Tell me, why Chardonnay? Who can explain the exultantly singular science behind the world’s most wontedly planted, easily recognizable and widely endorsed white grape variety? How can something that seems so commonplace consistently blow people’s minds and convince them to have a go, over the course of a weekend in venues scattered about the Niagara Peninsula, at more than 100 samples in 50 hours? Where else is it possible that the fruit of one vine can be the sole proprietor to lead such a fervent tailgate of amaurotic yearning? What is the meaning of this Chardonnay?
The quest begins in Burgundy, centre of the Chardonnay universe, home to the icons, built upon centuries of micro-plotting and the act of influencing patrons, friends and enemies. At this point in history, success out of French vineyards is a given, blatant and obvious. Chardonnay’s foray into the global diaspora and subsequent boon is yet another matter.
The most recent Cool Chardonnay conference is the parochial focus of attention so for the sake of local argumentation, lets connect a line direct from Burgundy to Niagara. Peninsula winemakers (along with those from Prince Edward County and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley) draw inspiration and knowledge from the mother land. The fourth annual #i4c14 celebration in July is the stuff of Chardonnay dreams because of the cool visions of vignerons like Thomas Bachelder, Harald Thiel, Norman Hardie, Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble, Martin Malivoire, Ed Madronich, Bill Redelmeier, Doug and Karen Whitty and Moray Tawse. Not to mention the foresight of Niagara’s biggest players; Inniskillin Wines, Peller Estates (Trius), Stratus Vineyards, Chateau des Charmes, Vineland Estates and Cave Spring Cellars.
To give Chardonnay its due and to build a stage from which it can parade about, belting out its songs, there must first be assembled a team of passionate folks. In addition to the winemakers and winery proprietors there is an army of volunteers. Their contribution is immeasurable. This group is led by the #i4c14 concierge; Dorian Anderson, Trisha Molokach, Britnie Bazylewski, Elena Galey-Pride and Wine Country Ontario’s Magdalena Kaiser. Thanks must always be given to Barbara Tatarnic of Brock University, along with CCOVI director Debbie Inglis and Marketing and Communications Officer Kaitlyn Little. Event chair Del Rollo brings the A-game, as does Peter Bodnar-Rod, life giver to Everyman and every Chardonnay. The ambassadors of cool are lead by a team of sommeliers; Bruce Wallner M.S., Will Predhomme, Mark Coster, Serge Janjic, Emily Pearce, Sheila Flaherty, Lindsay Groves, Brett Fraser, Heather MacDougall, Bob Latham and Peter Lavoie.
The generosity of the event hosts come to praise Chardonnay. Wine Country Ontario, Brock University, The Grape Growers of Ontario, White Oaks Conference Resort & Spa, 13th Street Wines, Cave Spring Cellars, Tawse Winery, Flat Rock Cellars, Southbrook Vineyards, Henry of Pelham Estate Winery, Peller Estates Winery, Malivoire Wine Company, Reif Estate Winery, Vineland Research & Innovation Centre and Ravine Vineyard. The LCBO and VINTAGES join the party, setting aside time and space at the same time to sell some cool Chardonnay.
The weekend begins on Friday, July 18th with #TheSchoolofCool at Brock University. Luminaries are flown in to speak on behalf of the great grape. Tim Atkin (MW), Christy Canterbury (MW), W. Blake Gray (wine journalist, cool climate advocate) along with eleven panelists (winemakers, growers and researchers) of cool climate viticulture and winemaking explore, debate, provoke and disseminate.
