Thomas Bachelder
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A-list artisans: Thomas Bachelder – Ontario’s winemaker extraordinaire

May 11, 2020
“Every year, I want to get a little purer, get a little more out of the way of the vineyard’s expression; be a little more transparent.” – Thomas Bachelder

It can be argued that if the words “artisan wine” are applied to a label or used to describe the wine itself, it can evoke an emotion or a certain romance that the consumer can connect with.

I’ve tried to wade through as much of the artisan wine market as possible – especially here in Canada. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many winemakers making exceptional wines. And although not everyone I have come across fits the billing, there are those select individuals, whom I believe, really do seem to define the term artisan, whether their branding suggests it or not.

Read the complete intro to this series: A-List Artisans: Winemakers who define ‘artisanal’ winemaking

We begin this series by spotlighting Thomas Bachelder – original winemaker and now chief consultant for Domaine Queylus, winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne – to which he made a heralded return to in 2019 after several years of the brand’s dissolution – and, of course, winemaker for his very own label, aptly named Bachelder. All three are located within Niagara’s highly celebrated Niagara Escarpment region.

If you’re a wine enthusiast, Thomas is just the guy you want to discuss wine with. He’s a purist and very protective of his craft. He’s a very busy man, with active winemaking and consulting projects spanning three continents (Chile, Oregon, Burgundy and Niagara).

Yet despite his tireless work ethic, he’s extremely generous with the free time that he does have. He’s a tremendous source of thought-provoking knowledge when it comes to wine and the terroir it is founded upon, answering questions with as much insight as you’d expect him to provide on the matter.

Read more about Thomas Bachelder: Comeback complete – one of Ontario’s most beloved wine projects is back from the dead

When we met for the first time, back in spring of 2018, little did I know that it would be such an epic moment for me in my wine education.

Preceding our meeting was an approximate 30-minute phone conversation, about a week and a half before meeting face to face. Thomas had called one day while on his way home from Toronto. He wanted to personally reach out in response to an interview inquiry I had emailed the winery’s PR firm about. Perhaps it was his way of vetting me, or just maybe it was his way of saying “hey, I’m just a regular guy who loves chatting about wine and I’m glad you do too. No need to be super formal about this.”

Thomas Bachelder

Our meeting that day began at Domaine Queylus with a vertical tasting of pinot noir.

When we finally did meet, it felt as if I had always known him. It was at the Domaine Queylus winery in Saint Anns and the time was 10:30am. After a quick look around the grounds, we sat down to a five-vintage vertical of pinot noir. We dove right in, and over the next two hours, we would discuss the varying Niagara terroir, its sub-appellations, and of course, his love for Burgundy – not just its wine, but its soils too! – and how Ontario reasonably compared. He was like a professor and I was his ever-earnest student.

“Having the ‘intent’ to make terroir wines is half the battle! If you don’t have terroir as your goal, getting there is unlikely.” – Thomas Bachelder

We were only just getting started with the Domaine Queylus pinots. After we were through with the vertical tasting it was time for lunch. So, on we went to a nearby restaurant, Thomas with a full cooler of goods in tow. We would transition to his personal Bachelder label, tasting chardonnay and pinot, discussing the virtues and “precise focus” of single vineyard wines vs. their multi-parcel blend – but not inferior – counterparts (of which he had multiple examples of each). We even tasted some wines from his Oregon project in Willamette.

Each bottle Thomas poured came with its own enthusiastic story, a labour of love revealed from the growth cycle to its harvest and ultimately from barrel to bottle. My mind was racing, scrambling to try and connect all the dots from the numerous tangents we would venture off to.

Thomas Bachelder

There’s a story behind every bottle of Thomas Bachelder’s wines.

Thomas and his wife Mary – who works closely along-side Thomas with the operational day-to-day work – don’t own any vineyard land of their own. In fact, up until last fall, they didn’t even have their own tasting room or retail space. They couldn’t sell their own wines from their website. If you wanted a bottle of Bachelder, you had to either find it in the LCBO or order off consignment (or find a restaurant that had it on their wine list). Even now, their retail space is by appointment only as it is Thomas or Mary (or perhaps even both) who will walk you through the tasting experience. Online ordering has been live since last October, featuring two special release dates per year.

