In Niagara (1) Hidden Bench

Hidden Bench is one of Niagara’s leading boutique wineries. Owner Harald Thiel bought the Locust Lane vineyard, where the winery is located, in 2003 after selling a successful audiovisual business he ran with his brother. A year later, he added the Rosomel Vineyard, and then in 2007 the Felseck Vineyard. All are on the Beamsville Bench, and are certified organic, and the total vineyard area now stands at 35 hectares. The newest plantings have been Gamay.  

‘We started making Gamay in 2019,’ says Harald. ‘The project has its roots in 2013 – we are 100% estate so we couldn’t pivot. We found a parcel left if fallow for 3 years and planted in 2016.’

Locust Lane vineyard

One of the attractions of Gamay was that it allowed Harald to make a red that was a bit more affordable. ‘It’s a wine I could keep the price lower – it gives higher yields,’ he says, but he also likes it a lot. ‘I like some of the premium Beaujolais like Clos de la Roillette. I’m trying to make a cru style.’

He has four acres in a property just below the bench, in Lincoln Lakeshore, but the wine is labelled Niagara Peninsula, to give freedom to blend if needed. These vines were planted in 2015. He also has a parcel in the Locust Lane vineyard where Gamay replaced Merlot, and they’ll get their first fruit this year.

Gamay is tricky to work with, though. It’s a variety that tends towards reduction, and Harald had to alter the winemaking style. ‘We had to change our pump-over regime for the Gamay,’ he said. It involved getting more oxygen into the wine during the fermentation.

Harald Thiel

The soils here are glacial till, and have varying amounts of clay and limestone. Way back, the whole area was covered by a lake which disappeared 450 m years ago. Subsequently, there were four glacial periods, and the related geological events pulled the base of the lake up depositing it on the Niagara escarpment. As a result, the soils here are diverse, with limestone, clay and silt all mixed together. Different vineyards here have more clay and more limestone. This is why, Harald says, the wines from the bench area tend to have more complexity, because the soils are not homogeneous.

Hidden Bench has been organic since 2009, and was certified 2012. Soil organic matter is between 3 and 3.5%, and it has gone up 0.3% since moving to organics. ‘We put 500 tons of compost out every year,’ says Harald. ‘We bring it on site and add the biodynamic preps.’

There have been changes in the winery during lockdown. It has been expanded, and a bunch of Nico Velo concrete tanks have been added. There was a lot of research before this choice was taken, and Harald went to the Okanagan to see how the concrete used by Okanagan Crushpad was doing, and then he visited Darryl Brooker while he was still at Mission Hill to see the concrete program at the new Martin’s Lane winery. He’s using some for Sauvignon Blanc, some for Gamay, and also some to help make a Chablis-style unoaked Chardonnay. He took his team to Chablis in 2019 and visited the eight organic producers there, and came back convinced that using concrete and leaving the wine two years on lees was the way to build texture and interest without oak.

These wines are really impressive, and for the quality are good value. ‘We are not a low cost producer,’ says Harald, ‘but we want people to leave and say, it’s expensive but it was worth it.’

Stylistically he is being careful not to move too quickly in the direction he’d like. He has to bring his customers along. ‘The palates of our premium clients are driven by California and Italy,’ he says. ‘They come in want big 14% alcohol jammy wines.’ But he is moving a bit. ‘We still make a Bordeaux blend but we go for fresher styles with lower alcohol. The younger customers like these.’ One thing he is finding is that Riesling is difficult to sell, but this is a problem common to the whole region.

Recent vintages? ‘2021 was a vintage from hell. We worked hard and even doing this we had some casualties. In September and October we had 600 mm of rain, in three significant rain events. Normally we have 50 or 60 mm. The work on the sorting table made for long days. But some of the wines I’ve tasted so far have been good. For those who took the care, they will make some good wines.’

‘2020 was a warm vintage, with high alcohols. We had to be careful to manage our alcohols carefully. I don’t know if it was as good for the whites and Pinots as it was for Cabernet Franc. Over the years we have learned how to manage the heat of the vintage. You need to adjust your winemaking to the vintage. We learned early on that in warmer vintages you use less oak. We are leaving more leaves in the wider rows. In the narrow row you get shading, which can be an advantage. You can open up the canopy to get airflow but still get shade.’ Their narrow rows are 1.5 m, while 2.25-2.4 m is more normal here.

‘2019 was a nice Pinot Vintage. We are starting to see our vines reach an age where they are almost naturally balanced – they are 15-18 years old – which is really nice. You don’t have to make as many adjustments. In the region as a whole we are starting to see some better wines coming through as a result of better balanced vines.’ He adds, ‘Everyone was poo-pooing 2019. It was a cooler vintage. We had a summer with a good amount of moisture, but September was cool and dry and there was no pressure to pick.’

