Quarantine Talk with Thomas Bachelder

We interrupt your daily sparkling wine browsing with a special announcement: today, we’re going in depth on some exceptional still wines.

That’s right: still wines. 😱

No effervescence, not a bubble in sight… unless you take into account the sparkling storyteller and prolific winemaker that is Thomas Bachelder.

Last month, we sat down on Zoom with Thomas as part of a virtual tasting, and we discussed his latest release – “La Violette” – only the second release since being granted a retail license in 2019. Though we endured some technical difficulties which precluded us from creating a video of the experience, we live to tell the tale that we did indeed get to virtually taste with Thomas in his cellar (or, as he likes to call it, the “Bat Cave,” salt light and all).

And lucky us, because “La Violette“, and the story behind it, is exceptional (and a number of these wines are still available and free shipping is available with a minimum order of 3 bottles). In 2020’s few bright spots, this would be one for us.

“You wanna hear a funny story about Swiss Chalet…?”

We’ll save Thomas’ story on that topic for another day and regale you with an ever better story: the one of Bachelder.

Thomas Bachelder and his wife, Mary Delaney, have built their business in Niagara after experiencing the best of Burgundy and Oregon. And, it should come as no surprise that their adult children – including release namesake Violette – are also passionate about wine. Though Thomas may suggest that Violette is more interested in Cabernet Franc than his much beloved Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay, having a release of incredible wines named after you does qualify under the category of “goals.” But we digress.

As Thomas explained to us, his intellectual curiosity and relentless pursuit of the best vineyard plots in Ontario has led to some interesting outcomes. Those outcomes, of course, are a better understanding of vineyard plots in the Niagara Peninsula. For each grape varietal in the release, he selected exciting plots from well known vineyards – whether it’s Wismer-Foxcroft, Lowrey or Willms – and utilized a consistent winemaking approach for each varietal that would allow for a comparison of wines from those plots. Tasting 2017 Chardonnays from three prolific vineyards was a treat, though it was the Gamays and Pinot Noirs that surprised us is in proving that they can be just as exciting.

We can’t help but commend Thomas for his approach and philosophy for this release.

Having visited a small vigneron in the Verzy area of the Champagne in March 2019, we saw first hand how geology – and a relentless pursuit of understanding every single plot in one’s vineyards – plays out in their base wines and cuvées. Some say Champagne is not about terroir, but we couldn’t help but be affected by how a deep understanding of the geology of this maison’s plots allowed the chef du cave to achieve certain outcomes – be it more minerality, more fruit, less of that bloody, rusty taste. Not to bring this back around to bubbles, but there’s more to discover here in Ontario and we appreciate Thomas supporting this understanding and also for producing an even more interesting outcome: the exceptional wines of the La Violette release, of course.

Alight, back to the wines.

Go Gamay Go

Thomas suggested we taste them from Gamay to Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. We were both a bit puzzled, but appreciated Thomas’ understanding of his own wines, and his desire to not let the fruity Gamays overwhelm the more subtle Pinot Noirs. So why not break them up with Chardonnay?

We began with the Gamays: first, the Bachelder ‘Les Villages’ Gamay Noir 2018, followed by the Bachelder Wismer-Foxcroft Vineyard Gamay Noir ‘Niagara Cru’ 2018.

The ‘Les Village’ is a blend of 3 vineyards, which Thomas took in the direction of a village blend in the Burgundian style. No surprise, given his love of Burgundy. With a nose of red fruit and a touch of spice, and a palate of, well, more tart red fruit and full on Cherry Blaster, it had an exceptional, zippy finish. At a very accessible pricepoint of $23 dollars, it is easy to enjoy now or cellarable for a few years. 

The ‘Niagara Cru’ – hailing from the Wismer-Foxcraft Gamay – comes from a section of the vineyard that is sloping and in proximity to older Chardonnay vines. Unlike the blended ‘Les Village’, this single vineyard wine is more linear, more fresh and more savoury. Think less Cherry Blaster, more fresh Ontario Cherry, if it were to come with a dash of spice. This one comes in at $28.

We have had the pleasure of tasting a significant amount of Ontario Gamay (shout out to last year’s tasting at the 2019 Terroir Symposium in Toronto), but these two are some of our favourites so far.

Also part of the release is the Bachelder Willms ‘Les Naturistes’ Gamay Noir Niagara Crus 2018 ($27). (Click here to shop Bachelder Gamay)

Chardonnay, All Day

We could have spent the entire day talking to Thomas about Chardonnay. Without the pleasure of i4C on the horizon this year, we found some comfort in a tasting of the three Chardonnays from this release: Bachelder Willms Vineyard Old Vines Chardonnay 2017 ($45), Bachelder Saunders-Haut Chardonnay 2017 ($45) and Bachelder Wismer-Wingfield Ouest Chardonnay 2017 ($48).

As with the general tasting order, we were struck by Thomas’ choice of tasting order for these Chardonnays. Why is what appears to be the richest, oakiest of the three glasses before us to be tasted first? To our surprise, all three wines had a similar oak treatment (or lack thereof) and any colour differences are as a result of the fruit shining through. In any regard, the three Chardonnays pose an opportunity to study three different Niagara Peninsula terroirs: the Four Milk Creek of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Willms), the Twenty Mile Bench (Wismer-Wingfield Ouest) and the Beamsville Bench (Saunders-Haut).

