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Hidden Bench building a legacy in Niagara, 19 new wines in review

By Rick VanSickle

For a glimpse of what Niagara can be (and will be) in 10, 20, 100 years from now, you need look no further than the beacon of goodness on the Beamsville Bench that is the Hidden Bench Estate Winery.

Niagara wine
Harald Thiel, left, and Alex Baines.

No disrespect meant, but owners, winemakers and viticulturists will come and go, yet it is the terroir, what the three estate organic vineyards are intrinsically aligned to, that will be giving more and more for generations to come at this premium producer for what Niagara can and does best.

Hidden Bench owner, or as he prefers, vigneron, Harald Thiel has never wavered in his pursuit of making the best wines Niagara, Ontario and Canada can possibly make from the wide variety of vinifera grapes grown in the three vineyards currently in production, and now newly planted in his most recent parcel of land just across the road, north of the home estate.

Earlier this month, Thiel and his team planted part of the new Beamsville Bench vineyard. Between navigating transport of the young vines from the nursery, preparing the land for cultivation, and refreshing the weather to ensure optimal planting conditions, it came right down to the wire to get the vines into the ground this spring.

“At the best of times, precision, organic viticulture can be a nerve-wracking experience,” wrote Thiel, “but maybe never more so than when tender buds, shoots, and vines are just beginning their life. It was incredibly gratifying to see new green growth on this future Chardonnay vine beginning to poke through.”

Yes, he pointed out, it will take years (or maybe decades) before this single vine (above) is fully mature and capable of expressing its full potential, we will continue to chart small milestones and measure incremental wins along this journey.”

The first planting at the new vineyard consists of 1.5 acres of Chardonnay, one acre of Pinot Meunier, and seven acres of Cabernet Franc, with Pinot Noir to come next. Thiel is building a legacy in Niagara that will continue to produce some of the finest wines in the region for generations to come.

Thiel knows his wines are a pure expression of his three vineyards — Felseck, Locust Lane and Rosomel — but what I observed at my most recent tasting this week at the estate, was a lot of praise and clinking of glasses for his winemaker Alex Baines, and the tweaks he has made with many of the wines after only a couple of years of steering the wines to fruition as head winemaker. When I taste with Thiel and his winemakers it is often a rare opportunity, not only for me, but also the winemaker and owner, to experience these finished wines across the board in one sitting. It was nice to see the mutual respect the winemaker and owner have for each other.

Thiel is particular about his wines. He wants his Burgundian varieties to rival Burgundian wines. He wants his Bordeaux varieties to share a spot on the podium with Bordeaux, his Rieslings to impress even the most ardent fan of German Rieslings. He wants all of that coupled with the obvious terroir of Niagara bringing its virtues to the table. A mashup, if you will, with the best expressions of the best grapes one can grow in the most sustainable way one can grow them.

This is why Hidden Bench represents the best of the best in Niagara wines across many of the varieties and blends grown at the estate. There are no more awards or accolades Hidden Bench can acquire; only time and the maturation of the vines will elevate what is already taking place at the estate. So, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Here’s what I liked from a full tasting of recently released and soon to be released wines from the Hidden Bench portfolio tasted with Thiel and Baines this week. All wines are available now at the winery or online unless otherwise noted.

The Sparkling wine

Hidden Bench Blanc de Blanc 2016 ($52, 93 points) — This zero dosage, 100% Chardonnay-based traditionally made sparkling wine is sourced from the estate’s Locust Lane Vineyard. It’s barrel fermented and aged for seven months and spent 54 months on its lees before disgorging in January of 2022. It shows a slightly mature golden colour in the glass and has a nose of toasty/brioche, ripe pear, lemon chiffon, yellow apple and stony/saline mineral notes. It has a rich and creamy texture on the palate with flint, baked bread, purity of pear/apple/quince, lemon, toasty notes, a persistent bubble and length through a lifted, finessed finish. Elegant, exciting, well-aged bubbles here that would be fun to cellar a year or two for further development.

