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So, what’s new at Niagara’s Hidden Bench winery? Funny you should ask … #GoGamayGo

By Rick VanSickle

Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel is meticulous and disciplined with everything he has accomplished at his Beamsville Bench estate, but keeping a secret for seven years in Niagara? That’s just epic.

It can now be revealed: After contracting a vineyard in the Lincoln-Lakeshore appellation in 2013, and planting the first crop in 2016, Hidden Bench Estate Winery has joined the growing #GoGamayGo fan club and is releasing not one, but two certified organic Gamay Noirs, in September.

The first offering will be bottled under the Hidden Bench label and is crafted in a “cru” style by winemaker Jay Johnston, the second Gamay is being released under the natural series label called Rachis & Derma, loosely translated to skin and bones, and made in a more reductive style that’s unfined, unfiltered and sees nothing added but a tiny bit of sulphur at bottling. Both single-vineyard wines are being released on Sept. 1 but Hidden Bench is accepting pre-orders on the Gamays as well as the 2019 Rachis & Derma skin fermented Chardonnay. Wines In Niagara had a preview of all three wines, none of which had been bottled when tasted recently.

Niagara wine
When the tasting room opens at Hidden Bench, parties of four will be separated by plexiglass, as demonstrated by Harald Thiel
At our tasting recently, winemaker Jay Johnston tasted at a safe distance from our table, which was divided by a plexiglass partition.

Hidden Bench, like all wineries in Niagara, is preparing to open for tastings. Thiel has designed safe protocols for guests when the time is right to open up that include limits on guests (maximum four people per table, 12 in total in the tasting room, by appointment), plexiglass dividers between groups and wines by the glass on the patio with social distancing protocols. Thiel is reopening in stages: Curbside and online now, retail store with no tastings next and inside tastings and opening the patio the final step on the road to the new normal.

A recent tasting with Thiel and Johnston was an exercise in social distancing and awareness of each other’s health and wellbeing. Thiel and I were at one large table with a plexiglass divider between us while Johnston was at a separate table. Thiel poured the wines while observing proper distancing. The whole process was seamless and not obtrusive at all.

How to get the wines: Hidden Bench Winery is currently closed for walk-in traffic, but open daily 11am to 4pm for curbside pickup. The online store is always open, all orders of 6 bottles or more includes free shipping. Go here 

Here’s what I liked from the tasting:

Rachis & Derma Wines

Rachis & Derma Skin Fermented Chardonnay 2019 ($35, Sept. 1 release but taking pre-orders, 90 points) — This natural estate and certified organic Chardonnay spent 45 days on the skins and is finished with no fining, no filtration and no added sulphur. “For us, it’s just grape juice in a bottle,” says Thiel, “a true natural wine.” The colour is a cloudy sunset orange with a funky nose of bright citrus, marmalade, beeswax, tangerine and some earthy notes. It has wonderful texture and some tannic structure with pulpy citrus and blood orange, earth, lemon pith and rousing acidity. Thiel says the prefect food pairing is smoked salmon.

Rachis & Derma Gamay Noir 2019 ($35, 300 six-packs released Sept. 1 but taking pre-orders now, 93 points) — As mentioned above, from an organic vineyard planted by Hidden Bench in the Lincoln-Lakeshore sub-app in 2016 and made in a natural style with only a touch of sulphur added at bottling. You want this, Gamay lovers! It has such an interesting and inviting nose of savoury/earthy plums, dark cherries, bramble and subtle reductive notes. It’s complex on the palate with texture and subtle tannins to go with cherries, raspberries, plums and earthy/savoury notes on a vibrant finish that shows an underlying vein of gaminess/reduction that is so rustic and appealing.

The Rosés

Hidden Bench Nocturn Rosé ($22, winery now, 91 points) — This is the bolder of the two rosés (seen on the right in the photo above) made at the estate from 98% Pinot Noir and rest Merlot and crafted in the saignée method. “These are rosés made with intention, not an afterthought,” Thiel says. It shows an onion-skin colour in the glass with a fragrant nose of brambly raspberries, ripe cherries, cranberries and savoury notes. It’s juicy on the palate but quite dry with concentrated red berries, red currants and a vibrant finish.

