Thirty Bench Retro Riesling Tasting

In some way the story of Thirty Bench Wine Makers mirrors the story of the Niagara wine region. It goes back to Dr. Tom Muckle who had come to the region from England's Newcastle Medical School to work at Hamilton's McMaster University. The wine lover with a noted green thumb had the foresight to plant some Riesling vines from 1981-83 on a particular Beamsville Bench property which became the site of Thirty Bench.

When Muckle was finally able to get a winery license in time for 1994 vintage, Thirty Bench Wine Makers was born. He along with two other talented amateur winemakers Yorgos Papageorgiou and Frank Zeritsch built the winery’s reputation by focusing on quality practices in the vineyard like dry farming, hand harvesting, limiting yields and sometimes harvesting late into the season. The quality focused practices have continued since the winery was purchased by Andrew Peller Limited in 2005 and so have awards and critical acclaim.

The winery's reputation grew organically and the grape varieties grown diversified over time but the estate has always been best known for its Riesling. It's one of the early estates that helped build the area's reputation as a quality Riesling producer. With that in mind current winemaker Emma Garner and long-time employee, wine consultant, Janine Hunink recently hosted an intimate tasting of the estate's Rieslings spanning a decade from 1994 until 2004.

Like any winemaker in the formative years of a young wine region Muckle worked with the season and experimented with what it gave him, according to Hunink. Muckle tried different levels of sweetness, the use of botrytis (a unique grape dehydrating mould that concentrates flavours, and acids) affected fruit and even the use of oak to ferment and age some of his Rieslings. This made for a very diverse set of wines to taste even amongst flights that contained the same vintage.

The first wine that stood out was the 1994 Reserve Dry Riesling. With a pale gold colour this wine looked remarkably fresh considering its age. The aromas are quite different from what you might expect if you're only familiar with younger Riesling since tertiary flavours develop in the bottle. This wine was full of spicy ginger bread, a complex yeastiness like artisan bread, petrol (a desirable characteristic that tends to develop as Riesling ages), and a citrus note. On the palate these were joined by lemon peel and a distinct lingering bitter almond and mineral finish. With high-acid and a medium mouthfeel this wine is still a very lively dry Riesling.

The 1995 Reserve Dry was quite a contrast in comparison. Closer to a medium gold this wine came from a much hotter and drier vintage. The nose was full with a haunting mix of interesting spices. You're first greeted with the alluring smell of caramelised sugar that's reminiscent of crème brulée when the sugar is being torched to make the crisp caramel top. There is also an intriguing wooly lanolin aroma, petrol, spicy marzipan and a hint of flinty minerality and botrytis funk. On the palate there are hints of honey, black tea and minerality but the the marzipan really shines through with a long spicy finish. The alcohol is a little hot for Riesling at the medium plus level but it's well balanced with medium plus acid and a medium plus mouthfeel.

The 1998 Semi Dry was also from another hot and fairly dry vintage, and was a favourite amongst the group. A nose which is reminiscent of spun sugar invites you deeper into the glass. You'll find aromas of pear preserves, apricots, white flower honey and candied ginger along with hints of bee's wax and petrol. The palate delivers on all those deep concentrated flavours and evokes pear preserves, apricot marmalade, honey and a marzipan finish that lasts and lasts. The palate is off-dry but kept in balance with acidity, mouthfeel and alcohol all at medium level. The complexity wasn't just limited to the very oldest vintages either. The 2004 Limited Yield, which means the crop was thinned significantly so the vines could concentrate the remaining fruit, was from a cooler vintage that had a nice warm fall. This off-dry example had a nose and palate full of juicy apricots, white flowers, honey and hints of petrol. The honey and minerality is long-lived on the finish and the fleshy medium plus mouthfeel is beautifully plush. This fuller-body Riesling was well balanced by the medium plus acidity.

All of the wines, especially those approaching their second decade tasted remarkable, which is a testament to Riesling's ageability, the Niagara terroir and Dr. Tom Muckle's winemaking. So aside from a fantastic learning experience what could you take away from this tasting? A couple of common threads emerged. First, hotter vintages tended to fair better in this particular tasting than cooler vintages. That's goes against conventional wisdom because Riesling is the quintessential cool climate grape variety with an affinity for one of most northernly and cool wine growing regions Germany. But perhaps it's the combination of very ripe fruit and higher alcohol that helps in these older bottles. Although it's not completely analogous Vintage Port with its exceptionally ripe fruit and high alcohol, thanks to fortification, is know to be one of the world's longest lasting wines. But the second thing that stood out was wines that are closer to the sweeter side, those labeled semi-dry or semi-sweet at this tasting, also tended to fair a little better than those that were labeled dry. Perhaps that extra bit of sugar acts as a bit of a preservative in the aging process. Most Rieslings from Niagara and around the world that are labeled dry have some residual sugar because with its high acid an absolutely bone dry Riesling can taste a little a little unbalanced.

Current winemaker Emma Garner feels privileged to craft wines from Thirty Bench's older Riesling vines which range from Geisenheim clone blocks that are 30 years old to the more common (in Niagara) Weis 21B blocks that are a year or two younger. At the tasting Garner recalled when Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute came to study the plantings. It turns out that the Riesling vineyards which have been divided and labeled Wood Post, Steel Post and Triangle isn't arbitrary. Water retention and uptake and soil all play a part in making these vineyards, which are currently bottled in small lots under their single vineyard moniker, not only unique amongst themselves but also on the Beamsville Bench.

Since these are back vintages with extremely limited quantities this tasting was a one-off opportunity to try some of these wines but General Manager Fiona Muckle, Dr. Tom's daughter, hinted that the interest in the event has the winery considering back vintage tastings of the other varieties. But if you're a Riesling lover and are disappointed that you missed out on this unique opportunity please contact the winery as some of the wines mention as well as other back vintages may still be avallable to purchase.

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Thirty Bench Winemakers
4281 Mountainview Road, Beamsville

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.

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