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Bachelder’s cru Gamays are coming (and the story of the Amazing Ponzi Barrel)

By Rick VanSickle

Thomas Bachelder doesn’t cry over spilled Gamay; he just makes a Gamay that has quite the story to tell.

To set the scene, one of my favourite Gamays from Bachelder’s The “La Violette” offering, going live on Tuesday, is a wine called the “Amazing Ponzi Barrel” 2021 sourced from the Bai Xu Vineyard. It became a single-barrel, single-vineyard, Niagara Cru Gamay when a “happy accident” occurred while unloading a stack of four barrels of the Bai Xu.

Niagara wine
In these photos taken by Thomas Bachelder, four barrels of young Bai Xu Gamay Noir 2021 fell from his forklift because of metal fatigue of an aluminium rack. Some were partially saved by siphoning out remaining wine, some were totally lost. One barrel bounced and was balanced on the forks, which I quickly tilted up. It became the Amazing Ponzi survival barrel.

Bachelder was moving the barrels with a forklift truck at the Bat Cave on the Beamsville Bench “when one of the aluminum racks succumbed to metal fatigue and we lost two and a half barrels of precious Bai Xu 2021. However, the ‘Ponzi’ barrel essentially bounced a bit and hung on,” recalls Bachelder. The other three barrels “were left a puddle of a mess.”

The barrel that did not end up “like blood on the tracks (a Dylan-esque reference)” was from Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood, Oregon. As the story goes, Bachelder and his wife Mary Delaney had been in Beaune, Burgundy at school with Luisa Ponzi, and years later, bought an old barrel from the Ponzi winery while they were still making wine in Oregon. “Said barrel eventually ended up in Niagara – still clearly marked Ponzi, Oregon,” Bachelder said.

The four Bai Xu barrels were intended to be a blend of barrels, but Bachelder had to act quickly to save the remaining Ponzi barrel and create a happy accident that “might surprise you,” he said. “Does that magic survival barrel actually taste different than our cuvée of chosen Bai Xu barrels,” asked Bachelder. “Judge for yourself.”

And judge we did; I loved it and found it stood out from many of the other Gamays in this release. That review and all the reviews from the Gamay and Villages Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays 2021 portfolio are in this extensive tasting report.

The La Violette release is the sixth vintage of “dicing and slicing” Gamay Noir from terroirs on both sides of the Welland Canal. Looking back, Bachelder writes in his thorough catalogue for the La Violette release: “We are very happy that we decided to include this noble Burgundian grape variety in our portfolio. With every release of the wines of this terroir-revealing grape, we are struck in a slightly different way how beautifully this terroir grape, this lushly perfumed, mineral, pleasantly acidic, medium-bodied, Burgundian grape variety delivers the varying truths of Niagara’s glacial till terroir. And this vintage 2021 is no exception.”

With the La Violette release, Bachelder is now up to nine different iterations/cuvées of single vineyard “Niagara Cru” Gamay Noirs in 2021, as well as the “Les Villages” blend. Later this year, Bachelder will be releasing slightly different versions of three Gamays in magnum – all aged in 500 L neutral puncheons.

While Gamay’s homeland is in Beaujolais, it’s no longer a secret that this grape has found a comfortable home in Niagara. More and more wineries are making it and many, such as Bachelder and Shiraz Mottiar at Malivoire, are expressing it across different styles and terroirs. “So few places in the cooler parts of the new world even try their hands at this grape, and yet it is so expressive of place,” said Bachelder. “No one else in the world is doing serious Gamay outside of Beaujolais other than Niagara. No one in the whole world,” the winemaker adds.

While Bachelder’s extensive portfolio is focused on vineyard-specific expressions from both sides of the canal in Niagara, he is constantly experimenting in varying the percentage of whole cluster and destemmed berries to better reveal the sense of place of each vineyard.

The rest of the process is low intervention winemaking in micro lots “all in an effort to find the best combination of place/whole cluster/year to deliver … ‘sense of place’ transparency,” Bachelder said.

All Bachelder wines favour the use of wild yeast with minimum sulphur additions months after harvest at completion of malolactic, and long élevage in neutral oak barrels. All the Gamays are aged in a combination of neutral Burgundian 228 L French oak barrels and neutral French oak 500 L puncheons.

