By Rick VanSickle
This quote from Hidden Bench Estate Winery vigneron/proprietor Harald Thiel is everything: “We can’t just sit here and not evolve.”
I love it because it’s absolutely true. You must move forward to actually move forward; you must push the boundaries beyond what you are comfortable with; and you must invest in people, technology, and viticulture, especially at the level of Hidden Bench, a benchmark winery for terroir-driven, estate-grown wines crafted from certified organic grapes using sustainable, non-interventionist winemaking techniques.
Thiel, above, and his team were busy during COVID, constructing a new crush facility and barrel cellar, below, that now includes 60 tonnes of 45hl and 26hl concrete fermenters (seven in total) to add a new dimension to the already stacked lineup at the estate. The concrete tanks are being utilized for some of the estate Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, and unoaked Chardonnay.
“The goal is to make a Chablis style Chardonnay,” said Thiel. During a trip to the Burgundy region a few years ago, Thiel had an epiphany of sorts while visiting top producers. In Chablis they leave their wines on the lees from 18 to 24 months and eschew the use of oak. “If we are going to do this we have to invest,” Thiel said. “I was looking for exceptional results.”
The 2021 vintage will be the first concrete fermented and aged Chardonnay to be released, but it’s a couple of years away. “It (concrete aging) creates beautiful weight on the mid-palate,” said Thiel. For now, concrete has found its way into two or three of the wines reviewed below, including the new Sauvignon Blanc Béton Rosomel Vineyard 2021, a companion for the Fumé Blanc and Nuit Blanche SBs already produced at the estate.
The other big change coming out of COVID for Hidden Bench was winemaker Jay Johnston leaving the estate to join the Tawse team as an assistant winemaker following the death of his close friend, winemaker Paul Pender. Assistant winemaker Alex Baines was quickly elevated to head winemaker at Hidden Bench.
Baines, above, joined Hidden Bench in 2017 after completing the winemaking and viticulture program at Niagara College. Originally from Finchingfield in Essex County, England, he has 10 vintages experience at premium producers in California, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Baines has a keen interest in organic and biodynamic viniculture and above all, the attention to detail required to craft top-notch low-intervention wines.
Baines was named as the recipient for the inaugural Paul Pender Memorial ‘Rising Star’ award at the recent Ontario Wine Awards.
Pender, who died tragically at his cottage last February, was named the Winemaker of the Year at the same awards ceremony. OPP have charged a Hamilton man with second-degree murder in connection with Pender’s death.
Baines worked a harvest at Tawse in 2012 after two years in Australia. “When I arrived at Tawse for harvest, my plan was to be in Ontario for three months and then travel Canada for the rest of my one-year visa,” said Baines. “Quite quickly, after working with Paul and the team, I realized that this job wasn’t just a means to travel but an industry that I wanted to pursue a career in.” Pender suggested the Niagara College program to Baines and wrote a letter of recommendation.
“I learned from Paul how important a sense of place was in winemaking and that the best wines were those that truly transported you to a location, a place in time and made you reflect on what you were doing the year the fruit was harvested,” said Baines. “He really inspired me to follow organic farming practices and terroir-focused winemaking. This philosophy still holds true today and I have focused my career on producers that follow these practices. I am very lucky to have found a home at Hidden Bench.”
I tasted the current Hidden Bench portfolio with Thiel and Baines recently. Here is what I liked.
Hidden Bench only crafts 100% estate grown wines in three series: the Estate Series which are blends of all three estate vineyards, the Terroir Series, which are single vineyard and/or barrel selection, limited production wines, and the Rachis & Derma series which represents the estate’s natural wine offerings. All grapes are biodynamically grown and certified organic and the majority of wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. Wines are now available at the winery unless otherwise noted.
