Winemakers are very much like architects, in fact they are the architects of the agricultural world. They survey every square metre and scrutinize each handful of dirt to decide where to plant and cultivate their vines. No other farmed produce requires such specificity as grapes and where they are grown.The winemaker postulates with deep consternation the notion of terroir, the attributes that enable a plot of land as a conducive and necessary place to grow grapes. They consider the soil, the rocks within and beneath, the slope, the proximity to water, the air temperatures and the prevailing winds.
In Ontario wine folks are constantly and consistently in debate as to what grape varieties should be farmed and on which tracts of land. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are often at the centre of the discussion, as are Riesling, Chardonnay and more recently, Syrah. The most controversy concerns Pinot Noir. Passionate Pinotphiles can get outright irate at the thought of the difficult grape being cultivated in the wrong place. In Niagara, no variety receives more attention, causes growers and producers to lose more sleep and requires so many years of trial and error to gain headway into it’s mysteries.
Two local winemakers have made career decisions, to educate themselves and to discover what makes Pinot Noir tick. Thomas Bachelder produces wines in three countries, each imbued with its own unique sense of terroir. Ilya Senchuk of Leaning Post Wines is just a few years shy of launching a project that is both new and unique to Niagara. Three distinct Pinot Noirs produced out of three disparate and specific locales.
The common ground here, both figuratively and literally is the land. Micro-block Pinot Noir. Bachelder and Senchuk both make wines from a St. David’s Bench vineyard owned by the Lowrey family. Wilma Lowrey came to Thomas 10 years ago and said, “I think we’re going to grow a single vineyard, and call it Five Rows.” Thomas followed it from the start. It turns out that Wes Lowrey, their son, “is a great winemaker in his own right, and boom, he makes a brilliant Pinot at $50 a bottle,” says Thomas. “They define small grower.”
Small grower. Senchuk and Bachelder want to define what a négociant is, as opposed to a small grower. When it comes to Burgundy, the general idea says that the Beaune négociant is bad while small growers are good. Not necessarily. Notes Bachelder, “Jadot has, at most times been beyond reproach. Has Drouhin ever faltered? Their wines may sometimes be light, but they last, and are elegant.” The large négociant control all (44) 1er cru vineyards so there are not a lot of small growers working with Beaune fruit. Here Bachelder shows the other side of the conglomerate tracks. “At any big domain, how often is the winemaker in the vineyard? You can’t do it all. You have to be in contact with and trust your vineyard managers and growers. You have to let them farm.” This is where a farmer such as Lowrey creates and defines the niche in Ontario. Grand Cru terroir and a small grower paying loyal, careful attention to their fruit.
Over the past two weeks I had the opportunity to taste wines with these forward thinking men of wine acumen. They both share a desire to seek out essential soil and to manufacture exemplary wines that speak of the land from which they have come. Here are my notes on a group of crazy, gifted Pinot Noirs, along with a fascicle of consummate Chardonnay and one truly exceptional Merlot.
“My origins are Quebecoise, in Burgundy and coming to Ontario.” So says Thomas Bachelder, flying winemaker, architect of the Bachelder Project, of trois terroirs, in Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy. Missing from that statement is a stopover in Oregon, making memorable wines at Lemelson Vineyards. Not to mention the more than significant detail of establishing a world-renowned set of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while running the wine show at Jordan’s Le Clos Jordanne.
Thanks to the generous wine enabler Tony Aspler, Bachelder and partner Mary Delaney procured last week’s comprehensive tasting– literally a one-off only chance to taste the wines comparatively, in one room, side by each. The LCBO missed the boat on the Bachelder Burgundian reds, all scooped up by the SAQ. The single-vineyard Pinots from Oregon and Niagara are already library bound. Bachelder quips, in quite serious tone, “I’d like you guys to have an influence on the tasting but we can only go one way.” Terroir over pedigree.When talking about Ontario wine, he’s adamant that technique should reveal Niagara terroir, the caveat being that he uses French oak. ”If we had a superb Cooper in Ontario, we could put all the wines on the same stage.” On Oregon, “if you don’t like their wines, it’s because they are being made by an American palate.” Burgundy vs Niagara? “If you know it’s my favourite, I’m not pushing Niagara out of chauvinism.” Thomas is all about “bringing up your children the same way, but letting them express themselves in their own way.” Most importantly, he begs the question “how do you define an elegant, refined Pinot that has staying power.” Let the wines answer the question.