You could say that because Thomas and Mary don’t own any vineyard property of their own, it allows them to pick and choose the vineyards they want to work with to make their portfolio of wines. Thomas, being a terroir expert, loves working within different sub-appellations within Niagara in order to show off the subtle differences that the soils and climate can impart in his wines – thus making them unique to each other. The difference terroir makes. It’s like forming a Niagara wines greatest hits album.

Thomas Bachelder

One can read about terroir all they want, but the real lesson is seeing and touching it in the vineyard.

After lunch, we took a drive to a few of these precious vineyard sites he has procured fruit from over the years. Here he could actually “show me” the terroir he was so passionately speaking of. It was interesting to see (and feel) just what he meant when he spoke of how things can be so different depending on how far (or how close) you were from the lake.

On to the bat cave (what Thomas calls his barrel cellar) – a quiet place where he undoubtedly spends much of his workday. Those who get to visit this place surely must also feel that they are witnessing winemaking mastery at work. Here we sampled more wine, fresh from barrel.

Together, we’d spend the next 90 minutes or so working on both a chardonnay blend and a pinot blend – not definitively, of course, but Thomas was gracious enough to walk me through the myriad possibilities and processes of creating that final blend. It was a rare opportunity to witness the trials and decisions that a winemaker faces each year when needing to put those final pieces of the puzzle into place, to give the wine that balance it requires.

Thomas Bachelder

Each barrel in the Bachelder cellar is precisely marked.

Thomas Bachelder

Hanging on every word.

We sampled many barrels, taking parts of barrels “a” and “b” and mixing with barrels “c” and “d” and so on. Each barrel with chalk scribbles – that only Thomas himself could ever properly decipher – indicating such variables as perfume, minerality and vineyard block, down to the exact rows they were picked from. It was mesmerizing to watch and learn how this man’s mind works in a barrel cellar.

By the end of the bat cave experience I felt I could walk away able to distinguish a Lowrey Vineyard pinot from a Wismer-Parke pinot with the utmost confidence. Same goes for Saunders chardonnay vs. Wismer-Wingfield. You could literally taste the terroir!

And so, after having spent close to six hours with Thomas that day, it was time to catch my breath and begin to digest what I had just experienced. An entire crash course on terroir, tasting, blending. Magnificent. In the days following, I would try my best to deconstruct the day and below is just a small sampling of what we “formally” discussed:

Q: Is deciding on which vineyard sites to grow your fruit more science or instinct?

A: More empirical, really. Typically, when you establish and plant a site, there is a neighbour nearby who has already planted and produced grapes, which helps one whittle down the choice of grape and rootstalk, which is then further confirmed by science, digging soil pits (and sending them to the lab). After all of this, yes. One does tend to go with one’s gut Instinct.

Why do you think Ontario compares to Burgundy when it comes to terroir-driven wines? In your opinion, is it more nature or nurture?

More nature. We have the cool climate and the limestone. Terroir is climate; site; aspect; altitude; soil composition; drainage; wild yeasts and human interpretation. So, way more nature than nurture. But having the ‘intent’ to make terroir wines is half the battle! If you don’t have terroir as your goal, getting there is unlikely. Intent, intent, intent.

Thomas Bachelder

Bachelder points out the varying Niagara terroirs on the map.

Where do you think Ontario ranks among other regions and countries when it comes to pinot noir?

In terms of flavours and the structure of the wines? I’d say Ontario is the closest thing to Bourgogne outside of Europe. But we are currently insignificant in terms of hectares planted and market share. If we want to be known for pinot, we must plant more pinot.

Has your practice or technique changed over the years? How so?

I have lightened up over the years: less alcohol, less worry about deep colour; less maceration, less new oak and more verve, elegance, minerality and perfume.

Is there an art or specific playbook to maturing a wine and knowing when exactly it should be ready to bottle and drink?

If art is years of practice and a palate that is always tasting, always curious, years of experience with vineyard sites, then yes! Art.

Thomas Bachelder

Sampling from barrel is always a magical experience.

What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out? Conversely, what do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker?