The Rieslings

Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2020 ($25, 92 points) — The estate Riesling is a blend of all three Hidden Bench vineyards. The nose shows gushing lime, nectarine, white pear and yellow apple notes. It’s juicy, bright and carries a mineral edge on the palate to go with lime/citrus, green apples, peach tart, a touch of sweetness and feisty, lifted finish keeping it all in balance. Can cellar to 2029.

Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling 2020 ($34, released this summer, 95 points) — This Riesling from the Rosomel Vineyard, one of Niagara’s most iconic vineyards, is from vines that are 47 years old and only yield about 2.5 tonnes/acre in a robust year. The grapes are handpicked, sorted, and pressed as whole bunches. This is a sensational Riesling and shows the full potential of what Niagara can do with this grape under the right conditions and stewardship. It has a beautiful, perfumed nose of chalky minerality, lemon-lime, honeysuckle, yellow apples and apricots. It has intensity on the palate with profound stony/chalky/saline minerality, lime, lemon curd, savoury notes, ginger, bergamot and wild honey with razor-sharp acidity that leads to a long, lifted finish. Best to stock up on the 2020s as no single-vineyard Rieslings are being made from the 2021 vintage, Thiel says, as the harvest wasn’t kind to this variety. The 2021 estate Riesling, however, will benefit from the de-classified grapes. Can cellar to 2030 or beyond.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2020 ($30, released this summer, 93 points) — The grapes for this single-vineyard Riesling are sourced from a small one-acre parcel on the southern-most point of the vineyard, planted in 1999. The Felseck is more open knit on the nose with notes of white peach, lemon, fresh apple, saline and wet stones. It turns rich and sublime on the palate with juicy and persistent orchard fruits, bergamot, some savoury notes and just a touch of sweetness that is balanced nicely by the racy acidity through the lingering finish. Can cellar to 2020 or beyond.

Sauvignon Blanc and white blends

Hidden Bench Sauvignon Blanc Béton 2022 ($28, 91 points) — This is the second vintage of this estate Savvy that’s aged for nine months in concrete tanks. While concrete imparts no spice-like attributes it does promote texture which is evident here in spades. The nose shows pear, flinty notes, herbs, grapefruit and kiwi. It’s fresh and textured on the palate with lovely saline minerality, pulpy grapefruit, Asian pear, minty herbs and flint in a bright, vibrant style.

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2021 ($30, 92 points) — This 100% Sauvignon (no Semillon) was aged in predominantly neutral French oak barriques. It starts with flinty minerality on the nose followed by green apples, grassy/herbaceous notes, citrus zest, pear and just a hint of spice. It’s lifted and bright on the palate with notes of fresh apples, grapefruit, passionfruit, minty herbs, a touch of spice and a long, vibrant finish.

Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2022 ($42, Sept. 15 release, 93 points) — The blend for the 2022 Nuit Blanche is 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon that’s aged in mostly older French oak barrels for 10 months. The nose is a bit tight on opening, but let it breathe and an elegant, nuanced Bordeaux-style white blend begins to emerge with a nose of Asian pear, nectarine, crunchy apple, kiwi, flinty minerality and integrated spices. It’s rich, flinty and persistent on the palate with grapefruit, passionfruit, herbs, fennel seed, and apple skin that benefits from a zesty, lively finish. Give it time to fully open up either in the cellar or by decanting. Can cellar to 2028.

