Short Hills Bench
“Short Hills Bench” as seen on a wine label means that it was grown on this tiny piece of land along the Niagara Escarpment.
Other appellation of origin terms apply as well, like ‘Ontario’, ‘Niagara Peninsula’, ‘Niagara Escarpment’ (or any of the other 9 sub-appellations). All are protected by the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) and backed up by the weight of law. The three letters VQA on a bottle is audited proof that 100% of the liquid in that bottle comes from grapes grown and fermented in Ontario. Few products, wine or otherwise, have this degree of traceability built into them the way VQA wines do.
The Niagara Escarpment is a limestone ridge, like a prehistoric dorsal fin composed in layers of petrified armoured fish and tiny crushed crustaceans. They lend their mineral remains to our soil in the Short Hills Bench.
Our soils are also the residue of an eroded mid-continental mountain range dragged here by prehistoric glaciers. Shards of limestone ground fine off of the escarpments rock face by icy glacial teeth are tossed up in forty feet of dark bronze clay. When you taste our wines you are tasting the landscape.
Henry of Pelham’s vineyards and winery are in the southern tier of the Short Hills Bench. We may be a small house but having all of our estate vineyards concentrated in this one area makes us the single largest grower in this little region.
A Carolinian climatic zone, the Short Hills Bench has been recognized for its unique soils, topography and meso-climate by three groups:
1) The Ontario Greenbelt / Niagara Escarpment Foundation;
2) The provincial government’s Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (VQA); and,
3) by the United Nations through UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.
The north meets the south in the Short Hills Bench which supports flora as diverse as maples, willows, tulip poplars, and coniferous trees. Fauna include possums, coyotes, mountain lions, wild turkeys, pheasants and deer.
To picture the Short Hills Bench imagine a shelf of land jutting out of the Niagara Escarpment, part-way up, and bounded to the east by a valley of ‘short hills’ carved by small spring fed creeks. This valley, now the Short Hills Provincial Park and head-water to the Twelve Mile Creek, was the pre-glacial course of the Niagara River and a precursor cataract to Niagara Falls. To the south and west the Short Hills Bench is bounded by the limestone and dolostone rock-face of the Niagara Escarpment while its’ northern boundary is an open plain that ends at the top of a series of steps leading to Lake Ontario.
In general the Short Hills Bench is blessed with a shale and limestone basin, 30 to 40 feet of glacial clay and silt and a 1 to 2 foot mixture of clay-mixed top soil. Air and water flows to the east and the north but as a hedge against wet years we under-drain our vineyards. This same slow drying clay is of benefit in many ways including in drought years when it holds life-sustaining moisture. The clay also restrains the vines, tendency to produce large crops and encourages the clusters to form tiny berries with high concentrations of flavour. More still, the non-uniform glacially deposited soils contain different minerals at different depths and locations. These feed the vines and result in unique flavours from each parcel of land, particularly as the vines grow deeper root systems with age.
The Short Hills Bench has many of the south and south-east facing slopes in Niagara leading to more intense sun-exposure and ripeness in the fruit. To best capture the sun, vineyards are planted in a north-south orientation. Both the high altitude (above the cooler lake winds of summer) and the distance south of Lake Ontario leads to a quick warming of the ground each morning. This is a benefit to the vines as it stimulates them to photosynthesize, essentially “waking them” earlier in the day and “putting them to bed” later after sundown. Thus the region gets more growing time in an otherwise short but intense season, five extra growing days relative to the lakeshore. After sundown the near daily inversion produces cool nights which are critical to the development of bright aromatic notes in the fruit.
During the winter the high elevation of the Short Hills Bench allows it to benefit from rising warm air currents blowing south off of Lake Ontario, in much the same way as the lower lying coastal sub-appellations do. This warm air has a moderating effect on the meso-climate, protecting the tender buds from potentially damaging frosts. Nonetheless this region is usually the first in Niagara and even Canada to enjoy the specific conditions requisite for the Icewine harvest. This earlier harvest allows for more days at the optimum temperature, early in the season.
The best thing you can find in a vineyard is a footprint. A wine’s character comes from the terroir, it’s personality comes from the vintage. But quality comes from the influence of man.
Pioneers settle a new land. Henry of Pelham Winery is family owned the three of us, Paul, Matthew and Daniel Speck. We founded the winery with our parents in 1988, but the land was first deeded to our great, great, great grandfather, Nicholas Smith (ca. 1778). Nicholas was a United Empire Loyalist who fled his home in Pennsylvania to serve the Crown and defend Upper Canada. Part Iroquois and fluent in the language he served as a translator and a fifer (that’s the guy who plays the bugle) with Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolution. For his service he was granted lands and bought others which he settled, the same land which the winery sits upon today.
A new generation plants the first vineyards. In 1842 Nicholas’ youngest son Henry built an inn, tavern and carriage house (which serves as our tasting room and wine boutique today). The construction of the inn approximately coincided with plantings of vineyards, some of Niagara’s first. When signing for the taverns liquor license Henry Smith dropped his last name, choosing the moniker Henry of Pelham to both recognize his ownership of the toll road he lived along and what must have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to the recent British Prime Minister, Sir Henry Pelham. The joking moniker stuck and Henry Smith was referred to thereafter in official archival documents as Henry of Pelham.
The descendants chase the sheep off of the land. This is where we come into the story. More than two centuries after our Smith ancestors settled in Niagara, in 1982 our parents Paul and Bobbi Speck bought several contiguous parcels of the original family farm, which still remain the ownership of the family. Over the next few years, as teenagers, we spent weekends and summers clearing the land of Henry’s original vineyards, orchards and a sheep farm. We replaced the vineyards with modern wine producing grape varieties. The oldest shovel planted vines contribute much of the fruit for our Reserve and Speck Family Reserve wines.
Sibling revelry. In 1993 our father passed away after a long illness, leaving all remaining operations in the hands of his three young sons. Since that difficult time we have expanded our family’s holdings to a total of 225 acres of forest and vineyard land, all in the premium Short Hills Bench. This land is stewarded with a minimal footprint.
You can learn more at the Dirty Hands Project website.