By Rick VanSickle
A year ago, almost to the day, I had a selection of Thomas Bachelder’s Gamay Noirs in front of me and there he was staring back via FaceTime for the first tasting during the COVID-19 pandemic and an uncertain future.
It was a bit surreal during the initial total lockdown (thanks, Capt. Obvious). With cases and deaths escalating at an alarming pace, we carried on via FaceTime not knowing what the next days, weeks and months had in store. We could never imagine the staggering toll the virus would take on the world, on us, on our families and friends. Many Zoom, FaceTime, and IG tastings would follow and they became de rigueur, a necessary technical tool if winemakers wanted to expose their wines to consumers.
In the year that followed, the loosening of COVID restrictions meant tastings — masked and following strict protocols — were back on periodically and then as cases spiked, we were all back on lockdown. It was frustrating and chaotic — tastings have been forever changed and likely will never return to what we used to take for granted, carefree one-on-one tastings in tight quarters.
But here we were, me along with Bachelder and wine writer Tony Aspler, inside the “Bat Cave” on the Beamsville Bench during yet another change in protocols for who knows how long this time. All three of us, of course, wore masks (I was not crazy about the Les Habs mask Bachelder was wearing) in between tasting and we all moved cautiously around the large table where the bottles, glasses and charcuterie resided.
Bachelder’s spring “La Violette” release is coming up Friday, and those wanting to purchase the wines should get on the mailing list. A lot of these wines sell out quickly. Go here for full details.
This is the third year these twice annual releases have taken place since the Bachelder project was granted a retail licence, and the Violette consists mainly of his growing selection of what he calls “Cru” Gamay Noirs — now totaling five different bottlings — and Villages Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all from the 2019 vintage.
Bachelder has gone all-in on serious Gamays — only Malivoire has more bottlings in Niagara of this increasingly popular variety — and continues his quest to find terroirs in Niagara that best express this versatile grape. New to the portfolio, to go with a pair of different Wismer-Foxcroft Gamays and Willms, is a bottling called “Bai Xu,” which is a vineyard owned by Jackson Bai and his family. The vineyard is located close to two major bodies of water, some 5 km from lake Ontario, and about 4 km from the Niagara River. The Gamay is from old vines, planted around 1981 with unknown clones. The soil is a mixture of loamy clay with some silt, sand and limestone, typical of the Four-Mile Creek sub-appellation. Bai Xu is quite near its neighbour, the Willms Vineyard, with which it shares a similar terroir.
Bachelder’s goal with all his wines, from “Villages” level to his “Crus” is “to make pure, mineral wines, elegantly-respectful of their individual terroirs.”
All the wines are made using wild (indigenous) yeasts, organic vineyards wherever possible. All the wines go to barrel for long élévage. “However, the intent is not to make wines that taste of oak, but pure, suavely-textured wines that sing lightly and clearly of their vineyard origins with as little makeup as possible – wines that are finely-perfumed and tightly-wound, offering the classic refined fruit and textured minerality of the best terroirs of the delicate silt, clay and dolomitic limestone-laced ancient lakebeds and Escarpment bench sites of Niagara,” says Bachelder. “I’m more about terroir than technique.”
Here’s what to expect from the La Violette (named after Bachelder and his wife and business partner Mary Delaney-Bachelder’s daughter) release Friday.
The Gamay Noirs
Bachelder Les Villages Gamay Noir 2019 ($25, 90 points) — The “Villages” Gamay is a reserve- level blend fermented with 28% whole clusters blended from different “Cru” vineyards — Bai Xu, Willms and Wismer-Foxcroft. All the fruit was fermented with wild yeast and the resulting young wine is aged for 16 months in all-neutral barrels. This is a fairly substantive blend that sits somewhere in the middle of the two Four-Mile Creek Gamays and the two Twenty Mile Bench versions in terms of weight. The nose has an earthy/plummy entry with brambly raspberries, cassis, plums and savoury/meaty notes with subtle spice. The red savoury red berries shine on the palate with more tart red fruits, density, earth and integrated spice notes through a lifted and smooth finish.
Bachelder Willms Les Naturistes Gamay Noir 2019 ($28, 93 points) — This “Cru” level Gamay is sourced from Willms Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake (Four-Mile Creek) owned and farmed by Erv and Esther Willms and their children Rebecca and Eric. The Gamay is from old vines planted in 1983 with the soil consisting of silt, loamy-clay, gravel, limestone and sand. The name “Les Naturistes” refers to the stripped down way it is made, says Bachelder. “It wears no make-up — we feel no need to push these old vines to try to extract more colour and flavour.” This was my favourite Gamay in the lineup, but I know some fans of the #GoGamayGo movement might gravitate to the more weighty, age-worthy Bench examples. This, for me, is Gamay in its finest and rawest form. It’s lighter in colour in the glass, with a pretty nose of bright cherries, brambly raspberries, forest berries, subtle plummy notes and a profound vein of minerality that offers lovely perfumed accents. It’s pretty and poised on the palate and reveals the full spectrum of red berries in a focused style that seems perfectly balanced between the fruity and earthy/savoury/spicy notes with crushed stone minerality, juicy acidity and length through a long, plush finish. It’s the kind of Gamay that disappears quickly once you pop that cork. Can cellar a couple of years but attractive right now.
