hidden Bench believes they are only stewards of the land and, as such, applies certified organic and sustainable best practices in the vineyard, the winery and the marketing of its wines to reduce the impact of the environmental footprint on the land, neighbours, and society as a whole.

Ontario wine

I taste Hidden Bench wines regularly and have witnessed the progress as the vines get older, the wines get more complex, the flavours more concentrated and the pleasure derived by these exquisite wines grows in intensity. Hidden Bench is at the top of its game from what I tasted recently, with another benchmark Chardonnay, the Tète de Cuvée, single-vineyard Rieslings and Pinots (including the rosés) and La Brunante.

I sat down with Thiel and Johnston to taste through the spring releases recently. Here’s what I liked.

The Rieslings

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2017 ($25, 91 points) — A blend of the three estate vineyards, this has an enticing nose of lime, grapefruit, salinity and stony minerality. The fruit is tangy, fresh and mouth filling on the palate with gushing lime-citrus, minerals, a touch of peach and rollicking acidity to carry it through a lively finish.

Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling 2016 ($32, 94 points) — Always a benchmark Riesling in Niagara for me, and while 2016 was a hot vintage, Hidden Bench low-cropped the almost 40-year-old Rosomel Vineyard to 2 tonnes per acre to take only the pristine and ripest bunches. The result is this spectacular wine that in cooler years starts off shy and builds in momentum. This is much more expression from the get-go with a nose of white flowers, stone fruits, citrus, lime, apricot and stirring stony minerality. It’s a beautifully textured wine on the palate with bright green apple, citrus, tangerine, river-rock minerals and such racy acidity on the finish. I would normally suggest cellaring wines from the hotter vintages for near-term drinking, but I feel this will gain more fat and complexity if you let it settle for 5+ years.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2016 ($29, 93 points) — A very close second to the Roman’s Block, in my opinion, with a very different nose of honeysuckle, pear, citrus, lime, grapefruit, saline minerality and a complementing savoury note. It’s fairly rich, textured and complex, with slightly more residual sugar than Roman’s (11.5% vs 10%), on the palate with a basket of citrus, ripe pear and some tropical notes that’s well balanced by the acidity. This is what Riesling is at the highest level of quality in Niagara. Can cellar 5+ years.

The Chardonnays

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2017 ($30, 92 points) — A blend of all three estate vineyards and aged in a mix of French oak barriques and puncheons with no more than 26% new oak. It’s finished unfined and unfiltered. It has a fresh, bright opening note with pear fruit, lemon zest, apricot, toasted oak spices and a hint of marzipan and minerality. It’s a beautifully constructed Chardonnay, rich and finessed with a lemony/minerally profile that adds pear, crisp apple, touch of cream and length through the fresh finish.

Hidden Bench Téte de Cuvée Chardonnay 2015 ($48, 95 points) — I stand by that score, lofty but justified, it is simply one of the best Chardonnays I have tasted from Canada. I can only think of a couple of other wines that I have scored 95 points and this definitely deserves its standing. This top Chardonnay from Hidden Bench is sourced from the best lots from both the Locust Lane and Rosomel Vineyards, all hand-picked, hand-sorted and whole bunch pressed. It’s aged in French oak, only 4% new for the first 9 months, racked to 17% new oak for a further 5 months, then two years in bottle without filtered or fining. It has a highly perfumed nose of rich Bosc pear, tropical pineapple and apricot, ripe apple, lemony accents, subtle oak spices, flinty minerality, hazelnuts and freshness from start to finish. It’s a joyous, enthralling Chardonnay on the palate with a revered sense of place, gracefulness and elegance. It’s layered and complex, with an integrated range of orchard and tropical fruits, hints of lemon, swirling minerality, perfectly balanced spice notes, finesse and a finish that lasts for forever. You want the best? This is it.

