Approach The Bench // Short Cellar

Matthew stocks his cellar with local wine from Beamsville, Ontario

By Matthew Sullivan

On Tuesday June 3rd, 2008

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Three years ago, I was on my way to Niagara-on-the-Lake for lunch. I never made it. Instead, just west of St. Catharines, I stumbled on a colony of low-key wineries making high-end wine. I returned to Toronto that evening with a carload of bottles. I was tempted to drink them all immediately, but instead they became the beginnings of my wine collection. The Short Cellar was born in Beamsville.

Flatrock Cellars winery
Flatrock Cellars winery (Jordan, Ontario)

Since then, I return to Beamsville and its neighbouring villages as often as I can. Ninety minutes out of the city and you’re breathing country air and hunting for wine in its native habitat. These villages spread across a raised “bench” of land that captures the rare combination of factors that make great wine possible: the right weather for cool-climate grapes, glacial soil, and small plots that prevent the wineries from becoming too big.

What makes the Bench a destination for wine nuts and novices alike is the variety and eccentricity of the estates themselves. Some newly built wineries are architectural delights, with a style of high Canadiana that blends the rustic barn, the Muskoka lodge, and the modern appetite for glass and light. Other properties are simple farmhouses with a lot of mud and tractors.

No matter what their appearance, there’s an earthiness here — these wineries are farms at heart. The farming mentality means that the winemakers obsess over the growth of their own grapes, rather than purchasing them from independent vendors as many large wineries do. The best wineries cultivate the vines to produce less fruit — this shrinks the output, but concentrates the flavours of the land into fewer grapes, making a more intense flavour.

I couldn’t find any wine snobs in Beamsville, just farm dogs sniffing my boots while I walked among the vines, and a lot of chatty winemakers. At Daniel Lenko’s winery, you’re bound to meet the award-winning vintner himself since he’s usually the only one there. I sat with him in his kitchen (which doubles as reception) sampling from a table loaded haphazardly with half-empty bottles. I was particularly struck by the 2004 French Oak Old Vines Chardonnay ($29.95, available from the winery). It’s a perfect marriage of crisp apple and creamy butterscotch that will grow more mellow and delicious over the next few years. As I shook hands to leave, I noticed Daniel’s T-shirt — the faded lettering said, “Would you like to touch my python?” Nothing snobbish about that.

Planning a daytrip to Beamsville is as easy as a screwcap

Beamsville is a short drive from Toronto, London or Kitchener. You can hire a van to pick you up at the St. Catharines train station and ferry you between the wineries — I enjoyed Niagara Wine Tours International (niagaraworldwinetours.com 1-800-680-7006)

You can find an excellent map and a complete list of the wineries at winesontario.org. Calling ahead is the best way to guarantee that they’ll be open. Sunday is less crowded and more mellow than Saturday.

Recommended destinations: Hidden Bench, Le Clos Jordanne, Flatrock Cellars, Mountain Road Wine Company, Daniel Lenko Winery, 13th Street Winery, Thirty Bench, and Tawse Winery.


Into the Short Cellar

Hidden Bench Roman’s Block 2006 Riesling

($32 from the winery). Hidden Bench sets a new standard for elegance in Ontario wines. Their Riesling is clear as glass, with a brilliant spine of acidity that reflects mandarin orange and lime. Right now, it generates electricity on the palate but try it in the cellar for about four years to help the fruit melt a little more on your tongue.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon

($45 from the winery). Except for Pinot Noir, I’m always wary of local attempts at red wine — they can taste underdeveloped and green. But this is the best Cabernet Sauvignon I’ve tasted from Ontario. Powerful and succulent, it’s young now, but displays a promising composition that will fully open by 2012.

Both wines can be ordered by contacting the winery (hiddenbench.com) or visiting in person (4152 Locust Lane, Beamsville, ON).


Matthew Sullivan is a lawyer with the Department of Justice. He can be reached at matthew@lawandstyle.ca. Follow Matthew’s adventures in cellaring every Tuesday at lawandstyle.ca/shortcellar