The keynote speech at this year’s Expert’s Tasting of Ontario wines began with a reference to Alsatian winemaker Jean Michel Deiss, whose passion for the blend or assemblage led him to ask this question: “How can we create literature with one phrase, music with one note, or a symphony with a single instrument?”
The speaker, Peter Gamble, industry veteran and winemaker at Ravine Vineyard, then posed the idea that if there were a few grapes in the world that could, like a symphony, bring tears to your eyes by themselves, one would be chardonnay.
While moved by the existential thinking that goes into this philosophy, I’ve never been moved so much as to shed a tear while drinking chardonnay. I did however find myself on board with Gamble’s next reference, this time to a Burgundian winemaker’s philosophy that she “doesn’t make varietals…pinot noir is a blank slate for Burgundy to tell its story.” This Burgundian notion, which most certainly pertains to chardonnay is why Ontario is boldly organizing itself with the purpose of pouring its chardonnay for markets like London and New York City with the intent to reveal what the region has to say.
Driving across the border to Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in St. Catherines leaves no doubt to its significance in Niagara wine country. The city is surrounded on all sides by sub-appellations densely planted with vinifera vineyards. To the west are the bench wineries of Vineland, Beamsville and Jordan. To the east is Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Niagara River and St. David’s bench. And last Saturday morning in one room on Brock’s campus the industry’s best winemakers, owners, writers and promoters of Ontario wine came together for their annual blind tasting and themed seminar -- with chardonnay being the star.
As talk of chardonnay’s evolution commenced at the podium, volunteers began pouring samples from the day’s first flight, “The Many Faces of Chardonnay.” The first few wines immediately filled the room with bright tropical aromas that I clearly had mistaken for breakfast. That’s when I realized that not only was I about to learn a lot about winemaking and how this industry works, I was about to drink some great wines too.
While my eyes and brain made the connection to what I smelled, my focus was redirected back to the keynote speaker’s discussion of how chardonnay went from steely, crisp, austere mineral wines of Chablis to mealy, hazelnut laden, intense extracted wines of the Cote de Beaune.
With the help of, largely, California and the New World, chardonnay morphed into the "Chablis" boxed and jug wine generation, where its character and sweetness was more suited to the average American palate. I think the story of chardonnay then evolves into the oak bomb and to the fruit bomb, which went international with the wines of Yellow Tail.
The optimistic view that Gamble then revealed, with which I am in complete agreement, is that the pendulum is swinging back to less new oak, lower alcohol, higher acidity and toward the appreciation of terroir and the complexities it can show. While this could be said about many grapes -- including pinot noir, riesling or sauvignon blanc -- Gamble cited Decanter Magazine as concluding that chardonnay styles generally define the strategy of the global industry. Does that mean that chardonnay trends are to the wine industry what straw polls are to elections? I’ll leave that for another story altogether.
With the grape’s overall significance in the wine industry on my mind, I began tasting through the first flight, which started with a Blanc de Blanc from Cave Spring and ended with a chardonnay icewine from Inniskillin. With the goal of showing the versatility of the grape in the region, this flight nailed it. From the butterscotch crème brulee maloactic conquest of the Rosehall Run 2008 Rosehall Vineyard Chardonnay to the more restrained yet toasty wild yeast fermented Hidden Bench 2008, to the tropical fruit cocktail Chateau des Charmes Musqué Clone 2009 and the sauvignon blanc like 2009 Stony Ridge Estate Unoaked Chardonnay, there was a huge spectrum of flavors.
The aging potential was convincing in the second flight as I really dug the graceful feel of the Flat Rock 2005, the pulpy citrus-filled palate of the 2003 Cave Spring Cellars Reserve and the regal demeanor of the oldest in the flight, the 1998 Strewn Vineyard Chardonnay.
The "Class of 2009" flight was superb. Each one had electric acidity and beautiful balance of oak and fruit. Highlights included Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve, Niagara College Teaching Winery Dean’s List, and Pondview’s Bella Terra.
The "Class of 2008" was softer yet still balanced with generally fuller palates and more evident oak. Consistency was the impression here but my favorites were the Le Clos Jordanne Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard, Lailey Vineyard Old Vines, Tawse Robyn’s Block and Hidden Bench’s Felseck Vineyard.
I’m not one to be easily impressed with chardonnay, especially when new oak is involved, yet many of these examples were eye opening and jaw dropping in their gracefulness, complexity and overall deliciousness. There’s no wonder why this industry, which appears to be tight and extremely mature, wants to put these wines in front of as many people as it can.
Will people recognize a sense of terroir in Ontario chardonnay? I think they will, whether you perceive it to be in its bright fruit and extremely floral aromas, its generous acidity or in its mineral driven structure. It may not be as evident in the 100% maloactic fermented examples or the new oak-heavy wines but it’s obvious in the lightly oaked and unoaked wines and I don’t just mean in on the Ontario side of the border.
I find the same markers in these chards as I do in their Niagara USA counterparts. The winemaking, especially when oak is involved, blurs the line, which in this case is the border, a little but chardonnay does have something special to say here on both sides of the river.
May 13-15 will be the next opportunity for writers and bloggers to taste through many of these wines as well as the Niagara USA wines at TasteCamp North. Another will be at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration in July, which is open to the public.