The Chardonnays

Hidden Bench Chardonnay Béton 2022 ($28, 92 points) — This concrete-aged Chardonnay was envisioned after a trip visiting eight organic Chardonnay producers in Chablis a few years ago. “After visiting there,” Thiel explained in a past post, “our goal was to make a Chablis style wine.” Thiel said one of the key elements for the distinct Chablis style is that “they spend a lot of time on the lees.” Generally, that means 16-20 months on lees and then concrete aging, “which added a textural component. This was part of the plan with the concrete tanks. This is where we wanted to be.” This second edition of the Béton Chard spent 18 months on the lees. The nose is fresh and lively with purity of Asian pear, yellow apple, lemon tart, salinity and flinty/stony notes. It’s rich with a creamy texture on the palate and shows integrated orchard fruits, lemon zest and a long, juicy finish.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2022 ($32, 92 points) — The estate Chardo is a blend of Locust Lane, Felseck and Rosomel vineyards and is aged in large format French oak (29% new oak) for nine months. The nose is fresh and lively with perfumed pear, crushed oyster shells, lemon curd, apples and subtle spice notes. It takes a richer turn on the palate with substantive stone fruits, saline freshness, a creamy texture, integrated spices and a bright, tangy finish. Can cellar to 2028.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ($48, released Sept. 15, 93 points) — The oak regime for the Felseck Chard is 100% French with 19% new oak, 19% second fill, 18% third fill and the balance neutral for 16 months. The wine is bottled unfiltered and unfined. It has a pretty, floral nose with pear, apple, lemon tart, wet stone minerality and lovely spice accents. It has weight on the palate, adding richness to the stone fruits, some savoury notes, a creamy texture, toasted spice notes and a long, lingering, lifted finish. Can cellar to 2029.

Hidden Bench Téte de Cuvée Chardonnay 2021 ($52, September release, 94 points) — The Téte de Cuvée is a barrel selection from the three estate vineyards that showcase the Beamsville Bench terroir. But, just like the previous vintage, the 2021 vintage is all sourced from the Rosomel Vineyard, planted in 1976. This is always among the top Chardonnays made in Ontario in any given vintage, and I love what Baines has done with this grand cru vineyard fruit in 2021, a vintage that was tricky to navigate. It all starts with a beautiful mineral bath of saline, flint and wet stones on the nose before the fresh pear, yellow apples, bergamot and toasty/nutty spices kick in. It is pure and elegant on the palate with some flinty/savoury accents, pear/apple/quince fruits, lemon tart, a creamy texture and elevated finesses and freshness on a lifted finish. Gorgeous, pristine Chardonnay that should reward in the cellar until at least 2030.

The rosé

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2023 ($25, Vintages/winery now, 92 points) — Not many wineries make a single-vineyard rosé from their top estate fruit and sell it at this price. “It’s a serious rosé at this price,” Thiel says. It’s all part of the plan for everything grown at Hidden Bench; the rosé provides a landing spot for leftover Pinot Noir from the still wine program. “We make this wine because we want to make better Pinot Noir,” Thiel says. A pinch of Viognier is added to the mostly Pinot Noir with both direct to press and saignée used to craft the wine. It’s aged in neutral French oak for five months. It has a beautiful nose of summer strawberries, wild raspberries, nectarines and subtle spices. It’s refreshingly dry on the palate with fresh red berries, a touch of anise, citrus zest and a bright, finessed finish. A delight!

The Gamay

Hidden Bench Gamay Noir 2021 ($30, 93 points) — Hidden Bench sources this Gamay from a Lincoln Lakeshore vineyard he contracted and planted to organic fruit in 2013 with the first vintage in 2016. It’s made in a very different, more “serious,” style than most Gamays in Niagara. It’s aged first in French oak (17% new) for nine months and an additional six months in concrete and bottled unfined and unfiltered. It shows a lighter shade of red in the glass with a nose of bright plums, violets, cranberries, other wild red berries, meaty notes and a touch of peppery spice. It’s juicy and expressive on the palate with red plums, stewed red berries, herbs, meaty/savoury notes, some chalky accents and spice with a bright, tangy finish. A Gamay you can age, say until 2028.

The Pinot Noirs

Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2022 ($38, fall release, 92 points) — “This is benchmark Niagara, entry level Pinot Noir,” Thiel says. “It smells like Pinot; it tastes like Pinot.” The nose shows savoury red berries, forest berries, anise, pretty notes of violets and savoury oak spices. It’s quite structured for a Pinot at this level with firm(ish) tannins, savoury/earthy notes, a basket of wild red berries, fennel seed, complexity, integrated spice notes and a bright, long finish. Great job here on this Pinot that can be aged to 2030.

