By: Alyssa Andres
The wine of Burgundy, France, is renowned worldwide for a number of reasons. Their vintners have centuries of winemaking experience and have tended their vines over generations, but one major factor in Burgundian wine is, and always has been, terroir. In Burgundy, no one refers to a wine by its grape varietal. They talk about wine in specific parcels. They refer to a wine by the vineyard it comes from, and they know what that particular vineyard tastes like compared to its neighbor down the way. That is because, in Burgundy, vintners have taken hundreds of years to map their terroir.
In New World winemaking, which has only started to evolve over the past hundred years or so, terroir hasn’t been as much of a focus for winemakers. Their focus has been on the wine itself and trying to build an international reputation. In Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, however, Thomas Bachelder and his wife, Mary Delaney, are breaking this trend and taking a more Burgundian approach to winemaking.
The Niagara wine industry has taken off over the past decade. Hundreds of tourists flood to the region each day to bombard tasting rooms. Despite this, Thomas Bachelder has chosen not to open his own winery. Instead, he works as a traditional “micro-negocient,” purchasing grapes that he’s handpicked from the top producers in Niagara and from specific vineyard sites he deems the best. This allows him to experiment with the vast growing conditions within the area, focusing specifically on making chardonnay and pinot noir that express the unique terroir from numerous plots within Niagara.
Originally from Quebec, Bachelder started his career as a wine journalist before moving to Burgundy to study winemaking. He always had an interest in French culture and French wine, and, combined with his interest in terroir, Burgundy was his ideal destination. At the time, Bachelder dreamed of having his own small organic vineyard in Burgundy, but, ironically, by 1993, he was in Oregon working as a winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards in Willamette Valley. Bachelder continued his winemaking journey over the next 20 years, jumping between Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara. He worked as a winemaker in Meursault and then as the founding winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne in the Niagara Escarpment. Bachelder became known as a “Master of Elevage,” using minimal intervention to produce elegant, terroir-driven wines. It was this chapter of his life that inspired his “Three Terroirs Project.”
In 2009, Bachelder started producing and bottling chardonnay under his own label from all three countries he had worked in over the years: France, the U.S. and Canada. He wanted to study and compare the wines to one another and have other critics do the same. The concept was for those who discriminated against certain regions to be able to taste wine from the same grape made by the same hand from all three regions. This would allow people to be able to taste distinctions in the wines that came from the terroir and other climactic factors versus a variation in winemaking style.
His intention at the start of the project was to focus entirely on chardonnay, but, after committing to producing Chardonnay in Burgundy, Oregon and Ontario, Bachelder was offered 800kg of Old Vine Pinot Noir grapes from Wilma Lowrey. The Lowrey vineyard is one of Bachelder’s favorite sites in Niagara, located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation. Being a Pinot Noir lover at heart, by 2011, Bachelder was growing Pinot Noir in all three countries as well. It was then that Bachelder was able to truly discover the impact of terroir on both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grape varietals. He worked creating multiple expressions of both grapes from different vineyard sites each year and continued to sample them against each other. While he says Burgundy remains his favorite expression of the grapes, he found that Niagara wine was what really interested people.
“We keep our licenses in both places…but for the past six years I’d go out, and everybody would want the Niagara wines. What we are doing in Niagara is more novel and different than just another Burgundy,” he said.
Many restaurants already have a wine list full of Burgundy and Oregon pinot noir. Niagara wine is what most excites people because it’s different. It’s up and coming. So three years ago, Bachelder made a decision.
“We were hitting our heads against a wall and spending so much money trying to do all three [countries] when everybody wants Niagara. The Niagara warehouse would always be empty.”
He decided to start focusing more of his time and efforts in Ontario. He quickly realized that there was no one in Niagara producing single-vineyard wines from sites that spanned across the Niagara Peninsula, a 70km distance from Hamilton to Niagara-on-the Lake. He already had a reputation in the region as a founding winemaker at Le Clos Jordanne as well as Domaine Queylus in the Niagara Escarpment. People in the Niagara region knew him and liked what he was doing. It gave him the edge he needed to start his next project, and so, he began selecting the best fruit from the best plots in the Peninsula.
Bachelder now releases wine twice a year from vineyards that span from east to west in Niagara. He still has no fixed address and does not own any grapes of his own. He rents all the winemaking space to produce, bottle and store his wine. You can only taste his wines by appointment, in a tiny space he rents to store his barrels and lovingly refers to as “The Bat Cave,” but hours are irregular and mostly take place once a week on Saturday afternoons. The entire operation remains Bachelder and his wife, Mary, who takes care of the business side of the operation. The couple sells their wine through their website, https://bachelderniagara.com/.
“If I buy a big property, then I’m like everybody else, where I have to make wine, or mostly make wine, from that property, which is a beautiful and honorable thing to do. Whereas, if I continue the way I’m going, I get to interpret Niagara, everywhere. We’re going to try to do that. The Old World has really defined their terroirs, and now is our time to do that.”
Staying true to his Burgundian influence, Bachelder’s latest release, La Violette, offers Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also Gamay Noir from five different vineyard sites across Niagara, including Lowrey vineyard. They offer not only single vineyard “Cru” wines but also Beaujolais inspired “les Villages” wines available from each varietal, which blend grapes from several single-vineyard plots to create something more affordable and also very powerful. Bachelder is also offering his wine by the case in three “Terroir” packs, which allow customers to sample each of the variations of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in one case.
Thomas Bachelder is doing something right. As a “micro-negocient,” he remains free to make the wine he wants to make, as well as not make the wine he doesn’t. He continues to consult for Le Clos Jordanne and Domaine Queylus as well as work on other projects in Burgundy, Oregon, and, more recently, in Chile. He’s avoided huge start-up costs as well as licensing fees and staff expenses and has figured out a way to produce interesting, small-batch wine for a captivated audience. In the bigger picture, Bachelder has started breaking ground on a much larger project, one that could be a significant movement in North American winemaking.
There are a lot of prime vineyard sites that stretch beyond the Niagara Peninsula. In Ontario, there is Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore. The Niagara Escarpment continues into the U.S., and the Finger Lakes are rapidly gaining in popularity. Pennsylvania wine is on its way up. Now, more than ever, is the time to take full advantage of this region and bring to light all the beautiful vineyards, unique terroirs and incredible wine that comes out of it.