Three interactive sessions feature this global panel of experts. Renowned Master Sommelier John Szabo is the chair and most in control moderator of the panels. Here at Chardonnay Camp he is talk show host, politically motivated comedian and all-knowing Yoda wrapped into one Renaissance man package. Szabo notes that “quality, at the top end has diversified, especially in Burgundy.” He then wants to know “who is an acid lover?” The answer to that question is the first clue towards an understanding of the meaning in (cool) Chardonnay. “Does anyone here regret planting any variety? No? Nobody? Everything works in Ontario.” The sportive tone succeeds in marking a first strike for the grape guest of honour. As does his notation that “the panel is chosen to speak on the zeitgeist topics of Chardonnay.” A walk-around tasting of all 117 bottles being poured at the 2014 event following the sessions helps to build early Friday momentum.
Tim Atkin begins. “We are here to have fun.” The British journalist spends his time defending the oft maligned variety, insisting that “the target of Riesling lovers should not be Chardonnay. It should be Pinot Grigio.” Atkin reminds that Chardonnay is still the fastest growing white variety in the world but that “even worse things have befallen this noble grape variety. It’s a victim of its own ubiquity and adaptability.” What makes it so special then? “Chardonnay expresses place, as well as production, terroir as well as technique.”
Grower Matthias Oppenlaender: “I like growing Chardonnay. It adapts to the different soil conditions in the sites I own. But I like drinking it even more.” The panelists debate Techno vs. Tech-No. Atkin’s take? “Recreating balance is a bad practice. All these things (manipulations in the winery) are fine if they are done sensitively. Overripe plus water equals bad.” Jeremy Dineen of Josef Cromy Wines in Tasmania says “wine should taste from a place, but also from a time.” His idea of technology “is to try to make my life simple. It’s a hell of a lot easier to plant in the right spot.” On reverse osmosis: “Technically, yes. Ethically, no.”
The panel seems to think it interesting that consumers consider that wine should be a natural and non-manipulated product, but food can be handled and bastardized in unlimited ways and be called gastronomy. First of all…consumers…really? Wine geeks, more like it. Secondly, wines comes from one ingredient: Grapes. Well, three if you count yeast and sulphur. Food composition is contrived out of a plethora of ingredients. Manipulation and over-handling is the norm, not the exception. Wine should follow the exact opposite course.
Manipulations, according to former Henry of Pelham winemaker, now of Niagara College Ron Giesbrecht include sorting, spraying, osmosis, acidification, de-acidification, overripe diluting, wood chips, adding tannin…the list goes on. He admits that “some degree of finessing and correction is OK. Add sometimes, but not any time.” Shiraz Mottiar of Malivoire is a purist. “When it comes to techno, I like (the ideas) of Calvin Harris (anyone get that…?). Add as little as possible, that’s my position. It would be unjust to the consumer to create something awkward and unusual.”
Giesbrecht brings out base wines with the addition of “winemaking tricks.” One is lactic, lean, mean and filled with cheap acidity. Another is terpenic, gum leesy and full of rounder acids. A third is volatile, medicinal, sacchariferous. A fourth is done very lightly, yet thin. Oak chips, micro-barrels, gum Arabic, these are all tricks of the trade and they all lead to faults.
Session two discusses Yield and Context. Mattias Oppenlaender discusses the Ontario opportunity of growing grapes for the high end, quality market. “If I grow Pinot Noir at (only) two tons per acre, it’s pretty difficult to make it economically viable.” Dr. Jim Willwerth, CCOVI Brock University adds, “in Ontario it’s important to have low yields from late ripening varieties. Vine balance is the key.” Willwerth cautions against stereotyping the vine vigor quotient. “Lower yields to highest quality is not a direct linear relationship. We know it’s not the case.”
Yet Dimitri Bazas of Maison Champy in Burgundy concedes that zero yields is not the best. “You can make good Premier Cru wine with yields of 40-45 L/hl. Szabo then asks, “and you can taste the quality difference based on these number?” Bazas replies, “yes, yes I can your honour.” Matthew Lane of Peter Lehmann in Australia adds a trump card. “There’s an old vine factor that has to be considered when talking about yields.” Lane believes you can extract quality from fruit at higher yields. Like Willwerth, he believes in the ‘Sesame Street’ word of the day. “If you’ve got a warm year and vine health, you can get great balance.”