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 ($49, fall release, 93 points) — Both the Locust Lane and Felseck Pinots are made similarly with mostly French oak aging (mostly neutral oak) for 10 months and additional aging in stainless steel. It’s 100% destemmed, unfined and unfiltered. The nose starts with an intriguing intense and smoky nose of meaty red berries, anise, savoury/earthy notes, crunchy pomegranate, dried herbs and elegant spices. It’s less smoky and shows more red fruits on the palate with fine-grained tannins, layers of red cherries and wild raspberries, herbaceous notes and fine oak spice on a long, lifted finish. Can age to 2032.

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard 2021 Pinot Noir 2021 ($50, 93 points) — As mentioned, made similarly as the Locust Lane above. It has a beautiful nose of fresh cherries and raspberries with graphite, anise, cranberries, cassis and spice. The red berries are riper on the palate with silky tannins, anise/fennel notes and baking spices in a layered and complex style with electric acidity driving through a long, finessed finish. Can cellar to 2031.

The Bordeaux varieties

Hidden Bench Malbec 2021 ($45, 93 points) — Not a lot of Niagara wineries are making a single-variety Malbec, but Hidden Bench began bottling this wine beginning with the 2016 vintage and it has found a following. It’s sourced from all three estate vineyards and is aged in 100% French oak (18% new) for 20 months and is bottled unfiltered and unfined. It has a unique nose of blackberries, plums, black currants, blueberries, dried tobacco, leather and fine oak spices. It’s mouth-filling on the palate with the full range of ripe, dark berries, maraschino cherries and chocolate, anise/licorice, toasted vanilla spice, firm tannins that add structure, with depth and length through a vibrant, finessed finish. You can cellar until 2034, maybe beyond, to tame the tannins and let all that plump fruit shine.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2020 ($49, 93 points) — The Terroir Caché is made every vintage at Hidden Bench as a Bordeaux-varietal red blend that is the little sister wine for the top La Brunante made only in vintages the estate feels makes the cut (see below). It’s a blend of all three vineyards — Rosomel, Locust Lane and Felseck Vineyards — consisting of mostly Merlot, with the rest split between Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It’s aged in 100% French oak (35% new) and the rest in older barrels for 20 months. What a treat to have two Bordeaux blends from the near perfect 2020 vintage released late for consumers. Both of these wines, says Thiel, are wines that are built to last “for the ages.” It has a big, juicy nose of myriad dark berries, compoted red berries, cassis, anise, saddle leather, plums, dried Cuban tobacco and toasted vanilla bean and spice. The pureed red berries come to front on the palate, with dark chocolate, plums, cassis, blueberry pie and anise following behind. The tannins are ripe and structured and the long, echoing finish is lifted by mouthwatering acidity. Do not touch this for five years unless you decant it first and you can cellar to 2039.

Hidden Bench La Brunante 2020 ($90, released next year, 97 points) — This signature red blend from Hidden Bench is only produced in years when the estate believes that optimal vintage conditions have resulted in exceptional grapes. It’s a blend of 50% Merlot, 33% Malbec, and 17% Cabernet Franc with barrel aging in a combination of new and used French oak for 20 months and bottled unfiltered and unfined. After tasting this with Thiel and Baines a word comes to mind: blockbuster. It is that and more. It’s not so much that this is a “big bruiser” typical of say, Napa Valley, rather, it shows far more elegance and finesse than that, along with perfectly ripened cassis, plums, blackberries, black cherries, sun-drenched black raspberries, graphite, leather, mocha and generously sprinkled with toasty vanilla bean and baking spices. The fine-grained tannins on the palate are evident in spades, but not over-powering, allowing the concentrated red and black berries to share the spotlight with tertiary notes of anise, pencil shavings, smoky cedar, leather and toasted spices. All of that and an exceptionally long finish, bolstered by mouth-watering acidity, that seems to last for minutes on end. This is a unicorn wine that we will be still talking about 20 years from now. As I said, a blockbuster that will live happily in your cellar until 2040 and beyond. If you just can’t wait, decant overnight and serve with a big, juicy, rare hunk of beef, and save a bottle or two for down the road.