THE WINES

Hidden Bench Natur Zero Dosage 2016 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
12% alcohol. 72% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay, all from estate vineyards. Barrel fermented to oak, goes to bottle after 8 months. TA 8.65 g/litre, pH 2.9. This is powerful, toasty and intense with lovely citrus fruit as well as some great acidity. Lovely depth of flavour: pear, peach and some citrus peel, with a hint of cherry, and a long finish. This is $42 in the local market. Lovely intensity. 92/100

Hidden Bench Sauvignon Blanc Béton Rosomel Vineyard 2021 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
This is the first vintage of Sauvignon which is fermented and matured in concrete tanks, spending 5 months on lees. ‘We have had some small Nombolts which we’ve been using in 2008, and we just increased the size of the tanks,’ says Harold. This is pure and textural with some depth to the pear and white peach fruit, as well as fine citrus notes. Lovely weight in the mouth, finishing fresh. This is so textural and delicious. 92/100

Hidden Bench Fumé Blanc Rosomel Vineyard 2020 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
Lovely grapefruit and smoke on the nose with well integrated oak and some spicy detail, as well as bold fruit. Nice depth to this: it has presence and good acidity, and rich citrus and pear flavours. Classic, in a white Bordeaux style. 94/100

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay 2019 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
This is bold, textural and rich with some fine spices, a touch of nuttiness, and broad pear and white peach fruit. There’s depth here, but also a spicy frill that brings out the freshness to counter the rich fruit and oak flavours. Supple and bright with a nice juicy finish. Lovely complexity and weight here. Very stylish. 94/100

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Riesling 2019 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
10.5% alcohol. This is powerful and expressive with lovely juicy lime fruit as well as some mandarin richness, together with a touch of sweetness countering the keen acidity. Real power and intensity here with lovely weight. Has a spicy flourish on the finish, with some sweetness (11 g/l rs). 93/100

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Rosé 2021 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
Direct pressed rosé with 92% Pinot Noir, 5% Viognier, 3% Chardonnay. Some barrel fermentation. Pale coloured. Supple and fresh with nice texture to the pear and cherry fruit and a really nice mouthfeel with subtle almond hints and nice finesse. There’s a hint of apricot too from the Viognier. Harold says he’s replaced the residual sugar with the weight that the barrel ferment produces, and so this is dry but very textural. 91/100

Hidden Bench Nocturn Rosé 2021 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
Saignee. 75% Pinot Noir, 11% Merlot, 9% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc. Full pink colour with lovely strawberry and cherry fruit as well as some ripe pear. It’s fruity and lively, but dry and quite textural with nice weight in the mouth. 90/100

Hidden Bench Rachis & Derma Chardonnay Skin Fermented 2020 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
12% alcohol. Skin-fermented Chardonnay, bottled with its lees. 45 days on skins. No added sulfites. Full golden colour. Wonderful aromatics: spicy, floral and grapey with mandarin and lavender. The palate is fresh, pure and powerful with good structure, showing citrus, pear and mint with some apricot and marmalade, as well as green tea and honey. Has nice tannins and freshness. Such a lovely wine: clean and structured. 93/100

Hidden Bench Felseck Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
Pale in colour. Lovely mineral notes on the nose, with smoke and spice and a bit of red cherry and cranberry fruit. ‘This vineyard has the highest level of limestone: almost 7.5% of active limestone.’ This is elegant and mineral on the palate with a hint of spicy oak and lovely elegant supple red cherry fruit. This is so expressive with a lovely mineral core and some subtle smoky notes. There’s a nice savoury twist here, with some structure. Very fine. So much potential here. 95/100

Hidden Bench Locust Lane Pinot Noir 2019 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
This is the block in front of the vineyard with more clay, and a little less limestone. This is direct, fleshy and a bit more structured than the Felseck, with red cherry and plum fruit. This is elegant and detailed with some strawberry notes and a nice firm but fine-grained structure. Very fine. 94/100

Hidden Bench Estate Pinot Noir 2020 Beamsville Bench, Niagara
This is ripe and fruit-driven – you can taste the warmth in the vintage here. This is so expressive and ripe with good concentration and a bit of structure, showing pure black cherry fruit. Lots of colour here, and lots of fruit, but has nice structure. Supple and delicious. 93/100

Hidden Bench Gamay 2020 Lincoln Lakeshore, Niagara
12.5% alcohol. 100% destemmed fruit. This is fresh, juicy, lively and pure with vivid raspeberry and cherry fruit, with good focus and acidity. Fine and pure with a hint of pepper and iron, with nice weight. This is nicely juicy with some structure and nice freshness. Lovely fruit purity here. 93/100

Hidden Bench Rachis & Derma Gamay 2020 Niagara Peninsula
‘We have a natural wine series and I want to distinguish these from the classic wines because a lot of our clients aren’t natural wine drinkers,’ says Harald. Skin contact Chard, ancestrale Riesling and Gamay. Deeply coloured and quite savoury with a drying finish and some grippy structure. Nice weight here with lovely raspberry and plum fruit, with a spicy savoury edge and some grip. Nice fruit here with a touch of pepper. 92/100