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May 20, 2011


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I am really disappointed in Evan's comments about Niagara chardonnay. I also think he is completely wrong in this regard. Sure, some chardonnay based wines from Chablis can do quite well without oak, however the majority of the world's best chardonnays are indeed, oaked. Are some Niagara chardonnays over oaked? Absolutely, but you can say that about anywhere in the world. However I feel the wines we tasted this weekend (I tasted the same ones, many for the first time) showed incredibly well. Buttered popcorn came up once in my tasting notes, but they are dominated by notes of fruit and positive remarks.

Les Clos Jordanne, Lailey, Hillebrand, Tawse, Hidden Bench and Ravine all see oak, but have two main distinctions from many oaked chardonnays. They have ample fruit to support it, and the acidity that comes from Niagara's cool climate make them some of the most complex in the world. Not to mention that these wines show where they are from. Terroir expression is one of the most important things in the wine world, and these wines do just that: express themselves.

I have to agree with Jonathan, and wonder which Evan would prefer if I placed Ravines (not Ravine) chardonnay (I think the 2007 was the most recent one I tried)among the Niagara chards which he felt were too oaky in a blind tasting.

Jules and Jonathan: One thing that you've got to remember -- there is no person I know who dislikes oaky chardonnay more than Evan. It's a personal preference.

I found many of the wines to be too oaky at this stage in their development. I didn't get as much buttered popcorn as I did almost-overcooked popcorn on several of the wines.

I thought the Tawse wines were the best oak-influenced chards we tasted, along with the 05 Southbrook, the Hidden Bench and there was one more that I can't remember.

Jules: I think if you speak to Evan about the RavineS chardonnay you'll find that it's not well-suited to his palate either. This isn't a regional thing -- it's a stylistic one.

Oak is stylistic everywhere :)I have a hard time imagining it as a "regional" epidemic in Niagara any more than I do in the Finger Lakes (or LI, for that matter). Sorry to hear that the chards of the weekend not being to Evan's personal taste equated to them being uninteresting and a disappointment.

I think that most Long Island chardonnay is over-oaked too :)

I can't and won't speak for Evan, but it's possible that his disappointment is based on a couple things...

- Several of the particularly oaky chard I tasted could have been from anywhere.

- Based on the small number of unoaked chards I tasted, I wanted more. They did show a distinctiveness and (at least on the bench) incredibly fresh-yet-integrated acidity.

At the end of the day, we don't all have to like the same wines, right? And based on the little side-by-side tasting we did at CdC, the NYCR team likes a bit less oak than everyone else haha.

There were TasteCamp attendees who RAVED about the chardonnays. There is little doubt that Evan is in the minority. I even liked the chards more than he did, though I thought the pinots, rieslings and cab francs were better as a group.

Julia - I find it a little weird that you think I'd be automatically defensive about Ravines Chardonnay. It's not my cup of tea, though I appreciate Morten's unique approach with it. I've tasted it blind. I move on to other wines in that setting.

The Chardonnays from Les Clos Jordanne were overwhelmed with oak. Absolutely toward the top of the list of wines that were choked off with wood. If that's your preference, that's obviously great. It's certainly not mine. A friend of mine occasionally brings White Burgundy over, and I should say that I routinely lament its oak. This is not an exclusive issue.

Do I love Chablis? Generally, yes, when it's in its minerally peak.

But the Tawse wines stood apart so sharply that they were worth celebrating. Paul Pender is one impressive guy. For a writer like myself, it's important to be consistent for our readers. Do I like oaked chardonnay? Rarely. So when I find an oaked chardonnay I do enjoy, it's especially worth pointing out.

So take my comments with a fine-grained grain of unoaked salt. But I'll stand by my assessment: The Niagara Chardonnay was predictable, extremely oaky, and held back. Stainless steel versions seem to have a great deal of potential there.

Most of the NYCR staff all have an affinity for less oak vs more oak and you can see that when Paul Bosc asked for a show of hands on his 2010 red blend. We all liked the used oak sample over the new oak samples.

