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A-list Artisans: Emma Garner is crafting benchmark wines in Niagara

February 24, 2021
“We are continuing to learn more about our vineyards, varietals and management techniques to best tend our vineyards and the challenges that are unique to our region.” – Emma Garner

Crafting world-renowned wines for over 25 years now, Thirty Bench Wine Makers has firmly placed itself among some of Canada’s finest wineries. Located below the Niagara Escarpment on gentle slopes within the Beamsville Bench, the winery sits on one of the most important pieces of vineyard real estate in the country. In fact, this was a trailblazing property first planted to riesling in 1980.

The winery first opened its doors in 1994 but didn’t gain much in the way of consumer traction until it was purchased by Andrew Peller Ltd. in 2005 – a Canadian wine industry conglomerate that also owns several other familiar brands within Niagara and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Under Peller’s ownership, the brand flourished and has been gaining a strong reputation as a premium wine producer – with national and wide-spread international recognition – as each year passes, collecting one major award after another.

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Recent major prizes at the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), including gold medal wins for a pair of small lot rieslings and the best in show award for its 2015 Small Lot Cabernet Franc, are testament to the fact that the world is taking notice – not just of this small winery, but of Canada as a whole.

Thirty Bench made its mark right from the beginning as a boutique-style operation that was committed to quality ‘small lot’ winemaking, and that commitment has not wavered. Every wine is limited quantity and very special in its representation of place and time. Originally built on producing world-class riesling wines, the portfolio now includes nine varietals, all made with an artisanal approach at the hands of winemaker Emma Garner.

Thirty Bench

The Thirty Bench winery is a cozy space for tastings, with scenic views of the surrounding vineyards and of Lake Ontario off in the distance.

During her studies in the Oenology and Viticulture program at Brock University, Emma travelled to Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and British Columbia. Her passion for wine and food grew with each trip. After working in vineyards and cellars in the Niagara region, she began working at Trius Winery, where she made wine in various capacities until 2005 when she began working for Thirty Bench. In 2010, she became head winemaker.

“The terroir of the Thirty Bench vineyard is truly unique. I love spending time walking through the vineyard. The slopes, the soils and view of Toronto can’t be beat!” 

Emma believes in allowing the vineyard to express itself by making wine with minimal intervention. She loves working with rieslings and ferments them at low temperatures to retain as many aromatic compounds as possible, resulting in wines bursting with complexity and intensity.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I love making riesling,” says Emma. “It is the grape variety that truly represents where it is grown. We make four different rieslings, all grown within close proximity to each other. All are made the same way, and yet they all have very different flavour characteristics. The only real notable difference is the soil in which they are grown – an excellent representation of terroir.”

Emma Garner

Emma Garner walks the vineyards at Thirty Bench.

Her portfolio of rieslings is repeatedly recognized as some of the very best made in the country, yet if you ask Emma which wine depicts her personal style the most, she’s bound to tell you that it’s cabernet franc.

“Our approach to small lot cab franc production has always had quality at its core,” asserts Emma. “We manage the vineyard with vine balance in mind which typically results in low yields. This ensures us that even in cooler vintages, the fruit will reach optimal ripeness. It is a very special piece of land and although I try to let the vineyard shine through in the wine, I am able to make more choices with its creation versus the rieslings. Yeast type, time on skins, pressing cycle, type of oak, duration in barrel all help to create the final product.”

Further distinguishing the small lot cabernet franc from any other wine that the winery produces is the fact that its fruit comes from a section of the property that is farmed organically. “In attempt to be better stewards of the earth, we changed our pest management practices in this block to be organic in 2012,” says Emma. She points out the fact that “we have seen the vines react very positively and the quality of the fruit seems to have improved as well.”

“With less intervention in the vineyard, I feel the fruit’s true quality can be represented more clearly in the juice and subsequent wine.”

In 2015, Thirty Bench Wine Makers was recognized by WineAlign as Canada’s Best Small Winery. That same year, Emma Garner took home the Winemaker of the Year award at the Ontario Wine Awards. Recognized for her consistent quality production across her portfolio, she’s become one of the most accomplished winemakers in Niagara.

Thirty Bench

A tasting of some of Thirty Bench’s red varieties, including the Benchmark Red, Small Lot Cabernet Franc, Small Lot Pinot Noir and Winemaker’s Blend Red.

Emma admits that “making wine in Ontario is quite a challenge. Every vintage provides you with a different playing field. Just when you think you’ve got your playbook established, Mother Nature throws you a curve ball and you need to pay attention and listen to the vines, taste the fruit and determine the best course to make the highest quality, most expressive wine you can.”

