NewsNiagara Wine ReviewsTop Stories

Terroir hunter Thomas Bachelder’s Gamayzing adventure in Niagara

By Rick VanSickle

These are still early days into winemaker Thomas Bachelder’s exploration and dissertation of the grape made famous in the granite rich vineyards of Beaujolais.

But terroir-driven Niagara Gamay Noir now has his full attention, and it is fascinating to watch him drill down through the prized vineyards where he has found magic from one of end of the region to the other. It’s very simple for Bachelder, who, by the way, is anything BUT simple: “I’m trying to reveal terroir, not win points.”

Niagara wine
Illustration by Shelley Szczucki.

What he means by that statement is that there is no point in chasing the cru Beaujolais style. Yes, one can look to techniques that work there but the soil in the vineyards, that granite, just doesn’t exist in Niagara. Bachelder wants you to not only drink cru Beaujolais but also villages level Beaujolais (where granite plays no role). And, more importantly, come to appreciate what Niagara winemakers are accomplishing from the quality Gamay vineyards in Niagara and the techniques employed here. They are killing it, and it seems to reach a new level with each vintage that passes.

Bachelder freely admits he is just beginning his pilgrimage on the road to Gamay. “Sure, Mary (Delaney-Bachelder, partner and wife) and I have made terroir Pinot for much of our adult lives, but we have also fully embraced Gamay Noir,” he says. “We don’t know exactly where these wines are going … we have to lead them on their way, but, like you, we are here for the shared journey, the journey of these children of Gamay, of our children of Niagara.”

He points out that no one wants to make Gamay in their own country while constantly referring to Beaujolais. “But Beaujolais came first, and, as such merits some serious consideration when your heart finds that it turns toward Gamay Noir,” he adds.

You can’t replicate it; you can only learn from it and make expressions that reflect where you grow the grapes. And all of that takes time, trial and error and patience.

So, welcome to Bachelder’s continuing quest to make Niagara’s most profound Gamay Noir. In this report, wine writer Tony Aspler and I tasted the full portfolio from the spring La Violette release (named after Thomas and Mary’s daughter and released on her birthday last Friday) that includes eight different Gamays — one is a Villages, one is a Gamay-Pinot Noir blend done in the Passetoutgrain-style and the others are all single-vineyard expressions from the Bench and Niagara-on-the-Lake, plus two Villages Chardonnays (one from Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyards, the other from the Bench) and the Villages Pinot Noir. They are all from the 2020 vintage.

A general note on Bachelder wines

Illustrations on the “Villages” wines showing the terroir where the grapes are grown now appear on the Bachelder labels.

All wines made at Bachelder are from local terroirs, using wild (indigenous) yeasts, and grapes from older vineyard parcels when possible. Low-impact viticulture – especially organics – is preferred wherever possible. Everything goes to barrels for long aging and development – barrels carefully chosen for their “transparency” and ability to help express terroir. Most of the Gamays use only neutral French oak while the Village Chardonnays and Pinot see only 15% new oak.

“The intent is to make pure, subtle, 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 delicate silt, clay and dolomitic limestone-laced ancient lakebed terroirs of Niagara,” says Bachelder.

Where to get them

To purchase wines from the La Violette release, go here.

Here’s what I liked:

Les Villages Gamay

Bachelder les Villages Gamay Noir 2020 ($26, 90 points) — Even at this level, Bachelder wants consumers to get a taste of what he commonly refers to as “cru” level Gamay that is carefully curated from his key single vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Bench. The goal is to create an expression of the terroir from all of Niagara that combines “the deep ripe fruit and silky tannins of Niagara-on-the-Lake with the delicate perfume and limestone angularity of the best Bench vineyard fruit,” he says. The 2020 vintage brings a richness and plumpness to the fruit, and it shows on the nose here with a ripe and succulent array of cherry-raspberry berries, plums, subtle spice notes, earth and bramble. Those ripe red fruits are tempered somewhat by vibrant acidity giving lift to red berries and plums with added earthiness and savoury notes. Can cellar 3+ years. It’s sourced from Wismer-Foxcroft. Bai Xu, Bator, and Willms vineyards. The label on all the Villages wines in 2020 have an illustration by Shelley Szczucki that shows the appellations where the grapes are sourced.