I was also slightly disappointed at the number of unoaked chardonnays that were poured as I know there are many produced in the region, some being terrific values. Unfortunately they are not being paraded as the wineries' flagship whites and do not get featured as much in tastings like this.

To use the term "Niagara is pumped about its chardonnay, which seems silly, given that most of it is hidden in oak" seems like a pretty bold statement after such a limited sampling of what the region has to offer in terms of the chardonnay grape.

I say that after attending a Chardonnay tasting at Brock where every style of chardonnay in Ontario was represented and it became clearly evident that there's more than one style being focused on in Niagara.

To judge what a region should be excited about based on your personal preference of style is probably not the reaction we expected from you, that's all.

Jonathan and Bryan -

I think it bears repeating that Niagara winemakers talk often about terroir - which is great - and the way to terroir is not sweet new wood. Is that my opinion? Yes. I make a value judgment on the use of wood in wines. I think readers expect that from me.

Bryan raises another valid point: I'm trying to make an assessment based on a still-limited sampling. Yes, we tasted wines from a long list of wineries, but certianly not all, and we only tasted what they chose to pour. Clearly, wineries often assume that oaked chard is the way to go, and stainless chard gets less of the spotlight. I share Bryan's lament for wishing we had seen more of it.

Jonathan's comments give me pause insomuch as I tasted alongside him several times, and I thought his palate was outstanding. One of my wines of the weekend was the sparkling wine that he brought (I believe) on Saturday night.

But based on the many chardonnays I tasted, I'm clear on my impression. Oak was very, very often the first note in the nose, and the last note in the mouth.

And Bryan, all writers are making assessments based on personal preference of style. John Gilman is having this very debate with other Bordeaux writers at this very moment. I side with Gilman. If your readers know your values, they can better understand your assessments.

Bryan raises a great point and something we've come up against in TasteCamp before -- it comes down to what the wineries choose to pour.

Many lamented prices after the Long Island edition. But, that's largely because the LI wineries wanted to pour their flagship wines (which can be expensive, yes). At Wolffer, Roman Roth poured a wide array of wines, but most were in the $50-100 range. That ignores the $15-30 wines he makes, many of which I enjoy.

Lesson learned, in the Finger Lakes, we worked more closely with the wineries to encourage them to pour a wide range of wines, which they did. That's something we need to keep in mind for future editions certainly.

One of the goals of TasteCamp is to give writers who are new to the host region an immersive experience -- one that gives them as good an understand of the region as possible in a mere weekend. Rick, Suresh, Remy and all of the wineries involved did a great job with that I think.

It may be difficult to make final declarations about topics such as this, I think we tasted enough wines to make comments like Evan's. We all do it, don't we?

Lenn -

Right. I tasted a loooot of Chardonnay. Most of it was pretty affected by oak. If that means that I simply missed the parallel ocean of unoaked Chardonnay, then I'll have something to look forward to on another visit.

All this talk of Chardonnay obscures the many, many wonderful things I experienced in Niagara. More on that to come.

Also, to the notion that I might be a booster as Julia seemed to suggest, I wrote a single piece after TasteCamp East 2010. It was about The Gap. I heard from quite a few industry folks who did not appreciate it. That's life. And the gap in the Finger Lakes appears to be larger than it is in Niagara, Canada.


Perfect example of poor choice of wines to pour was Stratus. They have amazing single varietal wines like cab franc but went with flagship red and white and a new label they call "Wildass" which they don't even pour in their tasting room.

It helps to know your audience and had we put the word out that we were curious about unoaked chardonnay, I'm sure we would have seen 4x as many as we did.


"The Gap" is an awesome title!

So... Oak is not good in Chardonnay? It somehow makes the wine "less pure" or terroir driven? What about cold soaking on the skins? Interesting to see a discussion of oak in Chardonnay but not with other varietals like Merlot or Pinot.

