Ambition Two Decades in the Making
Ontario's Le Clos Jordanne isn't holding anything back. They're aiming to make the best cool-climate wines in Canada - and the world.
It’s raining, overcast and a biting cold wind is blowing in off Lake Ontario, but Candis Walsh, the hospitality director who does pretty much everything at the winery, walks you out to her car. She drives you south, away from the lake and the noise of the highway, and up the small roads that climb the Niagara Escarpment. Along the way, Walsh, a 29-year-old Manitoba native who has clearly fallen in love with winemaking, describes each of Le Clos Jordanne’s vineyards as you slowly pass them. Finally, she stops the car and you step onto her favourite, the Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard for which the winery is named, to see the tightly planted rows of grapes that fill this modest eight-hectare field. You have to feel the cool air and smell the soil because that is what this is all about. It’s about this place: this air and water and this soil; this terroir.
If you don’t understand that, if you don’t get a feel for this particular place — these four carefully selected vineyards nestled near Jordan Village — then you can’t understand the wine, or the project or the dream of Le Clos Jordanne, which is to make the best cool-climate pinot noir in Canada and perhaps, one day, one of the best in the world.
It’s an audacious ambition. Skeptics, looking on from Burgundy or Oregon, might even call it folly. Jay Wright, former CEO of winery partner Vincor, Canada’s largest wine company, oversaw the project from its inception. He agrees it's a bold plan. “On any venture, you need to take risk to prove you can do something better than anyone else,” he says. “We said, let’s see if together as a joint venture we can make the best cool-climate wines in Canada. And let’s not hold anything back. Let’s just go.”
Wright explains the joint venture was the key, because the partners in Le Clos are some of the oldest and most successful makers of pinot noir in the world: the Boisset family of France, owners of Boisset Vins & Spiriteaux, the largest producer in Burgundy. “I’m so impressed with them,” says Wright. “This is a family that has a real vision for how to make great wine.”
Though Le Clos Jordanne was founded in 1999, with the first vines planted in 2000, the idea of a Niagara-French partnership goes back at least two decades. In the late 1980s, Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser of Inniskillin were experimenting with growing pinot noir. A chance visit from Bernard Repolt of Jaffelin Wines in France, who liked what he tasted at Inniskillin, led to a joint project and the making of a wine named Alliance. Not long after, Jaffelin was bought up by Boisset and Inniskillin became part of Vincor, but the dream of making pinot did not fade.
Enter Jean-Claude Boisset who, in the late 1990s, met with then-Vincor chief Donald Triggs to discuss the pinot project once again. “Being from Burgundy, they were very keen on the potential that Niagara had for cool-climate wines,” explains Wright. “They were quite interested in making an investment as a joint venture partner for making cool-climate wines in the New World.” The plan was simple: combine French knowledge of organic winemaking and the best vine clones from the Boisset properties with modern North American technology and the particular qualities of the Niagara Peninsula.
Jean-Charles Boisset, son of Jean-Claude, took up the project and brought on a team of French experts, including geologist Guy Herody and Quebec-born and French-trained winemaker Pascal Marchand. Marchand, who studied at the Viniculture and Oenology program in Beaune, Burgundy, and went on to oversee several vineyards in the region, is passionate about Burgundy, about terroir and about making wine in an organic and biodynamic way. And he knew just the guy to run the Canadian project — a friend from wine school named Thomas Bachelder. In 1999, Pascal found Bachelder running a start-up pinot operation called Lemelson Vineyards in Oregon and phoned him.
Now the winemaker at Le Clos, Bachelder smiles as he recalls that phone call. The tall, boyish-looking Montreal native just turned 50, but only his unruly mop of grey hair hints at his age. Otherwise, this former wine writer-turned-winemaker is a whirlwind of energy and passion — particularly passion for pinot noir. Sitting behind his desk in a small, cluttered office surrounded by photos of his wife and two young daughters, Bachelder traces out the winding path that brought him to Le Clos.
The first city-born son of generations of Quebec farmers, Bachelder fell in love with amateur wine making in his 20s. He began to write professionally about wine and took his home-based winemaking to the highest levels possible, at one point even sourcing grapes from Niagara. Finally, though the idea of being a vigneron in Quebec seemed remote, Bachelder took the plunge. After visiting the vineyards of Italy and France in 1989, he decided to return to France in 1992 to study to be a winemaker. He graduated, worked at several vineyards in Burgundy and fell in love with the challenge and the romance of pinot noir. He wanted to return to Canada but ended up in Oregon making pinot instead.