A trilogy from the Bator Vineyard

Bator is the only vineyard Bachelder has access to that has all three of the Burgundian varieties currently in the portfolio (Gamay Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). The vineyard is not far from Virgil, near Old Town in NOTL, and is on the western side of the Four Mile Creek sub appellation. “I discovered this vineyard in the first wave of the pandemic, (while) having my first restaurant meal in months,” says Bachelder. “While out delivering wine to customers, I stopped for lunch in Old Town on a warm March day on the Treadwell terrace. The Bator Gamay Noir was on the wine by the glass program, at that time made by The Fourth Wall project (from Joel Wilcox). I fell in love with the raw intensity of the wine, determined that Fourth Wall was no longer using the fruit, approached the Bator family, and, voilà!”

The following wines are all aged for 16 months in older (neutral) Burgundian oak barrels.

Bachelder 2020 Bator “P.T.L.G. (Passez Toutes les Grappes) Gamay Noir-Pinot Noir 2020 ($29, 91 points) — This is a blend of two-thirds Gamay Noir and the rest Pinot Noir from the Bator Vineyard made in the Passetoutgrain-style. The Pinot adds a prettiness you don’t often get with Gamay with a nose of lifted rose petals, earthy red berries, a touch of cassis and savoury notes. It’s quite juicy on the palate with wild raspberries, dark cherries, light tannins, and a vibrant finish.

Bachelder Bator Vineyard 100% Destemmed Gamay Noir 2020 ($29, 91 points) — This Bator Vineryard Gamay Noir was completely destemmed at harvest (as in a classic Pinot Noir fermentation). Destemming the clusters offers up a finer wine, less Gamay, less exuberant and slightly more finely tannic, maintains Bachelder. “However, it is noble and fine and works very well at the table.” It has quite a savoury nose of earthy and brambly wild raspberries and subtle darker fruits of anise and cassis. It’s pure and enticing on the palate with dark cherries, field raspberries, anise, subtle spice notes and a smooth, lifted finish.

Bachelder Bator Vineyard 13% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2020 ($29, 92 points) — This 13% whole cluster Bator Vineyard Gamay has a lovely nose that is quite different from the other Gamays in the series, with deeper plum notes, pure red berries and dark cherries on top followed by more subtle earthy/savoury notes. There are some grippy tannins on the palate and more complexity with juicy raspberries and cherries, fine texture, and a harmonious feel on the lifted finish. Quite nice and plenty of room to cellar 5+ years.

The other NOTL Gamays

Bachelder Willms Vineyard les Naturistes 55% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2020 ($29, 92 points) — Says Bachelder: “Les Naturistes is out there naked, because we never push it to be something it isn’t, we never over-extract, we just let it be.” The nose reminds me of that first raspberry pick of the year that we get here in Niagara, and the smell that wafts from roadside fruit stands. That and some subtle red flowers and savoury/earthy/meaty accents. There is some complexity on the palate and some tannic grip to go with all that pure raspberry goodness and complementing meaty/savoury notes on a lifted finish. Can cellar 3-5 years.

Bachelder Bai Xu 32% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2020 ($29, 93 points) — The Bai Xu Gamay hails from the oldest vines Bachelder works with, planted in 1981 on Line Three in NOTL. This has such a beautiful nose of dark cherries, anise, tree resin, brambly wild raspberries, plums, and integrated spice notes. It has lovely mouth feel and pure elegance on the palate with an enticing mix of red and dark berries, earthy/savoury notes, fine-grained tannins, and structure with a long and finessed finish. Can you push this for five years in the cellar? I believe you can.

Something about Bench terroir

“What is it about the soil here, on the Vineland Bench, that makes for wine with such a distinctive mineral tang — in both red and white Burgundian grapes,” asks Bachelder. The Wismer-Foxcroft Gamay vineyard is found just below (north) of where Bachelder sources his famed Chardonnay blocks. It is on a good incline, a stony-silty clay site laced with magnesium oxide and limestone site.

