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The Bench: the pinnacle of Canada’s Pinot Noir terroir

Canada is emerging as an exciting new frontier for Pinot Noir and a small region known as The Bench is leading the way in the production of vibrant, fresh examples. Sarah Marsh MW reports

Words by Sarah Marsh MW

The Butlers' Grant vineyard, owned by Westcott Vineyards
The Collection
Butlers' Grant vineyard, part of the Westcott estate in Ontario

After a three-week odyssey visiting 70 wineries across Ontario and British Columbia, I’m confident in stating that Canada is the new frontier for Pinot Noir. You may think Canada is too northerly and cold for red wine but Ontario’s wine appellations, at 42-44° North, share a latitude similar to Tuscany.

Ontario was not as I expected. The urban sprawl from Toronto has reached the Niagara Peninsula and highways scar Lake Ontario’s shore, but I quickly encountered Pinot Noir that exceeded my best expectations. Most of the action happens on the Niagara Peninsula, where I found the wine trade surprisingly mature given serious plantings of Vitis vinifera began just 30 years ago (following a government incentive to improve wine production by ripping out Vitis labrusca.).

Canadian Pinot Noir growing at Le Clos Jordanne in Ontario
The breeze from Lake Ontario moderates summer heat on Pinot Noir in The Bench

Prince Edward County is making a name for lighter, more delicate Pinot Noirs than those of Niagara but this region has yet to reach its full potential. The best terroir for Pinot Noir is largely confined to an area called ‘The Bench’, a slight escarpment on the other side of Lake Ontario and approximately five kilometres from the water. The topography, limestone bedrock and topsoil were formed over millions of years of glacial activity. A limestone slope where Pinot Noir is most at home? Not dissimilar to the Côte d’Or, although, unusually for wine production, this slope faces north. The cool exposition, together with the breeze from the lake which moderates the summer heat, creates the vibrant fruit character and glacial freshness of Niagara’s Pinot Noir.

The high concentration of Dolomitic limestone, derived from an ancient seabed in Ontario’s Great Lakes basin, differs from that of Burgundy. But the effect on Pinot Noir is similar. The wines can be lightly austere but attractively so. The fruit reaches phenolic ripeness at rather low sugar levels, which gives a modest – but more drinkable – 12-13% alcohol. There’s nothing blockbuster about these Pinots.

Thomas Bachelder walks between rows of Canadian Pinot Noir
Thomas Bachelder has become a consultant and mentor to many young winemakers in Niagara

Along the 36 kilometres of The Bench, the terroir changes subtly. The mesoclimate is influenced by the distance from the lake, the subtle elevation and the effect of creeks running down to the water. Factor in the presence of limestone and depth of glacial till and you have Pinot Noir of intriguingly different expressions.

To make sense of the terroir, the Ontario Wine Appellation Authority has divided the area into sub-appellations. At the east end of the Bench is the sunny sub-appellation of ‘St David’s Bench’, which lies close to the horribly over-commercialised Niagara Falls. At 13km from Lake Ontario, it’s furthest from the lake’s cooling influence and rather on the warm side for Pinot Noir. Combined with the clay and loam topsoils, which lie above the limestone, St David’s makes the biggest and sturdiest Pinots from The Bench.

Moving west, skipping past the urban area of St Catherine’s, we come to ‘Twenty Mile Bench’. This is closer to Lake Ontario, just 5.5km away. It is the sweet spot for silky, elegant Pinot Noir. Thomas Bachelder, a négociant winemaker, consultant and mentor to many young and talented winemakers in Niagara, says he would like to see Twenty Mile Bench divided into ‘Jordan Bench’ and ‘Vineland Bench’ to correspond to the villages that lie above the vineyards. It makes sense if the wines are discernibly different. Based on various tastings of Pinot Noir from Le Clos Jordanne, Domaine Queylas (Réserve Pinot from Jordan Vineyard) and Flat Rock Cellars, the wines from around Jordan village are lithe and sophisticated with tension and precision from the limestone, while Pinot Noirs from the village area of Vineland are charming and aromatic upfront, but swiftly reveal themselves to be gutsy, earthy and wild.

A vineyard that belongs to the Tawse Winery
A vineyard belonging to the Tawse Winery

Moving west again along The Bench, the next sub-appellation is ‘Beamsville Bench’. About 4km from the lake, so with more lake influence, it lies beneath a sharp escarpment and the soils are deeper. The wines are generally a little richer and rounder with dark fruit than the wines of Twenty Mile Bench but show plenty of freshness and graphite minerality. Hidden Bench Estate plays up to this style.

Beyond Beamsville, squeezed between the escarpment and Lake Ontario, is Grimsby. It’s just off The Bench but seems a natural extension in spirit and style; soil and slope. Production was too insignificant and maybe not up to snuff when the sub-appellations were designated in 2005. The principal grower on Grimsby Hillside is now focused on producing quality fruit, which he sells to several winemakers, and a bright, mineral style is emerging from this terroir. Leaning Post, a small estate run by Ilya and Nadia Senchuk, makes a lovely example. Senchuk also makes Pinot Noir from the vineyard below the hill, which is fruit-driven and gutsier.

Factor in the presence of limestone and depth of glacial till and you have Pinot Noir of intriguingly different expressions

These sub-appellations produce subtly different expressions of Pinot Noir from the vineyards around the different villages, just as you might expect in the Côte d’Or but the parallel goes deeper than this. As I schlepped up and down King’s Street, which separates the Bench from the sandier vineyards along the lake shore, tasting Pinot, Gamay and Chardonnay, I found that single vineyards emerged for recognisable quality and style.

For example, Foxcroft is a large Wismer-owned vineyard, planted with several varieties. As the fruit is sold to several winemakers, it’s possible to start to cross referencing. All is not equal but the quality wine producers have bagged the best rows within this vineyard and their Foxcroft wines have depth and structure with savoury minerality.

Vineyards at Westcott
Canadian Pinot Noir from vineyards on Vinemount Ridge is racy and taut

This partnership between winemakers and growers deepens the understanding of Bench terroir and will help divide the land into smaller and more accurate parcels. In a vineyard called Parke, on Twenty Mile Bench, Bachelder found discernible differences in Pinot Noir at the west end of his rows, which now he makes and labels separately.

Finally, near Hamilton, The Bench slopes up to meet an escarpment, above which is Vinemount Ridge. Here, Carolyn Hurst and Grant Westcott, a former tech industry couple from Toronto, are among those planting Pinot Noir. Their home parcel at Westcott Vineyards slopes slightly south and requires geothermal blankets to prevent the vines from dying in the mid-winter freeze. It produces racy and taut expressions of the variety.