Announcing the 2023 Winery of the Year

Hidden Bench Estate Winery

by David Lawrason

One of the most respected Niagara wineries since its inception 20 years ago has finally won Winery of the Year honours — capturing a whopping 12 medals. There were two platinums, five golds and five silvers. The runners-up in the list of Canada’s Top 25 came very close, but it was a long-awaited moment for proprietor Harald Thiel and his team, including winemaker Alex Baines and viticulturalist Joel Williams.

“We are extremely pleased and proud to be named Canadian Winery of the Year at the 2023 National Wine Awards of Canada,” said Harald Thiel in a statement. “This recognition highlights the commitment of our passionate vineyard and winery teams to craft world class wines that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best from any other international wine region. It is incredibly rewarding to see that our certified sustainable and organic, terroir-driven and 100 percent estate approach to winegrowing has been acknowledged by the judges of NWAC as amongst the best in the country.”

Hidden Bench has come close to top Awards before, competing in the small winery category. But, with over 10,000 cases produced last year, it qualified for the top prize, which recognizes quality across a broad range of wines. Our whole process at NWAC is designed to award this kind of consistency. 

“The most important decision I ever made was my first one,” said Harald Thiel during a tasting and interview after the NWAC judging. “I decided that I would always be an estate winery using Beamsville Bench fruit. If you don’t control your own fruit, you just can’t control quality as well. In some difficult years where harvests were poor, I really had to question this decision, but we hung in there.”

Hidden Bench has emerged as the signature property among several highly regarded wineries on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, an area of gently sloping north-facing, limestone-laced sites, and maturing vineyards and wineries. At this year’s NWAC, Beamsville Bench took more platinum and gold medals than any other single sub-appellation in Canada — for riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir in particular.  All of the wines of Hidden Bench are sourced from the Beamsville Bench, which, of course, contributed the appellation’s overall success.

The 32-hectare site has three contiguous estate vineyards whose names appear on premium labels. The prize is the Rosomel Vineyard — among the very oldest in Canada at 46 years — which wholly contributed to the stunning, platinum-award–winning Tête de Cuvée 2020 Chardonnay, plus the continuously excellent gold medal Nuits Blanche blend of barrel-aged sauvignon blanc and semillon. The Felseck Vineyard provided fruit for the fragrant platinum 2020 Pinot Noir and sensational gold 2020 Felseck Chardonnay. The younger vine Locust Lane vineyard on the winery’s doorstep contributes more to the estate range, including the fantastic gold medal 2020 Estate Riesling.

And the property is about to expand. Hidden Bench has purchased an adjacent parcel of 20 hectares that has been fallow for decades. It borders the Locust Lane site on the north and significant neighbours like Daniel Lenko and Thirty Bench.

Alex Baines (Winemaker), Harald Thiel, Joel Williams (Vineyard Manager)

Commenting on behalf of the winegrowing and winemaking teams at Hidden Bench, Joel Williams, vineyard manager, and Alex Baines, winemaker, shared: “At Hidden Bench our estate is blessed with limestone rich clay and silt soils which, when farmed organically and sustainably with precision and care, permit us to consistently grow exceptional quality wines. The nuanced attention to detail that we bring to the winegrowing process permits us to craft premium, low-intervention wines year after year. As our vineyards mature and our understanding of our terroir grows, we believe that our wines will continue to evolve to achieve greater complexity and recognition over time.”

Viticulturalist Joel Williams, a CAPS-certified sommelier, was born, raised and educated in New Brunswick. He moved to Niagara 10 years ago and became involved in grape growing. He is particularly interested in organic and biodynamic viticulture, which is continuously challenging in Niagara’s variable and often humid climate. He has recently invested in new organic spraying technology with greater efficacy in windy conditions, as well as a new leaf removal techniques.

Hidden Bench barn at dawn.

Winemaker Alex Baines has worked at Hidden Bench for eight years, being promoted to head winemaker in 2021 after working with some of Canadas most talented at Hidden Bench, including Marlize Beyers, who still consults at Hidden Bench, and Jay Johnson. British-born, Baines is a Niagara College graduate who has worked at other wineries in Niagara, B.C., and in the southern hemisphere. He will be applying for WSET Diploma and Master of Wine studies. “I have always loved the academics of wine,” he says, which speaks to his global perspective.

His main task has been to shift some production into six large tulip-shaped fermenters. There is stainless steel still being used, as well as oak foudres, but the concrete is proving very successful. The best manifestation to date has been the debut release of the 2021 Chardonnay Beton, an unoaked chardonnay from Felseck fruit aged 10 months on its lees in concrete. It took a gold medal and is a steal at $27.75. Thiel says it was inspired by a trip by the three of them to Chablis to visit and taste with organic chardonnay producers.  

Concrete fermenters at Hidden Bench.

International visits like this, and tastings of the world’s best wines, have created an awareness of quality that makes Thiel’s statement about “standing shoulder to shoulder with the very best from any other international wine region” ring true. So does the quality inherent in all Hidden Bench wines, which I have been tasting, admiring and enjoying from the opening bell in 2005. Thiel was going to launch with the 2004 vintage but decided the quality wasn’t good enough, so sold it off and waited a year.

My interest was piqued and has never waned.

Here are Hidden Bench’s top-scoring wines:


Hidden Bench Pinot Noir Felseck Vineyard 2020

Hidden Bench Chardonnay Tete De Cuvée Rosomel Vineyard 2020


Hidden Bench Estate Riesling 2020

Hidden Bench Natur Zero Dosage 2017

Hidden Bench Chardonnay Felseck Vineyard Unfiltered 2020

Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche Rosomel Vineyard 2021

Hidden Bench Chardonnay Beton 2021


Hidden Bench Chardonnay 2021

Hidden Bench Ptg 2021

Hidden Bench Pinot Noir Rosomel Vineyard 2020

Hidden Bench Pinot Noir Unfiltered 2021

Hidden Bench Sauvignon Blanc Béton Rosomel Vineyard 2021

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