Bachelder's 2020s: Making a Case for Terroir

The 2020s are Focused on Quality and Terroir

By John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by Bachelder.

WineAlign partners with Niagara Winemakers Mary and Thomas Delaney-Bachelder to offer a specially curated mixed case — 6 bottles — of top single-vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir from various sites across the Niagara Peninsula. It’s a passport to discover the region’s great terroirs. And, don’t miss the Happy Hour on Saturday, April 15th at 5:30 pm on Zoom where John Szabo and Thomas Bachelder will taste through and discuss the wines in this case.

Thomas and Mary Delaney-Bachelder

All Saint’s Day on November 1 was created to celebrate and venerate the men and women who have been canonized by the church over centuries. In Ontario, however, it has come to herald something else for wine lovers: the “Toussaint” release of the latest vintage of single vineyard bottlings of chardonnay and pinot noir from Mary and Thomas Delaney-Bachelder. This growing collection of wines, which Bachelder calls his “saints,” has become a bellwether of the vintage on offer but, more importantly, a growing body of evidence that has begun to illuminate and define the variations in wine style that the Niagara Peninsula offers across its multiple official sub-regions.

Though single vineyard bottlings have become much more common in Canada over the last decade, no one in this country has undertaken quite as detailed (and commercially questionable) an examination of the nuanced differences imparted by vineyard site as Bachelder, a genuinely terroir-obsessed winemaker. “Discovering and channeling terroir is our raison d’être, has become our lives’ work. Although we Love the process of making our subtle ‘les Villages’ blends…the single-vineyards are what drives the Bachelder project,” says Bachelder.

There will also be a Happy Hour on Saturday, April 15th at 5:30pm on Zoom where John Szabo and Thomas Bachelder will taste through and discuss the wines in this case. Don’t miss it! Register here.

Like a 15th Century Monk

I once wrote that “Bachelder is evidently on a 15th century monk’s errand to map out the escarpment with Burgundian-like precision,” a statement that is even more true today. The Toussaint release has grown from 14 different bottlings split between chardonnay and pinot noir in 2021, to 20 bottlings in 2022 (11 chardonnay and 8 pinot noir), all in limited production with rarely more than 100 cases made, often much less. Add in another 7 bottlings of Gamay, and you have a bewildering range for such a small operation. But it’s clearly not just an academic exercise in sub-division; there are genuine differences and singular personalities in these vineyards, which come into clearer focus each year. For me it’s absolutely worth the extra effort, and important work for the region overall.

Though last November marked only the second Toussaint release (of the 2020 vintage wines) such as it has become, the Bachelders have been exploring single vineyards in Niagara for much longer. Thomas’s first Niagara vintage was 20 years ago with Le Clos Jordanne. And he’s made over 10 vintages of two of the single vineyards in this offer, the Lowrey and Wismer Foxcroft. But in the past these were all released less formally over the course of a year. Presenting them all at once, however, as is done now, affords a unique opportunity to taste and compare directly across the entire range.

At WineAlign we’ve had the opportunity now on several occasions to do just that. It’s not the easiest tasting – indeed it takes us much longer than normal to taste through a similar number of wines. It requires considerable concentration to carefully compare and contrast, looking deeply for the nuanced differences, checking notes on the same single vineyards from previous vintages in an attempt to identify any consistency in character that could be imparted by site. But it’s surely one of the most intellectually stimulating exercises we do, and we eagerly look forward to it now each spring, for the “Violette” release of gamays, and the Toussaint in the fall. It also helps that the wines are generally excellent.

Foxcroft Nord

Why Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay?

“The Burgundian grapes, led by Pinot Noir (Chardonnay and Gamay Noir) are our beacon, our interpreters, literally translating the sense of the soil into a delicious wine ‘of a place’ in one’s glass,” Bachelder explains. “Pinot Noir’s thinner skin allows for less colour, perhaps, but also finer flavours: delicate, bewitching aromas, perfumes, bouquets…but especially for the transparency of its delivery of terroir, of a taste, a tang of somewhere, the singular signature taste of each vintage. Both Chardonnay and Gamay Noir are capable of these same subtleties in rendering “Somewhereness.”

The descriptors “Burgundy” and “Burgundian” crop up time and again in conversations with Bachelder. He studied winemaking in Beaune, after all, and made several vintages in Burgundy (and Oregon), before returning to Canada to focus exclusively on the Niagara Peninsula. He clearly, and openly, draws inspiration from Burgundy as most pinot-and-chardonnay, terroir-fixated winemakers do. And indeed his efforts to understand and map out the Niagara Peninsula vineyard by vineyard is a purely Burgundian concept.