Weather and working so many hours. We work so many weekends that it is hard to manage a small garden at home. When we are not winemaking or bottling or tending vines, we are on the road promoting our wines. The most rewarding thing is isolating specific terroirs and finding that sommeliers, wine writers and wine lovers actually agree with your choices.

What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?

Every year, I want to get a little purer, get a little more out of the way of the vineyard’s expression; be a little more transparent. Make expressive, age-worthy, mineral wines that are so true to the vineyard, and are of such purity, that they are capable of making one swoon!

If someone were to call you an ‘artisan winemaker’ would that be an accurate descriptor of who you are? What’s your definition of an artisan winemaker?

Yes! Benign but attentive non-intervention. An artisan winemaker cares about the land and honours the produce thereof: From vine to bottle with as little interference as possible. When your small child is learning to ride a two-wheeler bicycle, you let go of the back of their seat whilst keeping right behind them.

Carmelo Giardina

The following Bachelder label wines are from his most recent release and are available to purchase online at www.bachelderniagara.com. Receive free shipping on a minimum three bottle order.

Bachelder 2017 Wismer-Wingfield ‘Ouest’ Chardonnay

My first experience tasting a Bachelder chardonnay out of the Wismer-Wingfield block was during the summer of 2018 during my first meeting with Thomas. It was the 2015 vintage and it hadn’t been officially released yet. I can remember thinking at the time that this was likely the best Ontario chardonnay I had ever tasted. I was somewhat ignorant to the heights that Ontario could achieve in this varietal space. Since then I have gone on to re-taste that exact 2015 vintage, and then the 2016 vintage and now the 2017. It is, for lack of a better word, an outstanding wine, proven year after year. The ‘Wismer-Wingfield’ vineyard (Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation) is a late ripening parcel, furthest from Lake Ontario and at the highest elevation. This is further sourced from the western part of that block, intently focusing on the specifics of its unique terroir. There’s intense flavours of lemon zest, apple and pear that hit the palate like a truck out of nowhere. Then refreshing stone minerality and a wonderful salinity sending it all the way to the finish. There is (still) perhaps no better chardonnay that’s made in Ontario. ($47.95)

Bachelder 2017 Saunders-Haut Vineyard Chardonnay

Considered old vines now (planted in 1990) and grown at the furthest, highest part of the organically farmed Saunders vineyard within the Beamsville Bench – and thus the warmest part (hence the use of the French term ‘Haut’ meaning hot). As is the case with the Wismer-Wingfield ‘Ouest’ chardonnay, this is an ultra-focused single vineyard wine that offers up a textured mouthfeel and layers of flavour. In addition to citrus notes, there’s honey and spice with a stony mineral finish. It’s one of Bachelder’s long-standing favourite vineyard sites to work with and it clearly shows. ($44.95)

Bachelder 2017 Willms Vineyard Chardonnay

Believe it or not, this is Bachelder’s first chardonnay made from Niagara-on-the-Lake (Four Mile Creek sub-appellation), and from old vines planted in 1983 no doubt. Bachelder’s portfolio of wines really does now resemble a greatest hits collection of terroir and this chardonnay from the Willms Vineyard is another hit. The key is to taste this along-side any one of the other two chardonnays and locate the differences. The Willms is a wider bodied wine, richer and riper with more open flavours of orchard fruits (think baked apples and poached pears). There’s also some citrus notes, but not overwhelmingly so. Bachelder has allowed the wine to show off its sexy side (minerality, sleek salinity and reserved spice) with a rather seducing velvet-like texture. This has been well worth the wait. ($44.95)

Bachelder 2017 Wismer-Parke ‘Ouest’ Pinot Noir

Thomas Bachelder is a master of terroir-expressive wines and this expertly demonstrates his experience. The Wismer-Parke block is within the Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation and is entirely planted to pinot noir vines. Bachelder uses the western half of the site for this single vineyard bottling, choosing to use the rest to contribute to his les Villages bottling. The soils here are uniquely red in colour and that tends to impart brighter fruit flavours and more minerality into the wine. There’s more acidic backbone to this which forecasts a healthy cellaring period if you so choose to do. It’s actually a very perfumed wine and is quite delicate on the palate. I can recall tasting the 2015 vintage and thinking it was an excellent study in terroir – how the subtle differences tell the story. Climate, soils, location, location. This ‘17 edition is equally as enthralling. ($44.95)

