Above all others Chardonnay is the winemakers grape. Just like a bright eyed student, the possibilities of what it can become are endless. In the thoughtful hands of the just the right teacher to guide it, Chardonnay is capable of making some of the most sublime wines you've ever tasted.
With a mop of distinguished white hair, black rimed glasses and the poetic-philosophical presence of an orator, Thomas Bachelder looks the part of the inspiring professor. Luckily he delivers on that look and one of his favourite students happens to Chardonnay. Interestingly, Chardonnay didn't always have such a dear place in his heart.
After making his name as a wine journalist Bachelder followed his passion for old world Pinot Noir and made his way east to study winemaking in Burgundy. Although he was there solely for Pinot Noir it was a tasting of Primer and Grand Cru Chardonnays in Chassagne-Montrachet with his winemaking class that left him changed. For him the tension, energy and texture of those Chardonnays was an epiphany. Since then he's become a believer and advocate that a Chardonnay from a good cool climate region like Niagara is capable of producing some of the finest wines you can buy, regardless of colour. He's carried that belief throughout his winemaking career learning his craft in Burgundy and then honing it Oregon as the founding winemaker at Lemelson and until recently as the founding winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne.
Interestingly two years ago Bachelder raised some eyebrows stepping way from his position as the vineyard manager and winemaker of Le Clos Jordanne, where the resources and are vast and the focus of defining Niagara terroir through Pinot Nor and Chardonnay fit him perfectly. The explanation was he wanted to focus on his own winemaking and consultancy business. It was last year that the public finally saw exactly what that meant when he launched his own virtual winery label Bachelder Wines with his wife and Niagara wine industry veteran Mary Delaney. He prefers the label micro négociant over virtual. It's a French term for small wine merchant, which in recent years has been used to describe tiny passionate, often winemaker-only, labels focused on very small lot winemaking with the goal of trying to express the sense of place in a particular appellation or vineyard. That perfectly describes Bachelder Wines along with its project of producing wines that express the regional identities of Burgundy, Oregon and Niagara, each of the places he's lived and worked in. After speaking to him and hearing the many anecdotes from abroad, you quickly realise that although the project is ambitious and more than a little crazy, it's a brilliant fit. Bachelder is not really someone who is at his best in one place, but rather like vacationing with a friend who is a citizen of the world he's at his best being a guide and translating what makes those places so dear to him and special. The label's inaugural line-up of 2009 Chardonnays, one from each of those three regions, quickly sold out at the LCBO and was well received by both consumers and wine lovers. All from the same vintage and all vinified identically by the same winemaker, picking up a bottle of all three was perfect for oenophiles who love to compare and contrast the intricacies of a wine's sense of place/somewhereness/terroir.
Just last week the second phase of the Bachelder Wines project began with the release of its 2010 Niagara Chardonnay through the LCBO's Vintages. For this Chardonnay Bachelder has blended wines sourced from two vineyards: the famed Wismer vineyard (supplier of top-quality fruit to countless Ontario wineries like: Tawse, Rosewood, Peninsula Ridge, Norman Hardie, etc.) in the 20 Mile Bench sub-appellation and the organically-farmed Saunders vineyard in the Beamsville Bench next to Thirty Bench. Two 2010 single vineyard Chardonnays, picked from the barrels that best showcase the character of these two properties, are also coming out soon. But you needn't wait until then. Not only does this blend give you a great preview of what to expect from those single vineyards, it also makes for a fantastic top-shelf Chardonnay and a worthy follow-up to last year's 2009.
Although the warm 2010 vintage with timely rain was the polar opposite of the wet and cold 2009 vintage (aka the year summer hit the snooze button and never woke-up), Bachelder used same approach crafting his Chardonnay. The reason was that the older vineyards he sources from have the deep, established root structure to produce quality fruit regardless of the vintage. That doesn't mean it will taste the same every year or that he wants it to, but rather that they can produce quality fruit that makes a great wine which is reflective of the vintage. Expressing the cool weather of the vintage, the 2009 was built on a strong core of minerality and crisp high acidity with flavours of: freshly grated Meyer lemon zest, orange blossom, green apple and white peach. More of a lithe ballerina of a wine with a coy appeal, its texture is powerful but graceful, coming from its focused sparky minerality and high-acidity core. The 2010 on the other hand is more of a figure skater. There's an elegance to it, but its texture is bolder, richer and rounder and more powerful. At the same time it also possesses an undercurrent of finesse. Place aside, the common thread between the two vintages is Bachelder's approach to Chardonnay.