The 2020 Vintage

2019 was always going to be a tough vintage to follow, one which produced some of the finest pinots and chardonnays in Niagara’s history in my estimation. But there has been tremendous excitement surrounding the unusually warm and clement 2020 vintage. It yielded, on the whole, wines that come across as more gentle and soft, forward and fruity, relative to the 2019s, though Bachelder has managed to coax plenty of vineyard character out of each site alongside the ripe, clean fruit flavours.

“I don’t think, as many have said, that 2020 is a perfect vintage from a terroir point of view, but it does seem to have given us some of the best wines from this new century,” he says. There was concern during the summer that unseasonally hot days would cause overly rapid sugar accumulation before flavours had the time to catch up, producing, in other words, high alcohol wines yet still with green flavours and hard tannins. But through a confluence of fortunate factors, such as the vines shutting down during the hottest summer days (photosynthesis stops and sugars don’t accumulate, while acids remain intact), and the arrival of cool, refreshing nights in September, enabled Bachelder to avoid the unbalance that hot vintages can typically bring.

“Sugar accumulation was surprisingly slow, the acid retention was good, and there was no rot present…so one could wait for the perfect moment to make ripe wines that had great technical and flavour maturity, and spot-on sugar and acid levels. An artistic miracle of a vintage!” Bachelder continues. “In the end, we are lucky to have had 2019 and 2020—two back-to-back Burgundian-style vintages that, in the right hands, the right terroirs show grace, elegance and longevity.”

2020 Harvest

The Wines

Naturally, in order to “let the vineyard speak,” the winemaker has to keep quiet. This means vinifying and ageing each parcel in the same manner, resisting the temptation to influence or “fix” any perceived deficiencies, allowing instead the fruit to give what comes naturally, for better or for worse. Bachelder’s approach is simple (you might say Burgundian): wild ferments and malolactic conversion in mostly old barrels, ageing about 20 months, and then minimal clarifying before bottling. Sulfites are added sparingly. Some new barrels do appear in certain parcels (it’s necessary to buy a certain number of new barrels each year to maintain your fleet as old barrels are retired into planters or cheese boards), but is never a dominant feature.

Below are the six wines selected by the WineAlign Crü to represent the Niagara Peninsula and Bachelder’s 2022 Toussaint release, with his vineyard notes. Click on the links to see each of our interpretations of the wines, and how we see each of the vineyards in the larger Niagara context. The selections for the case on offer were based on our highest average scores as well as an aim to reflect the different styles from various sub-regions throughout Niagara.

We recommend gathering with friends to join us for the Happy Hour on April 15th and taste through all the wines together, and, if you purchase two 6-packs, you can save the second bottles of each for the same tasting in about 3–5 years. Wines are listed in recommended tasting order and, if you want to do it the Burgundian style, remember to taste the pinot noirs first, followed by chardonnay!

Pinot Noir

Lowrey "Old Eastern Block" Pinot Noir 2020

Lowrey “Old Eastern Block” Pinot Noir 2020, VQA St. David’s Bench

TB Notes: On the tail-end of the St. David’s Bench, planted on the shores of the old riverbed of where the Niagara River used to run many moons ago, lies the picturesque Lowrey Vineyard. It is surely one of the great honours of our lives to work with this special place. The oldest, Eastern part of the vineyard was planted in 1984 by the Lowrey family for Karl Kaiser (winemaker and co-founder of Inniskillin). Karl used the vineyard for his groundbreaking international collaboration Alliance series that Inniskillin made with Burgundy’s Jaffelin (Bernard Répolt, now with Rémoissenet). The idea of doing an Alliance soon led to the idea of Le Clos Jordanne, that Mary and I (and the girls) eventually moved to Niagara from Oregon to help start.

Wismer Parke "Wild West End" Pinot Noir 2020

Wismer Parke “Wild West End” Pinot Noir 2020, VQA Twenty Mile Bench

TB Notes: If I had to learn to love Wismer-Parke, then imagine my reaction to the Wild West End when first Craig Wismer proposed this “mystery clone” block. Of Course, it captured my imagination! If Parke already had the wild and bloody “bite your tongue” anise gaminess, imagine my surprise when the Wild West End had even more! We onlookers are privileged to discover and rediscover the depth and yet forwardness of this amazing bit of the Vineland Bench. From the sweet spot of the Twenty Mile Bench on reddish magnesium and dolomitic limestone clay soils with a solid silt component, Wismer-Parke Wild West End — planted to a “mystery clone” of Pinot Noir whose identity is lost in the mists of time – makes wines with a wild, rusty, anise-scented, iron-tinged nuance, yet a pretty, savoury mouthfeel. “Rustic, yet very fine!”