Bachelder 2017 Lowrey Vineyard ‘Old Vines’ Pinot Noir

This is St. David’s Bench, otherwise known as the bench of Niagara-on-the-Lake. And this is the main event. The wine that seems to put everything into clear focus. It’s quite possible that there is no other vineyard in Ontario growing better pinot noir. Ontario’s grand cru if such a classification existed. The fruit is so coveted that only a select few winemakers get to access the original rows that were planted in 1984 and ‘88. Bachelder describes this wine as being a ballerina with great core strength. “It is the most perfumed and elegant wine we make,” he says. Since I began tasting the wine from this vineyard several years ago, I have known it was something special. The deep core of dark fruit, the silky-smooth texture on the palate, the earth and spice notes. Such finesse in a bottle. It’s very firm at the moment, so by all means, don’t rush this baby. Only about 3-4 barrels are made per year (about 1,200 bottles), so it’s bound to sell out fast. A true collector’s wine. ($47.95)

 

Bachelder 2018 Wismer-Foxcroft ‘Niagara Cru’ Gamay Noir

Bachelder only just recently expanded his portfolio to include gamay noir and he’s made an auspicious start. I recently tasted his 2017 les Villages version, which was released last fall and is a blend of multiple vineyard parcels. It was very good, quite gulpable actually, and had me further intrigued. This gamay is just one of three single vineyard gamays currently on release, in addition to the 2018 les Villages also now available. It’s quite candied and jammy with strawberry rhubarb, cherries, speckled spice, mineral notes and garden-fresh herbs. Careful, the bottle will be finished before you know it. ($27.95)

 

 

The following are wines also made by Thomas Bachelder and tasted within the last year.

 

Le Clos Jordanne 2017 ‘Le Grand Clos’ Chardonnay

Welcome back! One of Canada’s most highly praised wine brands (pre-dissolution) is back and what a vintage to make that comeback in! In what will surely be remembered as one of the very best (if not the best) vintages of the decade for chardonnay in Ontario, we’re being treated with what can only be best described as vintage Thomas Bachelder. One sip and immediately you realize why this wine was destined to make its way back. Such poise with distinguished flavour profile, including apples, peach cobbler, lemon zest and a mid-palate minerality perhaps never experienced to this degree in previous releases. These vines have dug deep and have been waiting to show off their best expression yet. There’s even an irresistible saltiness that lingers on the palate that’s just so refreshing, adding to its beautiful complexity. Will cellar through 2025 and even beyond, but it’s practically begging to be opened now. ($44.95)

 

Le Clos Jordanne 2017 ‘Le Grand Clos’ Pinot Noir

Currently displaying notes of rich berry fruit with some noticeable oak vanillin integration, this is a wine that has so much potential for those who are patient. (After all, we’ve waited this long for the brand to make a comeback, what’s another few years of waiting?) It’s quite tight at the moment, so if you do open now, decant this for about five hours before drinking. You’ll notice that it’s quite focused and layered, and hints at things to come with added complexities sure to hit peek performance come 2024. A great vintage for Ontario pinot noir! ($44.95)

 

 

 

Domaine Queylus 2016 Tradition Chardonnay

Situated on a beautiful must-visit property, Domaine Queylus is built on crafting elegant wines using a limited number of varieties. Bachelder is now a consultant on this project, with Kelly Mason taking the lead winemaking role. This chardonnay is golden straw coloured and exudes intense and concentrated flavours of petrol, flint smoke, baked apple and richly buttered toast. The mouthfeel is smooth with a mineral component and a textured finish. ($27.95)

 

 

 

Domaine Queylus 2015 Tradition Pinot Noir

A beautifully balanced pinot with smoothened tannins and drying fruit. Not bad for a pinot that’s considered the entry level for this Domaine. There’s notes of earth, spice, dry cedar and smoke. There’s a warming effect on the finish which is comforting. A delicious wine to enjoy and contemplate post meal. Sourced from the winery’s two estate vineyards located in the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation in Beamsville and in the Twenty Mile Bench appellation in Jordan. ($31.95)