I’ve become something of a frequent flyer to Niagara wine country. Only there is no flying, just driving – straight, straight, always straight following the six lane highway that connects Toronto to wine country. The drive on the QEW is somewhat monotonous and mindless: chugging along in a sea of cars in stop-and-go traffic for kilometers. Yet road works and construction, lane reductions, and minivans will have you cursing like a sailor and pulling your hair out. A few Hail Mary’s fly out as you squeeze past semi-trucks and 16-wheelers that tower over like moving mountains and the desire for freedom gets to be overwhelming as you see your exit coming up. Then something spectacular happens, you exit, and… Silence. Space. Open roads. A blinding sun gives way to various greens and blues that playfully collide at the horizon. Large wooden barns of brown and red break the vast landscape and acres upon acres of pear, peach and apple trees line country roads. Centuries-old Victorian houses contrast the new, ready-made suburban homes on the quiet streets of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon of the small towns in the region. A fresh wind from Lake Ontario rustles the leaves of trained vines and maturing grapes enjoy the warmth of the hot summer as if the harsh Canadian winters never existed. This is Niagara, a region so familiar to us Ontarians, and yet so unknown.
Incomparable to any other wine region, Niagara is Niagara. A cool climate wine growing region best known for producing Icewine, it is still relatively young and restless. But a wave of quality-focused producers, as well as some young blood winemakers are slowly but decisively carving out its own identity and changing perceptions of being just a one trick pony. My latest wine adventures took me further into the region and into the fascinating world of Thirty Bench Wine Makers, Domaine Queylus and Stratus Vineyards. As I have much to learn and am always thirsty for more, I don’t mind making the trek along the QEW to beautiful and exotic Niagara.
Thirty Bench Wine Makers
If the highway gets you down, then you can seek solace at Thirty Bench Wine Makers. As you enter the estate just off of Mountainview Road, the scene is idyllic and strikingly beautiful. Rows and rows of vines stretch along gentle slopes and the wooden winery has so much country charm that it will make you want to move in and start cleaning vats. From inside the boutique, large double-pane windows give panoramic views of lush vines, Lake Ontario and the iconic Toronto skyline that is just barely visible on the horizon.
Thirty Bench has evolved quite a bit from its humble beginnings. Officially founded in 1994 by late Dr. Tom Muckle, it was originally a fruit orchard-cum-vineyard. Fiona, daughter of Dr. Muckle, laughs as she remembers having to sell fruit on the side of the road as a young girl. But more than thirty years on, the 70 acre property, of which 62 acres are under vine, has garnered many awards over the years, including 2015’s Best Small Winery in Canada by WineAlign. As a premium producer of small lot wines, the emphasis is on single varietals (with the exception of a multivarietal red and a rose) and site specific wines. Of the many varietals planted on the property, Riesling is the star grape of Thirty Bench due to the unique profile of three different parcels of vines, their age and soil composition: Wood Post (planted 1984), Steel Post (1983) and Triangle Vineyard (1981). All varying in soil composition, pH levels and moisture, winemaker Emma Garner works to capture and showcase these differences in the finished wines. From steely minerality to classic citrus and stone-fruit or tropical notes, as well as with fantastic acidity, the wines take on different personalities and expressions that evolve wonderfully in the glass.The high acidity levels also mean these wines have the potential to age for many years and develop over time. To work a single varietal like Emma does with these wines is truly a work of art – or a collection of expressive pieces- by a skilled winemaker. And her creativity and labour does not go unnoticed. Named 2015’s Best Winemaker of the Year by the Ontario Wine Awards, many of her wines have received numerous praise and awards not just in Canada but also abroad. Following Dr. Muckle’s original philosophy of a ‘less is more’ approach, both in the vineyard and in the cellar, the Thirty Bench team does most things the old fashioned way: by hand. Pruning, picking and sorting is all done by hand by a group of skilled vineyard workers, many who have been at Thirty Bench since its inception. Their attention to detail and their understanding of each vine is crucial to the whole production. In the cellar, Emma has also started experimenting with wild ferments, the first of which was the 2013 Small Lot Riesling Wild Cask which sold out.
As a small, quality focused producer with approximately 230-300 cases per varietal, depending on the vintage, Thirty Bench wines are not easy to find outside the winery and many sell out quickly through their No.30 Wine Club. Prices are competitive for the region and reasonably priced if you are looking to cellar for a few years. However, if you are just curious and want to taste before you buy, their boutique shop and tasting room offer plenty of spectacular sights and tasting options. You can do a structured flight, a custom-made flight or take part in the sip-and-stroll vineyard tasting.
2014 Small Lot Riesling Wood Post
Fresh and lively aromas of grapefruit, peach and citrus fruit. On the palate, completely dry and light-bodied with crisp acidity, lemon and citrus finish.
2013 Small Lot Riesling Steel Post
Lemon, stoney/stately scents with some peach fruit. On the palate it is off-dry and has fantastic, racy acidity. Lemon and lime mingle with stone minerality. A waxy finish for a wine that will age spectacularly.
2014 Small Lot Riesling Triangle Vineyard
A sexy and seductive nose of grapefruit, orange blossom, and stone-fruit. It is off-dry and medium-bodied. Great texture and lovely, crisp minerality. It finishes off dry and just keeps delivering layers of citric fruit and stone-fruit. Beautiful.
2015 Winemaker’s Riesling
An approachable wine, the nose has intense tropical and ripe stone-fruit character. Slightly sweet on the palate. Medium bodied with flavours of green apple, ripe peach to add to the finish.
2013 Small Lot Gewurztraminer
Golden color of medium intensity. The nose is spicy of white flowers, roses, signature litchi and slight honeyed scent. The palate is dry, full-bodied and spice and fruit flavours are smooth, revealing themselves slowly and balanced throughout the entire mouth. Great balance between spice, body and elegance.
2013 Small Lot Pinot Noir
Elegant aromas of ripe red berries, raspberries and strawberries, as well as some sweet spice. The palate is dry with lots of juicy red fruit, ripe red cherries, lovely tension and subtle grip from tannins with great acidity from start to finish. Another beautiful wine.
2013 Small Lot Cabernet Franc
Intense dark fruit flavours come off right away, spicy, black cherries, raspberries with a lingering jalapeno note. Dry, round and full bodied with nice ripe black and red fruit, spice, textured tannins and balanced acidity. Finish has lots of fruit and slight dry minerality.
2012 Small Lot Merlot
Intense purple colour with red highlights. The nose is beautifully spiced of black pepper, vanilla, ripe and stewed strawberries, black plums and cocoa. The palate is chalky, full bodied and firey, lots of juicy red fruit, smokeyness and a long spicy finish.