Bachelder Saunders Bas Pinot Noir 2020, VQA Beamsville Bench

TB Notes: The Saunders story is a captivating, touching one: One of the pioneering viticulturalists on the Bench, visionary Warren Saunders turned 100 the year this wine was made. Riding out from the Hamilton steel mills on his Sundays off, Warren dreamed of owning land and eventually established the family farm on the Beamsville Bench when he was in his early 40s…the Saunders farm is still run by his children, Leslie and AnnMarie and her husband, Peter — and with guidance, as always, from Warren himself. What the Saunders have achieved is a humbling lesson that shows us what intent; commitment and constancy can achieve, and how it can influence and inspire us all. Santé, Warren! The vineyard is just 3.9 kilometres from the lake but on the Bench at Mountainview road. Grapes are organically-grown (certified by ProCert) on clay, silt, sand and limestone. In 2020 it was still “younger” vines—the Bas Pinot Noir block is in the lower part of the vineyard at a similar elevation to Hanck, Parke, and the Le Clos Jordanne vineyards over in Vineland and Jordan.


Bai Xu "Vignes De 1981" Chardonnay 2020

Bai Xu “Vignes De 1981” Chardonnay 2020, VQA Four Mile Creek

TB Notes: Jackson and Amy Bai are the newer owners (2015) of one of the oldest vineyards in Niagara, which was planted back in 1981. Jackson left his former career to become a vigneron and proudly does all the vineyard hand work himself. The Vineyard is located close to two major bodies of water, some six kilometres from Lake Ontario, and about four kilometres from the Niagara River. The Chardonnay and Gamay are now old vines and were planted at the same time circa 1981: The Chardonnay clone is 95, the Gamay clone is 358. The soil—very different from the neighbouring Willms vineyard—is a mixture of sandy and loamy sediments over lacustrine clay with some silt, as well as limestone, with excellent moisture-holding properties, which help sustain the vines through the drier months of summer.

Wismer Foxcroft "Nord" Chardonnay 2020

Wismer Foxcroft “Nord” Chardonnay 2020, VQA Twenty Mile Bench

TB Notes: Quickly becoming a reference vineyard for Niagara, with several different versions from local high-end producers available in any given year, the Wismer Foxcroft Chardonnay vineyard is a steep, stony-silty clay and limestone site. For the first several years, Fox was but a component of our restaurant ‘glasspour’ wines! Frustrated, in 2013, the idea came to me to isolate the southern, hilly part of the slope from the lower, less steep northern bit. Incredibly, whilst briefly passing through Niagara, famed genius British wine journalist Andrew Jefford (Decanter and others) tasted the wines that I had pressed and barreled separately during fermentation. Somehow, though the wines weren’t yet finished fermenting – Andrew first pointed out the stony ‘salinity’ of the flatter northern bit. I was shocked, as I was betting on the higher-altitude Southern bit. Ever since Andrew Jefford’s “constat, *” we trip on the seamineral finish that only the northern slope of this vineyard imbues to the wines produced thereof! Unforgettable.

“Hill Of Wingfield” Chardonnay 2020, VQA Twenty Mile Bench

TB Notes: The Hill of Wingfield delineates a sharp slope through the shorter rows, which makes for longer hang-time, and an intense, rich noble set of flavours, overlaid by a tight, long, tactile and flavourful finish. As well, the wine possesses a generous weight and elegant, slatey minerality. Majestic! Some get “Da Wiz” right away, some find they prefer it when it suddenly seems to blossom with a little age. Always noble, closed-in, restrained when young, the Wismer-Wingfield Chardonnay is our latest ripening parcel, furthest from Lake Ontario (6.8 kilometres), at the highest elevation (169 metres at the very top), “Da Wiz” comes in ten days to three weeks after Wismer-Foxcroft, which is 1,000 metres closer to the Lake. One wants to call the “Hill of Wingfield” a “Grand Cru,” however, with no classification system yet in place in Niagara, one is not allowed.

This feature was commissioned by Bachelder Niagara. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines — good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.