Andrew Jefford is inspired by a single bottle of Thomas Bachelder 2018 Wismer-Foxcroft Nord Chardonnay, Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula.
January 2014, it was; -4°F (-20°C) in the depths of the Ontario night; not much warmer by day. I’ve just been looking through the photographs I took back then: everyone zipped up to their chins, pale skins drenched in gray light, steely smiles for the camera before we hurry back inside.
The vineyards look dead, buried in slate light. Slender black trunks sway up from the drifts, softly contorted, while the brown canes above form a threadbare hessian, clinging to the trellis.
The tin-blue snow echoes the featureless sky above; a distant huddle of dark trees and white roofs separates the two. Everything is hunched. The clouds (a couple of shots tell me) cleared, once or twice, over the lake; I can see the ice-thickened water reaching for the sky’s shy rose and lilac.
All of this was little cheer, evidently, for the geese, locked into their winter misery. How did they survive the darkness? I tossed and turned in my warm bed, fretting over their ordeal.
Come day, we tasted in clean white rooms with flowers and big windows. Roaring stoves assured our own survival, which in turn intensified the pleasure of tasting summer’s wine with the jaws of winter clamped about us. Then came the visit to Thomas and Mary.
Change of scene: an old industrial warehouse. They’ve driven the car right in: it’s over there. A table with candles on—was that where Mary was sitting? Barrels everywhere; it’s chill; we can see the snow banked up through the warehouse windows. Someone is hitting a pipe in the background. A maintenance worker? A poltergeist? No one comments.
No one comments because Thomas is talking, and it’s a blizzard. Was it the mixture of French and English that made me think of Stephen Dedalus? Or was it the cascade of consideration and intrigue and involvement, the stream of winemaking consciousness?
That’s what I find in my notes, scrawled out with cold hands. Few winemakers anywhere are as much in love with his vineyards as this tall, scruffy, endearing Québecois, nor ask so many questions of them.
Does he get everything right? Perhaps not; it doesn’t matter. “A man of genius makes no mistakes,” claimed the fictional Dedalus. “His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
We’re pacing the throat of land that lies between the southwestern end of Lake Ontario and the northeastern end of Lake Erie, and specifically the vine-draped benches, slopes and creek-drained flats that upholster the Niagara Escarpment.
“The Falls fall,” says Thomas, “from a limestone bench, and where there are no Falls, there are vines.”
It’s dangerous and vulnerable viticulture: gigantic, violent weather systems can plow imperiously in and ruin everything.
Vines survive only because of the vast, abyssal masses of water that lie to each side, great gouges in the skin of our planet just 14,000 years old: a tangible legacy of the Ice Ages (which we survived, and which made us).
Past and present feel very boreal here, even though Niagara lies at the same latitude as Languedoc. Summer steams and swelters.
In the wine world, nuance is easiest to discern at the limits. Thomas, nourished on Burgundy (where he worked and made wine for some years), is obsessed with these nuances.
We went chasing through the barrels that day, I recall, searching for the land’s gestures. I happened to mention, about the 2013 Chardonnay barrel sample he was calling “Wismer Bas” at the time, a tight, crunchy style, a salty, citrussy zest, a sense of the sandy shore to it; it seemed different to the hillside sample from the same Wismer-Foxcroft vineyard.
I thought no more about it and indeed forgot our exchange. Most winemakers would have done the same.
Eight years later, a Canadian friend arrived to stay for a few days with us. She put this bottle down on the table. Thomas had kept tasting, kept thinking; Wismer Bas had grown into “Nord.”
Now, he says, he “trips” every year “on the heavenly marine smells of crushed oyster shells, the savory texture, lemon oil and sea-mineral tang finish that only the northern slope of this vineyard imbues to the wines produced thereof.”
All that I leave to him, though I hope to have the fortune one day to taste through the little world his craft has uncovered with enough time to go tripping on allusions.
I love Niagara Chardonnay for the chance it gives to taste the idea of north in white wine: the fugue-like play of themes and variations you can hear in its quiet voices; and its restrained echo of another cool, continental zone where this variety feels at ease enough to cease being itself, being Chardonnay, and to be the place instead.
Silvered green-gray in the glass: cold winter light. Restrained aromas—so you look all the harder. When you look harder, anything that shouldn’t be there or that disappoints will be evident.
But nothing does disappoint; it’s pristine, pure, peeled. Orchard fruits and cream? Perhaps. Then comes the crisp cascade of the palate.
We went to the big Falls back in January ’14, and what did we see? A cauldron of ice and mist, with movement on its lip, churning in its heart.
This cascade is different: brighter, whistling, fresh, sunlit. The acids are cheerfully raw, almost Jura-like (limey, silty clay soils); it’s vinous, poised. And it drinks well: fine, supportive, graceful.
A cool space—but space to move nonetheless, to develop, to be.
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