Up first, we tasted the Bachelder Willms Vineyard Old Vines Chardonnay 2017. Coming from older vines (planted in 1983) on the warmest of the three vineyard site, it was by far the most golden in colour and immediately took us places. It was also the most punchy of the three: caramel and vanilla, more golden apple and ripe white and stone fruit (which Niagara is also known for), but also with classic citrus and zippy freshness. It had the most velvety texture of the three, and the lengthiest finish. Is this the biggest of the three? Probably, and certainly the most immediately loveable (at least to Mike). Not that there isn’t a Chardonnay we don’t love, or at least like.

Second in line was the Bachelder Saunders-Haut Chardonnay 2017, hailing from the Beamsville Bench and from a vineyard site that is close to Lake Ontario and rich in minerals, such as limestome. What struck us was the similarity to Willms in some regards, except with less caramel and vanilla on the nose and palate. Thomas explained that the Saunders-Haut vineyard repels oak. And herein lies the explanation for a more linear, but still delicious Chardonnay, that is perhaps more pure and electric in its fruity expression, and mineral in its character. This was Jeff’s clear favourite.

Last was the Bachelder Wismer-Wingfield Ouest Chardonnay 2017, and a lesson in the diversity of Niagara’s terroir. Thomas reminded us that this was one of the later ripening vineyards, located on a high elevation farther from Lake Ontario than the other two vineyards. The wine certainly speaks to the mineral rich soil the vineyards grows on – we felt, it was its more cardinal characteristic. Stone, crisp green apple and citrus defined the nose and palate, and the acidity was more electric than its two companions in the lineup. Having tasted this wine, we understood why it was last. The minerality truly is remarkable, and distinctively Twenty Mile Bench. We can see this wine continue to age gracefully in the cellar.

Also part of this release is the Bachelder ‘Les Villages’ Chardonnay, VQA Niagara Peninsula 2018 ($34.95). (Click here to shop Bachelder Chardonnay)

No Heartbreak Grapes Here

Last, but certainly not least, are the Pinot Noirs: the Bachelder Lowrey Old Vines Pinot Noir 2017 ($48) and the Bachelder Wismer-Parke ‘Ouest’ Pinot Noir 2017 ($45).

First of the two was the Lowrey Old Vines, sourced from an iconic vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Thomas explained that he benefited from most of the fruit from that vineyard, and what made it so special was that it was planted in 1984 (the year one of us was born, we’ll let you guess which one) for Karl Kaiser, a founding father in the Ontario winemaking pantheon. We wondered why this one preceded the Wismer-Parke ‘Ouest’, which we would assume would be more mineral driven and likely with a bit less fruit? Thomas, of course, knows his wines best and the order made perfect sense once was tasted the Lowrey Old Vines. With a delicate nose – defined by a floral, violet character and bruised fruit – and a more concentrated fruit-forward, dark berry, rosehip jam palate, the Lowrey Old Vines is what Thomas described as a “ballerina with core strength.” We couldn’t agree more, and dug the comparison.

Which brings us to the Wismer-Parke ‘Ouest’, a wine that was sourced from rich, red magnesium abundant soils from a specific (western) section of the Wismer-Parke vineyard. Thomas really wanted to highlight the ‘red’ flavour that he called “bloody rich.” Bloody rich, you say? Needless to say, we were intrigued as we shot around ideas for how to more eloquently describe the sensation and taste of biting your tongue. In comparison to its sister the ballerina, the Wismer-Parke ‘Ouest’ is rustier, earthier and mildly spicy on the nose, with forest fruit and bramble. On the palate, however, there is more fresh fruit and a touch of bruised field strawberry, and plenty of that rusty, bitten tongue and “blood rich” flavour. So it’s no surprise that Thomas picked this to be tasted after the Lowrey, and described this wine as a “rugby player.” Perhaps a rugby player that got tackled and busted their lip? That said, that iron rich minerality, earth, spice and fruit is velvety, very well integrated and has plenty of acidity to incite another sip. 

Also part of this release is the Bachelder Saunders ‘Two Barrels’ Pinot Noir Organically Grown 2017, VQA Beamsville Bench ($38.95). (Click here to shop Bachelder Pinot Noir)

A Few Final Words

It’s hard to synthesize a 2.5 hour call into a few short words, but we will attempt to do so (though we will refrain from sharing that Swiss Chalet origin story!). If you haven’t already tasted Bachelder’s wines, order the La Violette release, and get on it.  

We won’t twist your arm on which wine to select, but one from each of the three varietal categories will give you an exceptional tasting experience. Or, if you’re a Chardonnay lover, get all three Chardonnays and taste 2017 across three plots in the Niagara Peninsula. Better yet, splurge on the whole release and cellar some of the wine accordingly. 

You may not have Thomas’ wisdom coming through Zoom while you taste, but you will enjoy his wine-making prowess and magic in the glass. So hurry up, as quantities are dwindling as we type.

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