Another thing consumers will immediately notice with the 2021 “La Violette” release is the label redesign. As you can see in the above photo, the vineyard takes top billing on the new labels with the name Bachelder in smaller type and the estate’s logo relegated to the back label.

“We wanted to get the vineyards front and centre,” said Bachelder. “So, we leaned into this most agreeable task with the goal of first branding ‘place’ and secondly, sensitizing wine lovers as to its importance. We trust and hope that you will like the European flourish, and artful minimalism of our labels.”

You will find more details of what’s in the bottle in the wings of the label left and right. “Vieilles Vignes,” “Whole Cluster,” “De-stemmed,” etc. will appear there going forward.

And most intriguing, to me at least, is the appearance of “Niagara Cru — Single Vineyard” embossed in gold lettering between the producer’s name and the vineyard’s name on the label. Bachelder insists that Niagara Cru, or the French term lieu-dit, refers to a vineyard-specific location. “What we are doing is using cru as a single vineyard, not affixing any level to it,” said Bachelder. “We’re not pretending it’s a Premier Cru,” he adds, referring to the French system of assigning “levels of quality” to certain iconic vineyards.

While Bachelder supports a hierarchy system for Niagara vineyards in the future, he’s not about to jump the gun “until it’s codified.”

Still … you can’t help but notice a certain Burgundian feel to the new labels, the elevation of place over producer.

In this report, we review the eight single-vineyard Gamays and five “Les Villages,” which includes a Niagara-on-the-Lake and a Bench version of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir “Les Villages” and a Gamay version.

The link for the La Violette release, which also includes various “snack packs” featuring themed Gamay collections, is now live on the Bachelder Wines website here.

Here’s what I liked after tasting last week with Bachelder at the Bat Cave:

The Gamay Noirs, from east to west

Bachelder Les Villages Gamay Noir 2021 ($26, 91 points) — The Villages Gamay is a blend of east and west vineyards including lots from Wismer-Foxcroft, Bai Xu, Bator, Willms and now Wiley, the new terroir in the family on the Short Hills Bench. “It blends the juicy stuff from NOTL with more structure from the Bench,” said Bachelder. It has a lovely floral note on the nose with a melange of juicy red berries, plums, and integrated spice notes. It’s mouth-filling and fruit-laden with smooth tannins, subtle meatiness, black raspberries, dark cherries, anise, spice, and a tangy, bright finish. It’s drinking fine now but can cellar a few years.

A trilogy from the Bator Vineyard

Bator is in the extreme west of the Four-Mile Creek sub-appellation in Niagara-on-the-Lake, not far from the border of St. Catharines. The Bator family bought the 80-acre tender fruit and grape farm back in 1950, and had planted mixed fruit and labrusca grapes, then when Robert Bator met Doris Todd, they bought the farm from his parents in 1980, and planted the vineyard portion to vinifera and some French hybrids.

Bachelder Bator Vineyard Gamay Noir/Pinot Noir 2021 ($30, 90 points) — This blend of two-thirds Gamay and the rest Pinot Noir, was formerly labelled as a PTG (passe tout grains) wine. This easy-drinking Burgundian style blend has lovely earthy notes on the nose that mingle with red berries, cassis and spices. It’s quite bright and lively on the palate with a certain silkiness that combines red cherries and raspberries with anise and savoury/earthy notes on a lifted finish.

Bachelder Bator Vineyard 100% De-stemmed Gamay Noir ($29, 92 points) — This Bator Gamay was completely destemmed at harvest (like a classic Pinot Noir fermentation), and as Bachelder describes, “gives a wine that is finer, perhaps less ‘Gamay,’ less exuberant, and slightly more finely tannic. It’s pretty on the nose, deeply red-fruited, some underlying darker berries, subtle spice, and elegance. It’s juicy and clean on the palate with smooth tannins, ripe raspberries, cherries, and cranberries with a vibrant, lifted finish.

