Big wines from California and the Bench

Photo: olly/

Photo: olly/

as seen on

If you can’t make it big in California selling Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, you can’t make it anywhere. Merlot once played a starring role in that ensemble but it currently suffers from a serious lack of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Dreaming outside the box, I would like to see a 1,000 per cent increase in Rhône varietal wines coming out of California but for every Syrah, Grenache and Viognier vine planted, it seems two are ripped out. I would add Tempranillo, Monastrell, Carignan and Sangiovese to the wish list. Some varietal diversity would be nice.

Meanwhile, back at the monopoly, the big four continue to bask in the spotlight. Don’t misunderstand me. I love all wine. A new world Bordeaux, Burgundy and (indigenous Adriatic varietal) recommendations list speaks of the universality of my affection. But I turn your attention to Ontario. The great writer, Grapes of Humanity facilitator and all-around wine sage Tony Aspler recently gave a speech. It’s title, The Ontario Wine Industry: Doing it right and doing it wrong – How to engage consumers at home and abroad. Mr. Aspler emphasized the need to celebrate our land, our terroir. He thinks we are overly diverse and wants us to make terroir-driven wines. “Wines that speak to the soil in which they were grown.” Know this. Aspler would have thought long and hard about this poignant dissertation. He has more than 37 years of reverential and local wine experience. He also noted, “Wine always tastes better in the presence of the winemaker.”

I had the fortunate pleasure last week to put this experiential notion into practice at Hidden Bench Winery up on the Niagara Peninsula’s Beamsville Bench. Harald Thiel, who is and not coincidentally I would add, the recent Promoter-at-Large winner at the VQA Promoters Awards, tutored me through 13 bottles. Would I have been duly impressed in a sterile room without D’yer Maker by my side? Likely not, but the visit left me with the distinct impression that Hidden Bench is one of the local houses of the holy.

Here are five famous Californians and a posse of local Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Bordeaux blends to seek out this week and before they disappear.

From left: Decoy Chardonnay 2011; Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010; Hidden Bench Vineyard and Winery 'Terroir Caché' Meritage 2008; Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2010; and Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2010.

Big Californians

Decoy Chardonnay 2011 (341555, $24.95) is a melting pot of Sonoma County site agglomeration. A lemon and pear creamsicle, cool(er) climate piping into a barrel-charred cone with a sprinkling of key-lime, chalky soil dust. Cyclotron of gold patina, with a green apple and mineral dees to enrich the big character of this Duckhorn project. Await a time softening of its bitters and everyone will be doing the disco duck.  89  @decoywine

Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (212076, $44.95) and her retroussé nose of sweet, candied currants and a McLaren Vale-like blue jam is striking, if ubiquitous Pinot from everywhere and anywhere. It’s certainly delicious and sports the trademark Belle Glos, SLH smoke, tar and shellac, so in that sense it reminds us of itself.  89  @BelleGlosMeiomi

Ravenswood Big River Single Vineyard Zinfandel 2008 (327205, $44.95) is stylish and sacred juice out of Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Starlet songstress pretty, a bit shy and reserved, not yet giving it all away. Very raspberry and red flower colour/scent and oak already well-integrated. Would not accuse this Zin of any sin nor saying it “sold your dreams for a pocket of change.”  91  @RavenswoodWine

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (222877, $75.95) animates a supply chain management ideal like few other Napicons within the framework of an efficient push-pull package. Marketed for the lover of plush, virile California Cabernet and this ’10 delivers with black raspberry and chocolate balance. There is a sweetness/bitterness interplay that never tugs.  91  @FrankLovesWine

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (296707, $99.95) is a truly iconic and wow example of Napa incumbency. When Cabernet Sauvignon is framed by this level of mineral and French funk and still the layers of dark fruit shine, nothing can be said but “this is a special wine.” The currant sideways grain of chalky chocolate tannin notes that time has yet to define this Howell Mountain gem. More excellence from Dunn, hedonism without petulance.  95  @Smallwinemakers

Hidden Bench Winery, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula

Harald Thiel, Proprietor, @BenchVigneron  @HiddenBench

Estate Chardonnay 2010 ($32, winery only) tends near-Tropicana, integrated nirvana from an 11-month barrel ferment. The wood sidles rather than climbs on top and the fruit shines like a diamond mine. Enthralling Beamsville Bench Chardonnay and “like a drunken fool I never know when to leave.”  90 

Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (276261, $38) is akin to Russian River Valley, allowing the comparison, in platinum, edging to gold and in stony, mineral rigidity. Tends to the orchard in a fell swoop of swelling fruit. Nobody does it better on the Bench. The sec who loves me, “makes me feel sad for the rest.”   91

Tête de Cuvée Chardonnay 2009 ($45, winery only) from HB’s oldest, most highly regarded and meticulously maintained vines shows ravishing and refined restraint in elegance. Warm pineapple and mango coagulation jarred by the vintage’s piercing acidity and immense length. Head of the class, rings the bell, nails the lecture.  93

Bistro Chardonnay 2011 ($20-21, winery only) is the sum total of the collected and filtered run-off from the rich and select HB vineyard pool. The nut brown toast is certainly noticeable but handled with care, accented by a tease of melon, mango and stone fruit.  88

Riesling Estate 2011 ($17-18, winery only) will launch likewise as a “Bistro” offering in May 2013 for a pittance. Laser direct as a citrus, flint and mineral injected Bench iconoclastic white. Gulpable by the spittoon-full.  88

Estate Pinot Noir 2009 (275753, $38), unfined, unfiltered and leavened by indigenous yeasts speaks all estate vineyard vernacular, of night pitch, cherry and smoke but in a liberated, feminine voice. Clarity in my favourite NP Pinot year.  90

Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($48) is the man, or so he thinks, in the HB relationship. Increased earth and graphite presence, evolved, integrated, social. Tough exterior, teddy bear interior. “Think of me what you will, I got a little space to fill.” You don’t know how it feels. No petty fool, no tom foolery. From low density planted vines.  92

Locust Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($48, winery only) may be the best food companion of the three ’09’s. Whiffing musk and medieval protein powder testosterone. Stretched on the rack, grunts, cries out in pain, then submits. Finds peace within that last century thing its got going on.  91

Estate Pinot Noir 2010 ($38, winery only) is a vintage relative release, a quaffable, generous fruit sui generis. Alights to invite and tempt like an ’05 Burgundy or an ’07 Brunello. Irresistible, if fleeting in beauty.  89

Bistro Pinot Noir 2011 ($22-23, winery only) is as a result of meticulously sorted clean fruit with no varnish or hard edges. Good length.  88

Estate Pinot Noir 2005 was open two days and still fresh as a daisy. Still difficult to assess. NR

‘Terroir Caché’ Meritage 2010 ($35, winery only) has rich, voluptuous Napa Valley written all over it. Sister Merlot dominant, Beamsville Bench sledge monster. Plumbago, mineral, blackberry and coffee in a wine that will be the ringer in a blind tasting 10 years on. Harald may be saying “this is our family jewel.” Mr. Thiel, you make good wine.  92  @HiddenBench

‘Terroir Caché’ Meritage 2008 (505610, $32.95) from a cool and wet vintage defies logic with a beastly corpulence built upon tar, mineral and spice. An off-beat note of cardamom-scented Arabica kaffee. No, really. Tough mudder.  88

Good to go!

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