PINOT NOIR 2011 (333278, $34.95)
In its first year is mostly Johnston Vineyard fruit. Warm plum, cool femininity, linear acidity. A base and primal building block as foundation for future excellence. Licorice, a mother earth’s perfume, and I must disagree with the group. This can be nothing but Oregon. Reminds me of Lemelson Thea’s 2001. 89 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
PINOT NOIR JOHNSON VINEYARD 2011 (SAQ, 12065338, $44.25)
Here there wafts an increased “blister in the sun,” more terroir from a tight vintage full of pumped over tannins. An accented aromatic membrane envelops this Johnson, of orange zest and studded rind, in violet tendency, with more flesh. Even if she speaks in Frainc-Comtou dialect when she walks through the door, she walks out distinctly Oregonian singing as a Violent Femme. Pure and clean up front, she builds, then leaves a trail of tangy fruit behind. Tangled web of Pinot. 91 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
PINOT NOIR LOWREY VINEYARD 2011 (361816, $44.95)
Defies logic in laying out the welcome mat. Fleshy St. David’s fruit, relentless aromatics, a glue of tannins pushing on the pedal. From my earlier note in Top wines shine at Taste Ontario 2013 “springs eternal from an ocean of cranberry and an island of spice. The somewhereness of this St. David’s vineyard can’t be denied, and in the hands of Thomas Bachelder the extraordinary happens. I am simply blinded by the light, by the weight and the weightless gravity. By a sweetness that just isn’t sweet, like exotic red fruit that knocks you sideways upside the cerebral cortex. Not to mention an iron madness that “plays that song with the funky break.” 94 Tasted Oct. 10 and Nov. 6, 2013
PERNAND VERGELESSES 1er CRU ‘LA CREUX DA LA NET’ 2011 ($39.95)
Has the sense to be subtle, effortless and akin to Chambolle. Not so much openly ripe fruit but more the flowers that come before. Cherries dabbed by a citrus fragrance, or the spritz of squeezed zest and an unusually smoky musk. Insinuates new world (think Oregon) though it tells a rubble tale of its limestone slope climat. 90 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
BEAUNE 1er CRU ‘LES RÉVERSÉES’ 2011 ($44.95)
Concentrated with cocked flowers in aperture and libanophorous floral lift. Juicier cherries still, with emerging, higher grained tannin. Chewy throughout, with increased anatomy but also clean and pure. Leans to Pommard, noted by an austerity on the finish in demand for patience towards realizing a settled future. 91 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
Cotes du Nuits
CÔTE-DE-NUITS-VILLAGES AUX MONTAGNES 2011 ($37.95)
A yeomans work performs on the nose, though there is a fullness lacking on the palate. Still there is tension to tie the drone together. He’s a mason, hard-working, full of sauvage. Anti-plush,agréable mince, noted by Mr. Aspler, “a blue-collar Burgundy.” 88 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
NUITS-ST.-GEORGES LA PETITE CHARMOTTES 2011 ($58.95)
Is so floral, mineral, intense and hypnotic it might be dubbed the Serpent Charmer. Iron and wine indeed, the iron of Nuits, the perfume of Beaune. This provocative bottling represents the third year of production, is conspicuous in Anis de Flavigny and an underlying gate. Ifmontagnes is the harming one, this is the charming one. These are all from the same barrels, so what really affects the wines the most? Land and hand. 93 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
While Burgundian in hopes and dreams, this is very much a $29 Oregon white. No mask, no hidden altruism, simply the right Chardonnay for the right price. Bone dry, orchard driven, high acid, void of harmful terpenes. There is a salinity and piquancy not influenced by PH, perhaps by the ocean, by sandstone, but regardless it’s unique to place, unlike Niagara, Prince Edward County, or for that matter Burgundy. 88 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
CHARDONNAY ‘JOHNSON VINEYARD’ 2011 (SAQ 12065338, $44.25)
Increased in perpetual density, butter, tine and philosophy. The barrel ferment has moreagréable onctuosité (verbal sic), like Meursault or Côte de Nuits Villages. Renders thenormale (classique) pedestrian by comparison, but only in relative, neo-tropical terms. Bachelder’s barrel ferments concentrate on micro-oxygenation, on air passage. That’s what matters. These Chardonnay may be the least favourite for Thomas, but he is amazed at how well they mature when treated properly. 91 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
Bachelder: “When you are absolutely sure you that you can’t put all of a single vineyard into one bottle, that you only need some of the barrels, you move the ones that smell too much of specific things (butter, popcorn, lanolin) and send them to the blend, the classique. The ones that speak of the vineyard, the terroir, they become Saunders and Wismer.”