Just caught the "gap" comments and read Evan's posts from last year. We are incorporating quality standards in the NY Wine Council that will allow wines to be selected objectively for marketing events. This is needed to validate that wines will meet expectations of the target audience. The wines that are certified will also be able to carry a designation, which will boost consumer confidence (reducing the risk = increased sales). This is currently envisioned as being similar to Ontario's VQA system. Ontario enacted their standards for these very same reasons - close the gap for consumers and make wine selection more predictable so people would select Ontario wines more often. I'd be interested in hearing what your readers think of this idea. Will it make it eaier to select NY wines in a restaurant or store?

Duncan: On the subject of oak, don't be confused -- chardonnay is the topic here simply because that's what Evan chose to write about. Using too much oak is a crime with any grape, not just chardonnay.

I tasted plenty of reds over the weekend that I think had too much oak. A personal preference to be sure, but I do think that too much wood obscures terroir.

Yeah, what Lenn said.

But again, every writer - every taster! - comes from a different set of preferences. I rarely enjoy oaked chardonnay. It's a variety that, to me, can shine in stainless. But of course there is a mainstream consumer expectation that chardonnay means oak. People love buttery, vanilla chards. Jim Laube loves it. I'm simply in the minority.

So if readers know that about my preferences, they can infer that when I dig an oaked chardonnay, there's something truly special about it to me.

Now, for readers who like oak in their chardonnay, they ought to just read these kinds of comments and say, "We disagree on styles with this variety, so his views are not important to me for this wine."

And Duncan, I am fully in favor of a system promoting quality standards. Every time it comes up, I'm told by someone in the industry that it can never work. I'd like to think that's wrong.

It can work - only when there is enough support from the industry, which means that we not only have to realize that not all wines are not the highest quality, but we have to be willing to label that distinction with a mark line "NYQA".

It can also work if the quality assurance is recognized by consumers as a better choice. In this case, sales would be higher for NYQA wines (for the category of wines that NYQA applies to). That would incent the entire industry to raise the bar.

Either method will require intense marketing efforts as an industry.


I appreciate the palate remarks. It's not that I don't think chardonnays can be great when unoaked, I just didn't find that a lot of these were over-oaked. Essentially, everyone's palate is different, and I give your palate as much respect as you give mine. I also have the bias of being a Canadian wine (and Niagara chardonnay) lover. Would be interesting to see what I thought in a double blind tasting...

The production of Fine Wines in New York State would be encouraged with a "NYQA" certification program.

Working Quality Assurance programs are evident in many of the best wine-producing regions and a NY model could be informed by existing best practices.

The New York Wine Council has as it singular charge to advance the appreciation and sales of the Fine Wines of New York.

New York wineries serious about fine wine production and major market wholesaling should join us in support of the New York Wine Council legislation, currently pending in both houses.

I'm sure you've heard this analogy before but it bears repeating in this case:
Oak is like salt - to much of either and you will ruin the dish.

As you know historically all Chablis was made in barrique (not the small Burgundian ones) and many of the greats Dauvissat, Raveneau still use barrique. So the idea of stainless vs. "oaked" is to my mind a silly conversation. If the winemaker chooses to be okay with the addition of vanilla notes through the use of too much oak then that is his "style" but to say one method (stainless) is better then (oak) in regards to Chardonnay is just not the case...in my humble opinion.

BTW - what is your opinion of concrete? Or resin lined or even glass lined tanks.

Duncan - you get an enthusiastic thumbs up from me and if there is anything I could do to help this movement please count me in.

Rick -

You're spot on, and of course I over-simplify. Unfortunately, I'm simply accustomed to the easy dichotomy of Chardonnay in this country. Stainless is the sleeker, more precise style. But yeah, oak is not always destined to overwhelm the wine. It has to start with good fruit.

Even my beloved Fevre has oak!

A good writer knows what he doesn't know, Rick, and I don't know is the effect of glass-lined tanks versus other vessels. Concrete seems to be very well suited in my experience, which is almost certainly less than yours and many others.

I cannot believe that any of you would accuse Evan Dawson of blindly preferring anything Ravines to nearly everything else. Baseless accusations left and right!

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