Bachelder Bai Xu Gamay Noir 2019 ($28, 92 points) — The new kid on the Bachelder block, the Bai Xu Vineyard is quite near its neighbour, the Willms Vineyard, with which it shares a similar terroir. That being said, there are profound differences. This version has more complexity and depth with a nose of dark cherries, licorice/anise, deep minerality, brambly/savoury notes with alluring meatiness and spice. Though not as rich and dark as the two Bench Gamays, this does offer a more substantive sip than the Willms on the palate with savoury red berries, earthy/meaty notes, plums, soft tannins, spice and minerals with length and pizzazz through the finish. Could cellar 3+ years.
Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft Gamay Noir 22% Whole Cluster 2019 ($28, 91 points) — Moving up to the Twenty Mile Bench and the original site for the estate’s first Gamay, “the one that made us think of making an ageable Cru,” says Bachelder, this Wismer-Foxcroft bottling is fermented with 22% whole clusters compared to the version below, which is 52% whole cluster. Now, I know what you are thinking. What kind of person thinks there is any kind of difference between 22% whole cluster and 52%? You’d be surprised, and as Bachelder explains, the more grapes that are whole cluster fermented, the more “buxom” the wine becomes. Surprisingly, for me at least, both the Twenty Mile Bench Gamays are already more dense, richly coloured and showing more grip than the prettier NOTL versions. What you will enjoy most will depend on those stylistic differences. The Wismer-Foxcroft Gamay Noir vineyard is located on the first rise of the bench off of Highway 8, from the magnesium and limestone-laced, glacier-derived soils on the lower northern slope. With a fair proportion of clay and silt, it is the part of the Gamay plantation with the most shallow soils and the highest elevation, making ageable Gamay from nearly 30-year-old vines. The nose shows a gamy/meaty profile with savoury dark berries, plums, crushed stones and lavender with a bloody/rusty/irony/reductive thing going on. It turns to a much more fruit-focused Gamay on the palate with dark cherries, cassis and then savoury herbs, gamy/meaty notes, fine oak spice and a long, plush finish. Can age 4+ years.
Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft 52% Whole-Cluster Gamay Noir ($28, 92 points) — Take everything the 22% whole cluster version above gives and amp it up a notch or two, that’s what you get here: more game, more meat, more dense fruit, more grip, more underbrush and a mélange of forest berries, dark cherries and plum preserve with a spicy bite. This has fairly firm structure on the palate, evident tannins, a subtle reductive note, gravelly minerality and a basket of ripe/tart red berries and plums with a meaty/savouy edge on a spicy, lifted finish. Fascinating exploration of what Bachelder likes to call Niagara “Cru” Gamey. Can cellar 5+ years.
The Pinot Noir
Bachelder Les Villages Pinot Noir 2019 ($35, 91 points) — The Villages Pinot is made from Bench fruit from the single-vineyard sites Bachelder sources in Vineland, Beamsville and St. Davids. It’s more of a reserve-level blend fermented in small lots with wild yeast, gently extracted by the techniques of rémontage and hand punch downs. It sees 16 months in mostly neutral Burgundian oak barrels that are 1 to 5 years old. It has such a personable nose of savoury wild raspberries, dark cherries, cassis and a floral note with added earthiness and elegant spice notes. The fruit rises to the top on the palate with a basket of red berries, forest berries, elegant spice, silky tannins and a clean, polished finish with juicy acidity. A fairly complex and layered Pinot for a “Villages” level wine. Can cellar 3+ years.
Bachelder Les Villages Chardonnay 2019 ($35, 92 points) — This “Villages” Chardonnay bottling is a small-production lot drawn from a handful of the estate’s best single-vineyard barrels from Bench fruit in Grimsby, Beamsville and Vineland as well as Four-Mile Creek. It’s a low intervention, barrel-fermented wine made the same way as all single-vineyard wines at Bachelder. The parts were fermented bone-dry using indigenous yeasts in mostly-neutral barrels with just 2- to 5-year-old Burgundian oak barrels, and given a long 16-month élévage without bâtonnage. For an “entry” level wine into the Bachelder portfolio, there’s a lot of wine here. The nose is profoundly soaked in chalky/saline minerality with perfumed pear, apple and light, elegant spicy/creamy notes. It turns a bit more creamy and rich on the palate with dense, caressing orchard fruits, quince, a touch of lemon zest and a chalky mineral feel on a lifted and bright finish with well integrated spice notes. Gorgeous Chard that is good to drink now or save for a few years.