The majority of vineyards here are planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and, in this case, Gamay Noir. Bachelder believes that the magic of these vineyards comes from the ancient, ex-marine soils, forming what says could be called “Niagara’s Grand Cru strip.” The reddish-brown soils of the lower Vineland bench bring an “iron-tinged, rusty wildness in our Foxcroft Gamay Noir cuvées, and also brings those same terroir markers into the sub-app’s fine, scented, and nuanced Pinot Noir parcels.”

Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft 52% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2020 ($32, 94 points) — This wine, vinified with 52% whole grape clusters, is so beautiful, so soulful that it stands on the doorstep of defining what Gamay can be in Niagara. There are a handful of Gamays made in the region that approach this greatness and there are more to come, which is why so many are excited about the future of this grape. The dark cherries, field raspberries and plums are persistent on the nose and joined by irony/bloody minerality, fresh turned earth and some integrated spice notes. The abundance of red berries dance lightly on the palate and shows complexity and structure with complementing anise, earth, polished tannins and spice that all work in perfect harmony through a long, joyous and lifted finish. A really fine Gamay that will improve 5+ years.

Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft 33% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2020 ($32, 93 points) — Bachelder feels this wine, vinified with 33% whole grape clusters, is the finer, more closed, and more structured (for ageability) of the two Foxcroft “crus.” If ever there was proof that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he says, “the polemic over Foxcroft 52% Whole Cluster vs. Foxcroft 33% Whole Cluster is undoubtedly just that. It is perhaps more elegant on the nose than the 52% version with integrated fruit, pretty red berries, lifted floral notes, some subtle meatiness and savoury accents. I found this to be the more immediately accessible of the two out of the gate with a basket of rich raspberries, dark cherries, plums, and savoury/meaty notes that all lead to a long, juicy finish. Cellar 5+ years.

The 2020 les Villages
Chardonnays and Pinot Noir

Along with the full lineup of Gamays released by Bachelder each spring, the first of the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are available for purchase. New for 2020 is a pair of “Villages” Chardonnays that offer a broad taste of terroir between Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Bench made by the same producer, using the same techniques and cellaring. All the Villages wines spend 16 months in French oak, 15% of which is new.

Bachelder les Villages NOTL Chardonnay 2020 ($35, 91 points) — The Willms, Bator, Bai Xu and Patte Rouge (yes, Red Paw of Coyote’s Run fame) vineyard parcels make up this blend from the warm 2020 vintage. It immediately shows off the vintage with a ripe and overt nose of ripe peach, pear, spices, and a lifted perfumy note going on. All that ripeness carries to the palate with a concentrated array of plump stone fruits, integrated spice notes, touch of honey and vanilla toast and enough juicy acidity to keep it fresh and lively. Can cellar 3+ years.

Bachelder les Villages Bench Chardonnay 2020 ($35, 92 points) — You can decide for yourself, but Bachelder begs the question: “How does one recognize a Chardo from the Bench? You can small the effortless minerality in this wine peeking through the fruit before ever tasting a drop.” The fruit is sourced from parcels of Saunders, Wingfield Ouest and Est and Foxcroft Sud and Nord. There is definitely more ripeness and concentration on the nose than in previous vintages, but it is tempered by beautiful salinity and crushed oyster shells to go with ripe pear, lemon blossoms, elegant oak and yellow apples. It’s no doubt fleshy and plump on the palate with stone fruits, toasted creamy vanilla and spice, but there is some freshness from the acidity and saline minerality through the lifted finish. Cellar 3+ years.

Bachelder les Villages Bench Pinot Noir 2020 ($35, 92 points) — The fruit for this Villages level Pinot is sourced from 100% Bench vineyards on the escarpment in Vineland and Beamsville, including Hanck, Wismer-Parke, Wismer-Parke Wild West End, Saunders and Spencer-Morgan (John Howard’s Megalomaniac Vineyard). Such a gorgeously ripe nose of black raspberries, generous black cherries, violets, cassis, and elegant spice notes. It has a voluptuous feel on the palate, with weight and girth showing cherry-kirsch, juicy wild raspberries, complementing oak spices and ripe tannins through a velvety smooth and long finish. A consumer-friendly Pinot that will gain a lot of fans at this price. You can cellar this but drinking fine right now.