Christy Canterbury reminds that crop yields are relative from variety to variety. Chardonnay in general is low (two to three tons per acre) as compared to Pinot Grigio and Riesling. “Perfect. An MW position there,” chides Szabo. Canterbury leads the room through four Chardonnays of various yields.
Opposites attract and this urges the fruit-wood compendium forward in a direct, unabashed way, followed by a sledgehammer clubbing of formidable acidity. The yield for this 12 barrel salute to upper echelon Burgundy is 30 hl/L. There are waves of richness that jab, poke and stamp their way into your Chardonnay heart. Pierces and injects by way of a hypodermic, splintered syringe filled with creamy, smoky oak. The balance is currently upended though there can be little doubt bottle age will calm the high extract and lead it to a calmer future. Tasted July 2014
The technical specs (sugar, acidity, PH, natural alcohol) on this PV are very similar to Champy’s Corton Charlemagne. The yield out of marl and limestone soil was 50 per cent (45 hl/L) higher and the fruit was picked seven to 10 days ahead of the CC. There exudes plenty of peeling citrus perfume in sunshine and some essential oil release, in wood, though it is by no means excessive. Very much citrus stoked, also reeking in green apple, forest glade, even more sunshine. Holds a tight, angular texture. Needs time to flesh and convert those phenols into gold. Most attractive is its subtlety and balance, from shoot to bottle. A Chardonnay very cool for school. Tasted July 2014
Surprisingly green, herbal and cool spirit driven Chardonnay. There’s a lime spark and texture woven by shavings of slate and chalk. Pure, ripe fruit, picked prudently early, means for a tang and a half, in all the right back of the mouth ways. The nervous energy component gives the wine a divine fit, “sends a permanent shiver down my spine.” Clean expression out of the Eden Valley and so well made. Tasted July 2014
Trius Winery Showcase ‘Single Barrel’ Heubel Estate Chardonnay 2011, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
Though the soil for this rare and tiny production Chardonnay is sandy-loam, the mineral component is both pronounced and uncanny. A difficult vintage for the variety, wet, not so warm, noted by winemaker Craig McDonald, “we didn’t really get a summer.” He concedes that the wine was an experiment, “mainly out of curiosity, as a collaboration with the grower.” Like so many Niagara ‘experiments’ this Trius will teach and pave roads to a tart, direct, firm tartaric future. A wine that will act as a beacon for forward thinking ideas on thinning, canopy management and how the viticulturist must “dial into the frequency of what the vineyard is saying.” Tasted July 2014
Session three, The Living Vine: The Viticultural Continuum begins with W. Blake Gray. “If I buy an Ontario Chardonnay that you say has protected the earth but it’s not (organically) certified, I don’t know what that means.” In the world according to Gray, talk is cheap. Harald Thiel believes organics and biodynamics are much more complicated, beyond certification. “What is the buffer between organic/biodynamic vineyards and conventional ones,” he asks. “In Burgundy the rows are one metre apart. One sprays next to another.” Livelihoods are affected, compromised and yet who is policing the offenses?
Miguel Torres Maczassek admits “my family is a bit divided on organic and biodynamic but I am a great defender of organic viticulture.” Torres agrees and expands on Thiel’s concerns. “Being organic today is not enough. Organic needs to make an evolution. The problems are not the same anymore.” Sébastien Jacquey of Le Clos Jordanne: “Organic, biodynamic, sustainable. It’s about making wine that expresses something. We all need to work together.” Then John introduces Ann Sperling of Southbrook and Sperling Vineyards. “Ann, let me guess where you stand.” It is no secret that Sperling is a Canadian leader in this hotly debated field. “Biodynamics is something that allows me to connect with the vineyards.” Enough said.