Hidden Bench Natur Zero Dosage 2016 ($42, 93 points) — This “zero dosage” (no sugar added) traditional method sparkling wine spent five years on its lees before being disgorged in January of this year. It’s a blend of 72% Pinot Noir and 28% Chardonnay from the estate vineyards and spends 6 months in 100% French oak, all neutral barriques. It pours an elegant, persistent mousse and has a complex toasty/biscuity/brioche first impression with lemon, grapefruit, pear, raspberry bramble, a touch of flint and toasted almonds with subtle autolytic notes. It has energy and verve on the palate with green apple, lemon curd and pear in a rich and suave style that combines length and elegance through a lifted finish. A fabulous sparkling wine.
Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling Rosomel Vineyard 2018 ($32, 93 points) — The Roman’s Block Riesling from the venerable 40-year-old Rosomel Vineyard planted by Roman Prydatkewycz is consistently among the best Rieslings produced not only in Niagara, but in the entire country. Because of the age of the vines, the yields are only about two tonnes per acre. It’s a minerally-driven Riesling with fresh squeezed lime, wet stones, touch of peach skin and a lovely floral note on the nose. It’s electric on the palate with sharp lime and citrus, chalky/stony notes, a touch of honey and beeswax and a big, juicy, and lifted finish. Such a classy Riesling that will improve for 5+ years in the cellar.
Hidden Bench Felseck Riesling 2018 ($30, 92 points) — The final blend for the Felseck Riesling comes from a small one-acre parcel on the southernmost point of the vineyard, planted in 1999. It’s a touch shier on the nose than the Rosomel but opens up to apple blossoms, zesty lemon and integrated stony minerality. There’s a touch more honey on the palate and fleshier with lemons, peach, minerality and a vibrant, finessed finish. Can also cellar 5+ years.
Hidden Bench Téte de Cuvée Chardonnay 2019 ($48, Sept. 1 release, 94 points) — The Téte de Cuvée is a barrel selection from the three estate vineyards to showcase the Beamsville Bench terroir. As it turns out, the 2019 vintage is all from the Rosomel Vineyard, planted in 1976. The oak regime is 100% French with 17% new, 35% second fill and the balance neutral wood for 14 months. The wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered. It has an intense nose of lemon curd, ripe pear, bergamot, golden apple, creamy notes, flinty minerality and elegant spice. It has weight and richness on the palate with a complex array of pear/quince, flint, lemon zest, a creamy texture, integrated spice notes and a beautifully finessed finish. A showcase Chard for the appellation. Bravo!
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 ($45, September release, 93 points) — The Felseck is made similarly to the Rosomel with just a little more new oak (27%) and is also bottled unfined and unfiltered. It’s a touch more subtle on the nose and more minerally driven with lightly toasted almonds, golden apple, citrus, lemon blossoms, ripe pear, and spice notes. It’s pure elegance on the palate with a rich and creamy entry then baked pear, apple, lovely citrus zest, flinty/toasty notes, beautifully integrated spice, and a long, finessed finish. Very fine Chard.
Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2020 ($32, Vintages Essential, 92 points) — A little different approach for this perennial favourite as a Vintages Essential. It’s a blend of the three estate vineyards and is crafted using a blend of concrete (6.5%), French oak barriques (24% new) and French oak puncheons for nine months. It’s more open knit on the nose than the two Chardonnays above with overt notes of peach, pear, nectarine, lemon zest and spicy apple pie. The spice shines on the palate with ripe stone fruits in a dense and concentrated attack that finds harmony from the racy acidity. It has good length and finesse on the finish. Drinking great right now.
Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2020 ($32, 92 points) — This single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc is aged in 100% French oak (11% new). It has an interesting nose of grapefruit, gooseberries, fresh herbs, star fruit and lovely integrated spice. It’s more concentrated on the palate with a creamy texture in support of the grapefruit, pear, bergamot, herbs, flinty minerality and spice with a solid acid backbone and fresh finish.
Hidden Bench Sauvignon Blanc Béton Rosomel Vineyard 2021 ($28, 93 points) — Here’s a first look at a wine aged in the new concrete tanks purchased by Hidden Bench and a chance to taste a wood aged Sauvignon Blanc beside a concrete version. Aging in concrete was for seven months. An interesting and different nose of grapefruit, pear, some tropical notes, grass, and herbs with flinty minerality. It has gorgeous texture and a rich, deep feel on the palate with ripe pear, grapefruit, subtle spice notes, lime zest and a long, fresh finish. Love it!
Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2021 ($25, Vintages now, 93 points) — The blend for this primarily “direct to press” rosé is 92% Pinot Noir, 5% Viognier and the rest Chardonnay. It has a fresh and saline nose with tart red berries, stone fruits, herbs, and cream. It has lovely texture, dry and vibrant, with tangy red berries, touch of earthy/savoury notes and a perky, lively finish bolstered by mouth-watering acidity.
Hidden Bench Nocturn Rosé 2021 ($25, 91 points) — Nocturn is a saignee style rosé from a blend of 75% Pinot Noir, 11% Merlot, 9% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc that is aged in neutral oak for five months. It shows a brighter pink colour in the glass than the Locust Lane with a meatier nose of ripe raspberries, cherries, and a touch of cassis. It’s bold and rich (for a rosé) on the palate with ripe red berries, citrus zest, and vibrancy on the finish. A perfectly dry and more upfront rosé.
Rachis and Derma Chantilly Rosé 2021 ($30, 90 points) — This fun wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir and is bottled on the lees in the ancestral method (second fermentation in the bottle to give it fizz) and is bone-dry with only a minimal about of sulphur added at bottling. It shows subtle effervescence in the glass and has a tangy nose of brambly red berries, rhubarb pie and watermelon in a clean and refreshing style. It’s laden in red berries on the palate, but super-dry and bursting with flavours through the bright finish. Just a unique and fun sparkling wine.
Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($58, 92 points) — This single-vineyard Pinot is aged in 100% French oak (14% new) for 10 months. It’s bottled unfined and unfiltered. It has a complex and interesting nose of wild raspberries, dark cherries, subtle cassis, baking spices, integrated herbs, earth, and violets. It’s textured and lively on the palate with smooth tannins then sour cherries, cassis, earth/savoury notes, spice, and gorgeous, uplifting finesse on the finish. Will reward with time in the cellar, say 5+ years.
Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 ($48, 93 points) — The oak treatment is similar to the above Pinot and is also bottled unfined and unfiltered. It has an intense nose of earthy red berries, red currants, spice, and subtle earthy/savoury perfume. It has a silky texture and richness on the palate with brambly raspberries, cherry tart, cassis, touch of anise and graphite with a spicy edge and a juicy, finessed finish. Good future ahead for this beauty. Cellar 6+ years.
Rachis and Derma Gamay 2020 ($35, 90 points) — The Rachis & Derma label is reserved for Hidden Bench’s more radical line of natural wines. This Gamay, from a new estate vineyard in the Lincoln-Lakeshore appellation, spends six months in neutral oak and there are no additions of any kind, including sulphur, added to the wine. It has a jammy, super clean nose, with plums, black currants, kirsch, earth, raspberry puree, and pepper notes. The fine tannins add a bit structure to this wine on the palate with notes of raspberry patch, pepper, plums, and currants with a tangy, lifted finish. Thiel puts it succinctly: “It’s pretty %$*& tasty!”
Hidden Bench Gamay Noir 2020 ($30, 92 points) — From the more traditional side of winemaking, this similarly sourced Gamay is aged in French oak (14% new) for nine months. The nose is quite plummy with dark cherries, violets, forest berries and integrated spice notes. It’s juicy and dense on the palate with some structure and tannins that showcase the dark cherries, black raspberries, earthy/savoury notes, and spice on a fresh, finessed finish.
Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2018 ($45, Sept. 1 release, 94 points) — The blend is 46% Merlot, 31% Malbec and 23% Cabernet Franc all sourced from the three estate vineyards on the Beamsville Bench. It’s aged in French oak (38% new) for 20 months. Such an enthralling nose of anise, cassis, blackberries and cherries with dried tobacco, earth, charred cedar, and rich spice notes. It’s smooth but has structure on the palate with super dense wild red berries, tobacco, leather, blackberries, earth, and elegant spice notes all leading to a mouth-watering and lifted finish. Such a beautiful red wine with style and power that will continue to get better for 7+ years in the cellar.