The fumé blanc

Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Fume Blanc 2017 ($30, Vintages now, previously reviewed, 93 points) — The estate fruit comes from the famed certified organic Rosomel Vineyard on the Beamsville Bench. The oak regime is 65% French (23% new with the balance neutral) and 35% stainless steel. I have always loved this style of elegantly oaked savvy from Hidden Bench and this is a particularly brilliant effort with a nose of lemon, grapefruit, hay, subtle oak spice and lovely flinty minerality. It shows beautiful balance on the palate with light oak flavours, flint, fresh lemon and lime, salinity, touch of grass and herbs and gorgeous finesse and freshness on the finish.

The rosés

Hidden Bench Nocturn Rosé 2018 ($21, 89 points) — From a blend of estate Pinot Noir with just a touch of Merlot made in the saignée method and fermented in neutral French oak barrels and briefly aged for 5 months. It’s the bolder of the two rosés made at Hidden bench and shows a darker colour. It displays rich cherries, strawberries, wild raspberries and rhubarb on the nose. It has lovely ripe red berries on the palate and made in a perfectly dry and refreshing style. Drink now.

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2018 ($24 and $48 for magnums, 91 points) — Winemaker Johnson explains that this Pinot-base rosé is hand-picked and treated like a white wine with a touch of Viognier added to the blend. It’s made in a combination of saignée method and “direct to press” and is fermented and aged in neutral French oak for 5 months. It’s the paler of the two rosés but impressive colour considering the vintage. Such an expressive nose of crushed red berries and grapefruit with added savoury and floral notes. It has lovely mouth feel with juicy red fruits, citrus and a dry, vibrant finish. Meant to drink now while the weather is gorgeous.

The Pinot Noirs

Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2017 ($32, Vintages Essential, 90 points) — The estate Pinot is a blend of all three Hidden Bench vineyards and is aged in all French oak (no more than 27% new) for 12 months and a further 3-7 months in stainless steel. It’s finished unfiltered and unfined. This is Johnson’s first Pinot made from start to finish. The nose shows brambly raspberries, cherries, savoury/earthy notes and vein of minerality. The palate reveals a core of dark cherries and raspberries with cassis, earth, balanced barrel spice notes, lovely texture and a finessed finish. Great job here at this price point for a Niagara Pinot.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($42, 92 points) — The Felseck is made similarly to the estate Pinot above but with a little less oak. It’s 100% destemmed and bottled unfiltered and unfined. It has a pretty nose of ripe red cherries, brambly raspberries, graphite and lovely barrel spice notes. There is a beautiful seam of minerality on the palate to go with savoury cherry fruit, anise, raspberry, smoke, bramble, polished tannins and a long, finessed finish. Can cellar 6+ years.

Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($58, 93 points) — I don’t know what it is with this elite vineyard, one of the most personable in Niagara, but it seems to always produce some of the region’s most personable wines. This Pinot is no different. It was aged in 100% French oak, no more than 25% new, for 10 months then returned to stainless steel and neutral barrels to finish its journey. It was finished unfiltered and unfined. What a beauty! Such a savoury, floral nose with aromas of black cherries, bramble, forest floor, spice and subtle anise. Such persistence on the palate and lovely texture with rich dark cherries, cranberries, brambly raspberries, integrated spice notes and beautifully finessed through the long, long finish. Cellar 7+ years.

La Brunante

Hidden Bench La Brunante 2015 ($85, 92 points) — La Brunante is Hidden Bench’s top Bordeaux-varietal red wine made only in the top vintages. The estate was able to get a very small crop of super-concentrated berries to produce this blend of 50% Merlot, 26% Malbec, 21% Cabernet Franc and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. It spends 20 months in 100% French oak, only 9% of which is new oak. It’s still a baby at this point, a bit closed, but vigorous swirling reveals a richly appointed nose of blackberries, black currants, dark cherries, leather, spice and cassis. This is a highly structured red on the palate with polished tannins, a complex array of blackberries, cocoa, plums, blackberries, graphite, kirsch, minerals and a long, finessed finish. This will take time to integrate and should deliver pleasure for 10-15 years.