Christy Canterbury wants to know who pays for the cost of lab analysis for wines looking for an organic affidavit. “The producer,” insists Sperling. “The consumer,” think many in the room. Four more wines are poured.
From sandy loam and limestone soils, here is a Chardonnay that winemaker Sébastien Jacquey is looking to fashion with low PH and elevated tannin. A most commendable effort in the enigmatic ’11 vintage, clean, anything but lean and un-gassed by a jet engine’s aerified stream. Chardonnay running instead on the vineyard’s biofuel, a chalky lees and lime texture that turns green in a savoury way towards the back end. Full, rich, gaining in stature as it breathes, thinks and feels. Atop the green there is an ambrosial aroma and a honeyed sense of flesh. A wine of great respect and biodynamic energy. Tasted July 2014
Sperling Chardonnay 2012, VQA Okanagan Valley, British Columbia (378570, $31, WineAlign)
High altitude expression from a vineyard perched atop a gravel bed, a rocky pool of stone that seems to toss up pebbles at Sperling’s window to see if she would like to sneak away for a midnight drive. A crisp, clean and linear style, full of night-air freshness, white flowers and white fruit. This is undeniably picked early and ahead of any possible oxidative or overripe window, yet there is a rich quality about it that rages against the machine, calm like a bomb, “its narrative fearless.” Very mineral in its direct back and to the side of the mouth attack, full of salinity and lemon-lime acidity. Long, long Okanagan that will flesh with five years time. The slate bass line will soften, allowing the white fruit to further shine. Tasted July 2014
Has integrated nicely though certainly persists as a big, lush Chardonnay. If there were splinters or sinewy bits they have melted away. From my earlier, May 2014 note: “The Poetica underwhelms at the present time, or perhaps hides in her youth. She’s a calm, buttery, mildly toasted, supportive softie and more accessible than her Sperling west coast sistren. Like a cool Chardonnay soffit hiding beneath a warm bench, the Poetica speaks not for the vintage but more for the current vineyard, a warm and hip spot in the Four Mile Creek appellation. The site remains (at least to me) understood but the unctuous aspect in texture and gathering sweetness with time in the glass will realize a richesse yet unseen. Poetica’s refrain is like “wind on the weathervane,” her tragically subdued fruit quiet, but able to travel long. Time will be the reveal, so be patient. Lat tasted July 2014
Miguel Torres Milmanda Chardonnay 2011, Conca de Barbera, Spain
Milmanda was part of a route of medieval castles that gave shelter to Christians during the time of the Reconquest. This is the estate’s top varietal bottling, a warm honeybee of a Chardonnay. The toast is set on high, the malolactic pull in elastic heaven and the lemon/lime in curd form. From deep clay soil, this is the least cool of the lot and though harvested early (late August), the oak quotient steals the show. Tasted July 2014
On Friday night the host is 13th Street Winery for Barrels and Bonfires. The credo is this: “Join the twelve winemakers who congregated around that fated bonfire in 2009 as they celebrate their vision as its come to life five years later.” Many more than 12 pour their wines from barrel tops in the heat of a July evening while the band plays. Meanwhile in another part of 13th Street’s town, Peter Bodnar-Rod holds court with an impromptu blind tasting. I fail miserably. Thanks Peter.
13th Street’s B & B party is a resounding success, complete with a pig roast by Niagara’s PigOut Roasters and a setting to combine casual, pastoral and The Hamptons, all in one stunning piece of real estate.
On Saturday a group of winemakers convene at Camp Cave Spring for some Chardonnay and mobile Pizza oven fun. Kistler, Talley, Maycas Limari and Cave Spring also do the #i4c14 unthinkable. They pour something other than Chardonnay. Shocking! Pinot Noir and Riesling are on hand. What a refreshing, if fleeting change. Thanks is owed the Pennachetti families, winemaker Angelo Pavan, Rob Groh from The Vine and the culinary team at the Stratford Chef School.