“I never thought I would work at my own place,” he says. “When Pascal called me up for this, I was shocked that there was going to be a big pinot project in Canada. It was like a dream.” That was in December 2000 and Bachelder, on his way home to Montreal for Christmas, stopped in at Le Clos.
Wright remembers the meeting well. “He sat Don Triggs and I down and said, ‘I have been reading about your venture and talking to friends and I want to be your winemaker. I want to come home to Canada and make the best wine in Canada,’” recalls Wright. “He blew us away with his passion. We tried some of his wines. We went to where he worked. And this guy was perfect.”
But Bachelder had work to finish in Oregon and it would be two years before he returned, in 2003, to join Le Clos as its head winemaker.
Today, the passion still runs high, and the dream is alive, though, as in all things, time and circumstance have modified the original vision. The dream of a multi-million-dollar, high-tech, gravity-fed winemaking facility housed in a Frank Gehry design is, for now, on hold. Le Clos Jordanne’s current home is a low-slung, dark green, nondescript building — a former cut flower warehouse — just off the highway at Jordan Station. The only sign is a blue-and-white one that reads “2540 South Service Road,” and the black door at the side of the building is easy to miss. “The cost of the building tripled before we even finished the plan,” Bachelder says as he walks through the warehouse. “We were in danger of building a white elephant. We didn’t even know what the wine tasted like yet. Are we sad not to have the landmark? Yes, but we are happy in this building.”
It was never about the building, anyway. It was always about the wine, and that dream is intact. All four vineyards are planted tightly to provide low yields of intense fruit — producing about a third of the wine of a high-volume operation, according to Bachelder. After a slow start and several years of winter kill, in 2008 Le Clos produced about 11,000 cases. At full production, perhaps by 2010, it will put out about 17,000 cases.
The operation is fully organic, becoming certified in 2005 and is the first Canadian winery to get the designation. The wine is made without employing synthetic fertilizers, or weed killers, using wild, indigenous yeasts, covering every vine with netting and only spraying with copper and sulphur to protect against fungus and rot. Bachelder says each of the winery’s four vineyards — La Petite Colline, Le Clos Jordanne, Talon Ridge and Claystone Terrace — is different, giving the chardonnay and pinot noir specific and identifiable characteristics. Bachelder wants the vines to pull the natural minerality from the soil: the limestone deposited in the earth thousands of years ago by three successive glaciers that scraped their way across the land.
“If you are always adjusting your vineyards to a soil scientist’s dream of what the perfect numbers are, you may be eliminating their faults, but you are also eliminating their personality,” says Bachelder. “We try to make sure the vineyards stay as different from one another as possible.”
La Petite, for example, produces prettier, more perfumey wine, while Claystone’s vines yield a darker, gamier, more masculine wine. In fact, each vineyard’s grapes are sorted in two batches — east and west — because Bachelder and his assistant winemaker, Sebastian Jacquey, have noted distinctive geographic differences in flavour and expression across all four sites. In the warehouses, the beautiful French oak barrels are carefully stamped with a place name — Talon Est or Le Clos Ouest — so Bachelder and Jacquey can track each wine’s individual development and expression. And the wines are aged carefully, with more than a year in oak barrels and an additional eight months in bottle. Bachelder is quick to explain the new barrels are carefully tracked and rotated so all the wines are treated to the same oak exposure, ensuring the wine’s expression shines through. “We want the taste of the place to come through, not the new oak,” he says, swirling a mouthful of new chardonnay and spitting into the floor drain.
The careful pruning, the hand sorting and the care taken with each vineyard’s production has paid off. The wines of Le Clos Jordanne, from its village wines to the Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (which retails at about $70), have been huge successes, receiving raves from wine tasters in Canada and abroad. The vintages have sold out, says Wright, with Le Clos Jordanne wines in restaurants and wine shops in England, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and even Tokyo.
“We wanted to put our country on the map,” Wright says. “It doesn’t just reflect on Clos Jordanne, it helps people change their frame of reference on Niagara as a winemaking region . . . Doing that gave Niagara credibility. And that was our goal all along.”
Bachelder is happy Le Clos Jordanne has become a kind of “jewel in the crown,” but he’s even more pleased to be part of a process that involves time, the earth and the vines. He talks about the great Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy and how they were carefully chosen by the monks and ratified over a couple of thousand years. He laughs and sits back in his office chair. “We cannot wait for 1,000 years, but we have a fairly good sense that we are going to be able to do this,” he says. “We are not making the terroir, but we are defining what should go out as a single vineyard. That is a great honour. We are being the monks and that is an exciting thing.”