She has admiration for those seeking to make their way into the world of wine making. “I admire anyone who has the courage to follow their dreams and join this industry. It is a very humbling profession, one in which you can stand to learn more every year. It’s challenging and frustrating at times, however, yields massive rewards if you stay focussed on the end goal of creating amazing wines. There truly is never a dull moment!”

Thirty Bench 2018 Steel Post Riesling 

The foundation of Thirty Bench’s success is its mature riesling vineyard, which is now divided into three blocks – Steel Post, Wood Post and Triangle. All were planted to clone 21B riesling (the Niagara standard) between 1980 and 1984. This particular Steel Post riesling is satin-like smooth and its flavours seem to immediately envelope the palate. Its notes of wet stone and mineral characteristics complement the juicy flavours of citrus and green apple. Try this one side by side with the Wood Post and Triangle Vineyard offerings for the complete trifecta experience. ($29.95)

Thirty Bench 2017 ‘Wild Cask’ Riesling

This is a fairly new experiment for Thirty Bench and winemaker Emma Garner. Made using fruit sourced from the property’s Muckle Vineyard (named after one of the founding owners of the winery), this ‘Wild Cask’ riesling is fermented with wild yeasts in neutral wood puncheons and held in bottle for a year. It’s medium-bodied and off-dry with a very textured mouthfeel and intriguing aromas of wet stone, lemon, pear and green apple. Refreshing mineral notes and pineapple linger on the finish. It’s hard to decide which riesling to favour more, but then again, that’s the whole point of this impressive lineup. ($29.95)

Thirty Bench 2016 ‘Small Lot’ Cabernet Franc

With so much focus on riesling at Thirty Bench, the reds have long flown under the radar – until that big win in the UK for the 2015 Small Lot Cabernet Franc. This is simply one of the great cabernet francs in Niagara and with the warmer, lengthier vintage that was 2016, comes a wine that’s slightly more robust and ageworthy. Emma Garner did not let the warmer vintage take advantage here. This is clearly one of Ontario’s standout examples of this variety, coming from an isolated, organically farmed parcel located at the most northern section of the Thirty Bench vineyard. The process of selecting this wine’s final blend is heavily scrutinized, to the point where just 214 cases are produced. The wine itself is a deep purple garnet colour with lovely aromatics that include black currant, smoke, charred wood and forest floor. The full-bodied, firm palate is fruit-forward and displays notes of ripe blackberry and black currant, with accents of vanilla bean and cocoa. ($75)

Thirty Bench 2017 ‘Small Lot’ Pinot Noir

For a winery known more for its excellent rieslings and big hearty reds, it came as a pleasant surprise that I would enjoy this pinot noir so much, and thus choose to make this a selection to focus on. Emma Garner has admitted that she loves to work with cabernet franc – and it shows – but this pinot is a real diamond in the rough. A lovely integration of fruit and barrel notes, it’s medium-bodied with flavours of red currant and cherry, plus added notes of earth and beet root unfolding on the palate. I noticed more earth in this vintage and less barrel spice than the 2016 offering that I tasted one year ago. Drink or hold for two years tops. Excellent value. ($36.95)

Thirty Bench 2016 ‘Small Lot’ Merlot

The winery is on to the 2017 vintage release now, but this is such a quality merlot, I’d be remiss to ignore it. All the expected characteristics are here, including red plum, cherry, smoky oak, cedar and spice notes. It’s ripe and long on the finish. Thirty Bench is among a (very) small number of producers in the region that are making merlot at this optimum level year in, year out. ($50)

Thirty Bench 2016 ‘Benchmark’ Red

Unlike their annually released ‘Winemaker’s Blend Red’, a delicious wine that’s among my regular purchases each year, the ‘Benchmark Red’ is made only in exceptional vintages (think 2010, 2012 and most likely next in 2020). This is the winery’s icon wine – a classic Bordeaux style blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot – and it rivals any relative Bordeaux counterpart in a heartbeat. The nose is extremely lifted with a bouquet of fresh fruits – something I took notice of immediately considering the wine’s youth. The mouthfeel is smooth, supple and exudes class. No tannic friction yet you sense the power of the vintage. Alcohol is not impactful. It’s completely harmonious. This isn’t supposed to happen in Ontario… or maybe it is. Well done Thirty Bench and well done Ontario! (Previously named as the best red wine I tasted in all of 2019.) (Still available at the winery for $85)

Thirty Bench Wine Makers was recently listed among VineRoutes’ list of the Top 20 Wineries in Ontario for 2020. Check out the complete list here.

Top 20 Wineries in Ontario


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