Bachelder Bator Vineyard 20% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir ($29, 92 points) — This 20% Whole Cluster Bator brings “a fatter, juicier mouthfeel with a salty savouriness that comes through angular and chalky, these are the characteristics that first attracted me to the Bator Vineyard,” said Bachelder. It’s more rugged on the nose, more earthy and savoury with brambly raspberries, some darker fruits, plums, and spice. All of that follows to the palate with more structure, depth and complexity than the two other Bators with red and dark berries, anise, savoury spice notes, more evident tannin structure and a long, lifted finish. We tasted another sample that Bachelder decanted, and it rounded out a bit, but I do love a bit of wildness in Gamays at this level. Suggest cellaring a few years to get the best out of this wine.

A Gamay from Willms

Bachelder Willms Vineyard 55% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2021 ($32, 93 points) — The Willms is sourced from Gamay planted in 1983 and 1987. “I’m pretty proud of these stressed out and old vines from Willms,” Bachelder said. “We have learned that we simply cannot push these older Gamay Noir vines to give something they can no longer give. Young, they gave a deep, dark, concentrated, more tannic wine; now, we make sure to never over-extract, we just let it be.” On the nose, this over-achiever straddles the line between red and dark berries, with a touch of reduction, savoury notes, and earthy/spice accents. It’s mouth-filling on the palate with firmer tannins, meaty dark berries, black cherries, bramble, plums, fresh turned soil, complementing savoury notes in a more substantive style that all leads to a vibrant, lifted finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

A duo from the Bai Xu Vineyard

Bachelder Bai Xu Vineyard 32% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2021 ($32, 93 points) — This 32% Whole Cluster Gamay hails from the oldest vines Bachelder works with, planted in 1981 on Line 3 in NOTL. Bachelder said that the Bai Xu soil is more like the limestone soil on the Bench compared to sandy soil generally in NOTL. It has lovely florals on the nose with pure dark cherries, raspberries, and subtle black currants in a chiselled, eleganty spiced style. It’s gorgeous on the palate with just a touch of tannic structure and a broad array of summer red berries, cassis, subtle brambly/earthy notes, integrated spice, and freshening acidity on the finish. Can cellar 5+ years.

Bachelder Amazing Ponzi Barrel 32% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2021 ($35, 94 points) — As Bachelder said in the intro to these reviews, you can be the judge between this Gamay and the one above, both made in exactly the same way other than the single “Ponzi” oak barrel used for this one. I was smitten by the back story and maybe that influenced my tasting notes, I can’t say for sure. Bachelder said this about the Ponzi: “There is a sense of ‘feeling’ that this wine, this barrel, parcel, the whole emotion of working with the terroir of this place (that) is humbling.” Pinpointing the differences, the nose is similar to the above, but the Ponzi showed a bit more cran-cherry on the nose, a touch more elegance, a pinch of reduction and lifted spice notes. It’s mouth-coating on the palate with cherries, raspberries, red currants, subtle anise and herbs, more elegant spice notes, that lovely reductive note, fine-grained tannins, and a pure, long, and lifted finish. A “happy accident” indeed. Cellar 6+ years and watch that elegant Gamay perfume evolve even more.

A Gamay from the Short Hills Bench

Bachelder Wiley Vineyard 100% De-stemmed Gamay Noir 2021 ($29, 92 points) — Moving to the west of the canal comes this first single-vineyard Gamay from the Wiley Vineyard on the Short Hills Bench. It was completely destemmed at harvest (like a classic Pinot Noir fermentation), which Bachelder said gives this wine a “slightly more finely tannic” profile. It shows the full range of brambly red and dark fruits on the nose with defined earthy/savoury notes and flinty minerality and spice. It has some structure, but the fine tannins are integrated and give way to mouth-coating red and dark berries, savoury notes, touch of earth and a tangy, lifted finish. Can cellar this for 7+ years.

The Wismer-Foxcroft Gamay

Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft 33% Whole Cluster Gamay Noir 2021 ($33, 94 points) — What many feel is the finest expression of Bachelder’s Niagara Cru Gamays, and possibly Grand Cru at some point in the future, is vinified with 33% whole grape clusters from fruit sourced on the Twenty Mile Bench — the furthest west of the collection. “We are so happy to work with Wismer-Foxcroft – not least for the contrast it underlines between the Vineland Bench and the beautiful, more lush propositions coming out of the Niagara-on-the-Lake terroir parcels,” said Bachelder. It shows slightly more colour than the other Gamays with a beguiling nose of fresh cherries, red currants, forest berries, plums, subtle reductive notes, an almost iron-y minerality and integrated savoury spice accents. The flavours turn to darker berries on the palate with anise, cassis and plums with a firm and structured tannic backbone, earthy/savoury notes, a certain rustic umami note and integrated spices all leading to a long, lingering finish. If “cru” Gamay is your thing, this is your muse. A long cellar life awaits this wine, say 8+ years if you dare. A beauty.