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2019 ($25, winery now, Vintages June 26, 92 points) — This single-vineyard sister rosé is crafted from 100% Pinot Noir and made from a combination of saignée and direct to press techniques. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass and has a pretty nose of red berries, pink grapefruit and herbs. It’s juicy, but bone dry, with lovely texture that showcases raspberries, strawberries, integrated herbs and electric acidity on the finish. Really nice rosé.

The Sparkling

Hidden Bench Blanc de Blanc Zero Dosage 2014 ($48, winery, 93 points) — This is the second release of this traditionally-made 100% Chardonnay sparkler crafted 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 48 months on the lees in bottle before disgorging. It has a gorgeous nose of brioche, green apple, toasted vanilla, cream, lemon biscuit, flinty notes and almonds all flowing from a fine, persistent bubble in the glass. It’s texturally beautiful on the palate with razor sharp acidity that yields crisp citrus and apple that’s all framed by toasty and creamy notes leading to a finessed and long finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

The Whites

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2018 ($25, Sept. 1 release, 91 points) — This is a blend of estate fruit from Locust Lane, Felseck and Rosomel vineyards and finished at a pleasant 10% abv. It has a lovely perfumed nose of lime, grapefruit, crushed stones, lemon and apricot. It’s pure and minerally driving on the palate with pristine citrus fruits, apricot, honey and electric acidity on a clean finish. Can cellar 7+ years.

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2018 ($30, winery, 92 points) — This version of the fumé is a blend of 97% Sauvignon Blanc and only 3% Semillon with 33% of the fruit aged in concrete egg, 63% in French oak (a combination of new, 2nd fill and neutral). It has a nose of grapefruit, peach, pear, lemon blossoms and underlying elegant spice notes. The fruits are ample on the palate with pear, grapefruit, kiwi and lemon coming to the fore with integrated vanilla, minerals and spice swirling in the background.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2018 ($30, Sept. 1 release, 93 points) — Maybe the best Chardonnay at this level made to date at Hidden Bench and hard to imagine a better Chard at this price point in Niagara. This three-vineyard blend is aged in a combination of concrete egg and French oak for nine months and has a beautiful nose of pear, lemon zest, vanilla toast, and elegant spice notes. It’s rich and broad on the palate with a range of stone fruits, citrus zest, vanilla bean, minerals and spice through a clean, fresh finish. Simply, a delicious example of Niagara Bench Chardonnay.

The Reds

Hidden Bench Gamay Noir 2019 ($25, Sept. 1 release, 92 points) — This first Gamay from an organic vineyard planted in 2016 in Lincoln-Lakeshore by Hidden Bench fits nicely into the estate’s portfolio of Niagara terroir-driven wines. This has a lovely nose of savoury plums, earth, red berries and light spice notes. This is highly crushable on the palate with persistent notes of raspberries, cherries, plums, light tannins, touch of reduction and rousing acidity through a tangy finish. It should be noted, this was tasted unbottled from samples and needs to be revisited prior to the release in September.

Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($58, winery, 93 points) — Both Thiel and Johnston agree that 2017 was a “fantastic” vintage for Pinot Noir in Niagara. This organic, single-vineyard Pinot was 100% destemmed, aged in French oak (some new, but mostly older barrels) for 10 months and bottled unfined and unfiltered. It’s simply gorgeous with a persistent and garrigue nose of savoury red berries, bramble, violets, minerals and spice. The fine-grained tannins on the palate bring elegance to the raspberries, cherries, cranberries and subtle cassis fruits that meld with meaty/earthy/spicy accents and minerality through a long, smooth and finessed finish. A long life ahead for this top Pinot from Hidden Bench. Bravo!

Hidden Bench La Brunante 2016 ($85, winery, 94 points) — The blend for this showpiece Bordeaux-style red, only made in the best vintages, consists of 43% Merlot, 35% Malbec and 22% Cabernet Franc from top blocks in the estate’s three organic vineyards. The oak treatment is 100% French barrels (50% new) for 20 months and is bottled unfined and unfiltered. It is a blockbuster, one of the most structured and complex reds from the warm 2016 I have tasted, and one that will cellar for 10-15 years or more and will keep developing. It shows a dark purple colour in the glass with an intense nose of blackberries, black cherries, cassis, black currants and meaty, smoky, spicy notes. It’s rich, structured and complex on the palate with layers of dark fruits, plums, persistent tannins, sweet oak spice notes, cedar, earth and length through a long, long finish. As mentioned, buy and hold and you will be richly rewarded.