Talley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Arroyo Grande Valley, California, USA
The Estate Pinot is composed of fruit from three vineyards, Rincon (50 per cent), Rosemary’s (47) and Las Ventanas (3), then fermented for 13 months in 20 per cent new French oak barrels. Typically, even quintessentially California Pinot Noir with a developed, nearly candied palate made more complex by the earth of the Arroyo Grande Valley. Very ripe black cherry, some tar and plenty of warm spice. The alcohol reads 14 per cent but it manages to reflect a cool image in the mirror. Refined if expected Pinot Noir. Tasted July 2014
In yet another outstanding vintage Kistler flaunts its Pinot acumen, leaving other RRV neighbours to mire in a sickly, sweet and dusty trail of cola, syrup and black ash. Kistler’s take is rooted in wisdom, in plenitude and also restraint. “We remove any berries that are overripe,” announces Geoff Labitzke. This ’12 is singing, pinging and binging in red cherry. Picked in the cool of the night with a big crew, the RRV Pinot is tart, tight, intense and pure. The finish leaves with a slightly tannic, chalky residue, yet one that will integrate with five plus years time. Tasted July 2014
According to Cave Spring’s website this newer Riesling from older (18 to 35 Year-old plantings) is from “a single block of vines in the shadows of a limestone outcrop near the crest of the Niagara Escarpment, known as ‘The Adam Steps’. Really apropos, for this Riesling is the cantilever, the one with the outstretched arm. At 10.5 per cent alcohol and with an unmistakably stony, sweet and sour whiff the wine speaks of its off-dryness. The juiciest of all the Cave Spring Rieslings, with rounder acidity and good persistence. This is the all-around good guy, the one with an open invitation, the bridge from Estate to Dolomite to Csv. The well-adjusted one steps up its game to help win one for the team, especially out of the convivial 2013 vintage. Tasted July 2014
On Saturday night the scene changes to the big show. Vineland Research and Innovation Centre is the host once again for the Cool Chardonnay World Tour Grand Tasting & Dinner. In civilized fashion, it launches with bubbles and oysters by Katrina Steeves and Mike Langley, Tide and Vine Oyster Company.
Saturday’s menu featured the Vineyard Chefs: Adam Hynam-Smith of el gastrónomo vagabundo, Andrew McLeod, Jason Parsons of Peller Estates Winery, Justin Downes of Vineland Estates Winery, Ryan Crawford of Gastrohomestead, Paul Harber of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery and Craig Youdale of The Canadian Food and Wine Institute. The selection of pies for dessert were from the 13th Bakery & Marketplace and Whitty Farms.
On Sunday, the Cool Chardonnay weekend wrapped up at Ravine Vineyards, with one last chance to taste a Chardonnay or 117, if for some reason there remained an elusive bottle.
Events at #i4C14 are made possible by Wine Country Ontario, LCBO, Grape Growers of Ontario, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, White Oaks Resort & Spa, Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Vines to Vintages Inc., Riedel Canada, Kerry Ingredients, Hope & Harder, A1 Label, The Canadian Food and Wine Institute, Richard Marazzi Design, Rempel Electric, cellar•tek, Lakeview Vineyard Equipment Inc., Winestains, Hunter Bottling, Special Event Rentals, Q water, De La Terre Kitchen, Dairy Farmers of Canada and Leslie Stowe Fine Foods.
The quantity of Chardonnays made available to taste through the course of the weekend was officially announced at 117. A number of them were wines that I have previously tasted and reviewed. Some I felt compelled to re-taste and update. For the sake of those I did not redo, I am including them here as contributing members of the Cool Chardonnay weekend and the links to their corresponding tasting notes, published at WineAlign.
Returning back to the original question, what is the true meaning of Chardonnay? It’s really quite simple. You’ve gotta be cool to be kind.
Stay tuned for tasting notes on 50 more #i4C14 Chardonnay. Coming soon.
Good to go!