Lean and mean Niagaran, in a hue and a style that brings Burgundy to mind. Comblanchienlayers of limestone salinity, like a villages from Côte de Beaune. Tang, pine forest, Warheads sour candy and just a hint of the barrel but you know it’s there. A simple, Chuck Berry three chord arrangement. “I was anxious to tell her the way I feel,” even if I had no particular place to go. 90 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
CHARDONNAY ‘SAUNDERS VINEYARD 2011 (324103, $44.95)
From Beamsville, right beside 30 bench, has a texture, a depth and a mouth feel in ’11 that bounds and leaps towards the ethereal. A dancing stag, displaying, performing a mating ritual dance. Melons, ripe and fleshy are in this Saunders. “What’s carrying this wine is site, site and site.” A great clay slice of the Beamsville Bench. From my earlier note: ”Takes the baton from Wismer ’10 in a transfer of power, tension and excitement. Clarity of textural fruit is driven by Beamsville Bench clay-silt soil. Highly dependent on yeast chains, sticking, spreading and expanding. Savoury, buttered stones show negligible encumbrance due to vines that will not carry an excess of new oak.” 93 Tasted July 20 and Nov. 6, 2013
From the Wingfield Block within the 20 Mile Bench grand cru vineyard, ’11 Wismer is greener, in apple and sapid behaviour. The tension is palpable, quarryful, querulous, more calciferous. Fruit here is picked at an altitude as high as the lowest part of Flat Rock’s vineyard. Can a spot be pinpointed, anywhere on the peninsula that produces more piercing Chardonnay in 2011 as this Wismer micro-block? 91 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
BOURGOGNE CHARDONNAY 2011 (SAQ, 11856040, $26.95)
Mines mineral in a funky key and electrolyzes the slightest bruise of a crisp apple upon a swirl. Goosed by a boisterous and tickling palate, a masticate of buttered toast, crunch of popcorn and a mercurial temperature as if St. Aubin. Brings in the inner cheeks with held suction. 89 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
BEAUNE ‘LES LONGES’ 2010 ($44.95)
This Chardonnay is forged sarcophagus tight and concurrently plush. Rocks for cubes in the glass, this a fantastic elastic Beaune, full of stretched and wound tension. Pulls on the palate and snaps it sharply back. Sometimes you taste the Beaune, sometimes it tastes you. 93 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
PULIGNY- MONTRACHET EN CORVÉE DE VIGNES 2011 ($63.00)
Is an enigma, its parts ensnared in current astriction. Fruit just scratching the surface, trying so hard to come up for air, “so far you have nothing to say.” I dare to say there is a hint of tropical fruit or a decoy posing as such (because it’s so tight). Classic stony salinity runs a direct line across its marbled façade. Very difficult to assess but in five years the saga will begin to unfold. 92 Tasted Nov. 6, 2013
Leaning Post Wines
Ilya Senchuk may as well be Niagara’s fresh face poster boy for the young and brilliant but he already holds a wealth of Niagara winemaking experience. He worked for Daniel Lenko going back to 2002 and has made the wines at Foreign Affair Winery since 2008. In February 2011 Senchuk and his wife laid it all on the line and bought property in Winona, defined as Hamilton/Grimsby by geography, Lincoln Lakeshore by appellation.