He has an interesting philosophy when crafting wines made from his favourite white grape. As with all good wines it starts with growing good grapes. Bachelder prefers older vineyards on the Bench that are grown organically and to low-yields. After picking at the right time he always relies on a natural/wild yeast fermentation under a watchful eye. Bachelder finds that the different yeasts competing in a natural/wild fermentation make for a longer, slower fermentation and ultimately a more complex and textured wine. He's also an advocate of barrel fermentation with Chardonnay.
“I'm a big believer in the magic of barrel fermentation and long aging. I think that barrel fermentation is not oaking, but it is that alchemy that happens, the interaction and the slow oxygenation but not oxidativeness, which occurs over 16 months,” he says. It might seem paradoxical that aging a Chardonnay in oak longer (many are barrel aged for 8-12 months) actually results in a wine that shows its sense of place better, but it's something he swears by. “It's like seeing a beautiful man or woman in his or her early twenties. You can see the beauty in his or her facial structure but there's still a little baby fat. If you see that same person a little later in his or her twenties, you'll find the baby fat disappears and you see that his or her true character is revealed.” For this to work it's critical to have a mix of barrels from new to five years old. Bachelder finds the oldest ones are neutral like stainless steel (the build-up of tartrates on the inside essential seals the barrel's pores producing a very mineral-driven wine), while the newest oak produces a wine that is plush and bold with rounder, richer, more developed flavours. If you've done things well, then blending these barrels together results in a rich-textured, yet lithe and mineral-driven cool climate Chardonnay.
Just as important as the better oak integration is the development of more texture, which is created by the barrel fermentation and long aging. In any wine it's that fuller, richer, chewier—in short more satisfying—texture that excites wine lovers above all else. It's also what he believes sets Chardonnay apart as the greatest of white grapes and the white for red wine drinkers who prefer reds not because of their flavours, but simply because most whites don't provide that same rich textural experience. Bachelder advocates it's something that can't come from a cold fermentation or stainless steel. It has to barrels and it has to be warm so some of that excess fruit blows-off, the baby fat melts and the sense of place and texture of the wine can reveal itself.
In this case it revealed itself to be quite a fantastic Chardonnay that's unmistakably Niagara—that is a white that embraces the best aspects of the new and old world. Some 2010 Niagara whites I've had exhibit beautiful, pure and powerful fruit. But after the initial sip I'm often left wanting as there isn't that crisp, lively, focus and feel that there was in the 2009 vintage. That isn't the case with this 2010. This is a Chardonnay that draws you in seductively with a beautiful citrus and tree fruit combination of: apple, lemon, peach and pear as well as an underlying layer of: yogurt, spice and touch of that savoury, stony Bench minerality on the end. Take a sip and those flavours become more defined. There's creamy lemon curd, Comice pear, golden apple and yellow peach. That fruit plays against the savoury tang of: greek yogurt, a bit of nutty peach pit and nutmeg spice before a lengthy finish of that stony Bench minerality and citrus. That minerality and lively acidity provides a beautiful tension against a gorgeous linen-like or café macchiato-like texture. The wine has a gorgeous and luxurious pleasant softness to it, while still retaining just enough edge to give it structure and keep things interesting. It's a wine that's brilliant now and opens-up beautifully over the course of the night. It's also a wine that should be even better after a couple of years in the cellar.
If that doesn't convince you I poured this Chardonnay for a group of beer and red wine drinkers without saying word about it. Every comment I received was a variation of I don't normally like Chardonnay, but this is pretty darn good. I can't think of higher praise for a man who has been on a mini-mission to show that when treated with care Chardonnay makes some of best white wines in the world.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.