NOTE: Bachelder is also offering three of these wines in magnum, the Wismer-Croft Whole Cluster Puncheon Reserve ($65), the Willms Vineyard 55% Whole Cluster Puncheon Reserve ($65), and the Bai Xu Vineyard 32% Whole Cluster Puncheon Reserve ($65). They were not ready for tasting as of this writing and will show differently than their 750 mL siblings.

The Villages Chardonnays

Bachelder releases the village level Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays ahead of the single-vineyard release in the fall. Once again, two expressions — one from the Bench and one from NOTL — are presented in the release.

Bachelder Les Villages N.O.T.L. Chardonnay 2021 ($35, 91 points) — Bachelder’s Les Villages Chardonnay is a blend of the Bator, Willms and Bai Xu vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It has a beautifully perfumed nose of pear, bergamot, apple tart and spice. It has a creamy texture on the palate that shines a bright light on ripe orchard fruits, integrated spice notes and lovely finesse on the long finish.

Bachelder Les Villages Bench Chardonnay 2021 ($35, 92 points) — The Bench blend is sourced from the Wismer-Wingfield, Hill of Wingfield, Saunders and Wismer Foxcroft vineyards. There is a gorgeous note salinity and crushed oyster shells on the nose with ripe pear, yellow apple, zesty lemon, and fine oak spice. That profound vein of salinity runs through the core of this Chardonnay and complements the juicy pear/apple/quince fruits and zesty citrus accents. The finish is long and echoing from the mouth-watering acidity. Both these Chards, and the Pinots below, offer fantastic value at these prices.

A Chardonnay look back

Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft Nord 2019/2020 — Bachelder wanted to revisit the Wismer-Foxcroft Nord Chardonnays from 2019 and 2020 to see how they are evolving. The Wismer family has been farming grapes across 300 acres on the Vineland and Jordan Benches for over 25 years. Bachelder is a huge fan of Wismer fruit and isolated two distinct blocks he uses for two distinct wines, which usually vie for the top two spots in the lineup every vintage. Foxcroft Nord, with its steep slope, stony-clay, and limestone soil, is chosen for the distinct minerally attributes it imparts. While the 2020 was coming along nicely and shows the warmth of the vintage with ripe fruits and a creamy, luxurious texture, it was the 2019 that stopped me in my tracks. 2019 was cooler, perhaps more friendly for Chardonnay. A profound perfumed nose has emerged and became more pronounced over a couple of days of opening. The saline and crushed oyster shells were vivid in the glass with pure pear/apple notes, flint, elegant spice, and perfume with citrus zest. Such depth and concentration on the palate with rich pear/quince fruits, dry extract, subtle savoury notes, wet stones, flint, and a long, finessed, and zesty citrus finish. Both Chards have room to age, but the 2019 shows no signs of its peak performance quite yet.

The Village Pinot Noirs

Bachelder Les Villages N.O.T.L. 2021 ($35, 90 points) — The NOTL Pinot Noir fruit is sourced from the Bator and Lowrey vineyards. It has a rich nose of succulent dark berries, black raspberries, red currants, a touch of reduction and fine oak spice notes. It turns more savoury on the palate with fresh red berries, a touch of anise, earthy notes, spice, and a vibrant finish.

Bachelder Les Villages Bench Pinot Noir 2021 ($35, 91 points) — The Bench Pinot is sourced from the Wismer-Parke, Wismer Wild West End, Saunders, and McNally vineyards. It shows a little lighter colour in the glass than the NOTL Pinot but nose lights up with bright cherries, fresh-picked raspberries, and integrated spice notes. It’s riper and denser on the palate with a melange of red berries, a touch of anise, smooth tannins, and lip-smacking freshness on the vibrant finish.