Senchuk began making (virtual) wines under his private label in 2009 on premise at Foreign Affair. He made a 2009 Pinot Noir from the Lowrey Vineyard and a Riesling from the Foxcroft block of the Wismer Vineyard. In 201o there came another Lowrey Pinot and also a Merlot, from the McCleary block on the Wismer property. In 2011 there was only the Lowrey Pinot and 2012 was the first vintage he made on site in Winona, “in a barn” he notes. Just this past month he opened the tasting room. Virtual no more.
To the uninitiated, Senchuk’s chosen Winona locale may seem unconventional, curious and even peculiar to make wine in Niagara. Make no mistake about it. Ilya Senchuk is obsessed with Niagara soil and terroir. Set right off 50 road and straddling drawn circles within a Hamilton/Lincoln lakeshore Venn diagram, five of the 11 acres (10 plantable) were planted the past spring. Senchuk used clone 777 (reliable) along with 115, 667 for Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay are from clones 96 and 548.
Leaning Post has added Pinot Noir from the Mcnally Vineyard (Beamsville). By the time the 2015 harvest has come and gone, Senchuk will have made Pinot Noir from three Niagara terroirs. How many other Niagara winemakers will have that claim to make? There will also be Syrah from Keczan, from the east side of Beamsville and adjacent Tawse Winer’s David’s Block (formerly Thomas & Vaughan Estate). This unique spot is a clay bowl of climatic specificity, with a natural slope and dubious, vigorous vines.
I sat down with Ilya and tasted through four wines from his Leaning Post line-up. I was struck by the concentrated flavours but even more so by the language of the land clearly spoken in the vernacular of each sample. I have no doubt that Senchuk’s experience and deft hand will make the most from his soon to be realized young vines.
CHARDONNAY FOXCROFT 2011 ($34, winery)
Sourced from fruit split 50% each north and south blocks and picked a bit (September 26th) later than Bachelder, towards the end of a very warm vintage. Sharp, piquant and kissed ever so tenderly by older (100 per cent) oak. Full malolactic gauging, this 14 per cent ’12 comes across ripe, without pushing the envelope. A minute trace of tropical fruit draughts in a mineral wake. Quite an astonishing first solo Chardonnay effort, in constitution and viscidity where the solder is king. 170 cases. 91 Tasted Nov. 7, 2013
PINOT NOIR ST. DAVID’S BENCH ‘LOWREY VINEYARD’ 2009 ($38, winery)
From a tight, late-picked vintage (Oct. 25th), this Lowrey pushes chance’s unpredictable climatic envelope and scores a crouched, subjacent, slowly gained ripeness. Grapes come from the most sloped part of the farm, rows that are actually a hybrid of St. David’s Bench and flats of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Perfumed of the earth, where soil and beet meet raspberry. Wears its vigor on the palate’s sleeve, in spiking spice, as if new world Burgundy. “If central Otago and Pommard had a child,” this ripe but earthy Pinot were it. Tannins are still in effect so four plus years of downtime need be part of the package. 160 cases. 92 Tasted Nov. 7, 2013
PINOT NOIR ST. DAVID’S BENCH ‘LOWREY VINEYARD’ 2010 ($38, winery)
Can’t say I’m all that surprised but this is so much more approachable, pretty and glamorous. From an unrelenting hot vintage (picked Sept. 11th), a full six weeks earlier than ’09 and from the same vineyard. This was necessary as a means to preserve freshness. More sunshine, less earth but still there’s a cure and metal tendency that really defines Lowrey. Could of course be considered more of a crowd pleaser but it’s not as simple as that. That I can taste these twomano a mano, in my life is a rubber soul stamp. ”All these places have their moments.” 125 cases. 92 Tasted Nov. 7, 2013
MERLOT ’MCCLEARY VINEYARD’ 2010 ($38, winery)
Uniquely cultivated and fashioned at the top of the Escarpment, this “Niagara Peninsula” designated Merlot is lush, dusty, full of phite and barn door tannins. It’s cool, minty, cast by an iron, sanguine tendency and chalky, metal funk. No simple song this McCleary, whacking away at the shins. Were it listening, you might say to him, “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone, don’t go thinking you gotta be tough, and play like a stone.” Never mind. Senchuk gets it right: “Merlot has to be in the right spot, treated the right way.” 115 cases. 91 Tasted Nov. 7, 2013
Good to go!