Not many grape varieties are as divisive as chardonnay. But perhaps that just comes with the territory of being one of the world’s most popular and widely planted white wine varieties.
In Canada, chardonnay thrives. It’s the most planted white wine grape in Ontario – Canada’s largest producer of wine – and the second most planted white in British Columbia. Expressions of chardonnay from these two regions are becoming more and more universally celebrated, and to those who know and taste Canadian chardonnay often, this comes as no surprise.
Ontario may offer the terroir in Canada that resembles chardonnay’s famous ancestral home, Burgundy, the closest. It may be to no one’s surprise then that the best chardonnays produced here are Burgundian in character: elegant, austere and age worthy, with terroir dictating the style that wine growers make.
As is the case with pinot noir – its Burgundy cousin and another fine grape that does so well in Ontario – chardonnay loves warm days and cool nights, which makes Prince Edward County and the 10 sub appellations within the Niagara Peninsula a natural fit for the grape.
Another similarity to Burgundy is that most Ontario wineries produce single vineyard chardonnays (many produce more than one) which showcase the terroir of a specific site, offering unique tastes and characters. The practice of identifying and classifying the unique qualities of each plot of land took Burgundian monks centuries to perfect, which means any similar work done on the Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County may seem rather inferior – but rest assured, inroads are being made.
The Okanagan Valley and nearby regions in British Columbia produce a range of chardonnay styles from light and fragrant to serious and buttery. There is a growing trend towards producing single vineyard chardonnays here. At one time, the practice of terroir specific releases, common in Ontario, were considered few and far between, but BC’s vintners are catching up and making outstanding chardonnay in their own right.
In fact, Canada’s first 100-point score for a wine was CheckMate’s ‘Little Pawn’ Chardonnay from the 2015 vintage. And to show that it was no fluke, the feat was repeated for the 2016 vintage!
There’s so many excellent Canadian-made chardonnay wines to celebrate – a major reason why there’s an actual chardonnay celebration event held each year in Niagara (the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, or i4C). So, naturally it would be a challenging task to select just 12 producers that are arguably crafting the best Canada has to offer. But these selected producers have been chosen for their proven pedigree and consistent quality year over year – virtues that collectors and enthusiasts seek when making purchases for their cellar.
Whether it’s single vineyard, terroir expressive wines you’re after, or a blend of the best fruit from some of the very best vineyard sites, these wineries and their group of talented makers are the benchmark for Canada’s (still very young) wine industry when it comes to producing top of the line chardonnay. You may find you prefer one style to the other or maybe you’ll enjoy them all for their differences.
Thomas Bachelder is a man who knows how to capture terroir in a bottle! He makes his wines from local terroirs using wild (or indigenous) yeasts and using organic vineyards wherever possible. His intent is to make pure, suavely-textured wines that sing lightly and clearly of their vineyard origins with as little makeup as possible – wines that are finely-perfumed and tightly-wound, offering the classic refined fruit and textured minerality of the delicate silt, clay and dolomitic limestone-laced ancient lakebed terroirs of Niagara. That’s the way he puts it, and we couldn’t have explained it any better. Any of Bachelder’s chardonnays are impeccable, but most noteworthy are his assortment of single vineyard bottlings.
CheckMate was born out of a bold vision that by harnessing the effects of climate change it would be possible to produce ultra-premium, elegant, Burgundian-style chardonnay in a very unexpected place, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. CheckMate crafts an exquisite portfolio of chardonnay utilizing wild yeast ferments and without recourse to fining and filtration to let nature take its course. Hailed by elite critics as “…some of the best young wines coming out of Canada today”, the entire portfolio is collector worthy.
Built on producing exceptional quality chardonnay from their 35-acre estate, right from the outset 20 years ago, their wines can lay claim to being among the very best – not just within Prince Edward County, but in Ontario, and even Canada as a whole. Their lineup of chardonnays, which include impressive single vineyard offerings as well as multi-vineyard premium blends, are tiered to reflect their quality. But truthfully, they’re all simply a cut above. Their Grande Cuvée Chardonnay is already being singled out as one of Canada’s all-time best – a reminder of what winemakers can do at the top level of wine production in the province.
A winery that focuses on the distinctness of its property, relative to their short distance to the lake, Exultet is planted to 10 acres of vines – mostly chardonnay and pinot noir, all planted in 2004. Only about 100 cases of each type of wine is produced each year, so what you’re getting here is extremely limited. The winery’s objective is to give consumers a very terroir-expressive wine, and it is the belief of many who’ve experienced this place that this particular property is a very special and unique place within Prince Edward County.
Hidden Bench is an artisanal, terroir-focused winery dedicated to crafting premium wines solely from their own certified organic and biodynamically practiced estate vineyards. They’ve established an ongoing reputation for consistent excellence both domestically and internationally, producing a variety of single vineyard and multi-vineyard wines with pronounced complexity and character which bear a sense of place and time. Their Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay is a quintessential example of how meticulously maintained vines can lead to an outstanding result.
Initially one of Ontario’s best success stories in the pinot noir and chardonnay varietal space, Le Clos Jordanne made a comeback with the 2017 vintage after about four years where the brand was in complete limbo. Back in ’07 after its initial debut, the wine signaled the mantra that Ontario could undoubtedly compete in the ultra-premium wine market and that terroir truly mattered in Ontario too, and not just in Burgundy or Bordeaux. The vineyards, hand-selected for their similarities in both their climate and the clay and limestone-rich soil to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, were planted with ultra-premium rootstock imported directly from Burgundy. And it definitely shows through the wine’s ultra-premium quality.
Now owned by beverage mogul Anthony von Mandl, Liquidity is located in the sub-appellation known as Okanagan Falls. The winery’s Reserve Chardonnnay is 100 percent estate grown clone 76 and is exclusively from 24-year-old block vines. The wine is both rich and intense, showcasing wonderous aromas and flavours. A remarkably expressive wine, expertly showcasing its distinctly unique sub-region within the Okanagan Valley.
A young winery dedicated to the pursuit of excellence with a bold vision to produce a collection of wines that appeal to astute wine enthusiasts and the most seasoned professionals. Tiered appropriately as silver, gold and platinum, each level is a step up in quality and flavour intensity. Low yield, estate-grown grapes are critical to the quality of the wines that Little Engine sets out to make, ultimately reflecting the uncompromising standards of their viticulture and winemaking.
Mission Hill makes a few noteworthy chardonnays (their Reserve Chardonnay is a particularly good value find), but the real standout performer is, of course, Perpetua, from their Legacy Collection lineup. Harvested from four individual certified organic blocks within their eastern Osoyoos and Naramata Ranch vineyard estates, historic French Burgundian Dijon clones are used for this chardonnay, lending a unique flavour and an aromatic profile, with excellent fruit intensity and flavour complexity.
Founded in 1956, and owned and operated by the Stewart family, Quails’ Gate is one of Canada’s most important family-owned wineries, specializing in chardonnay and pinot noir, but definitely not limited to just these two varieties. Three very distinct chardonnays are made here. Their Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay is dedicated to the Stewart family’s mother Rosemary and was launched to celebrate the winery’s 25th anniversary in 2015. Their Stewart Family Reserve, which is labelled as their flagship offering, is more approachable, but no less collector worthy.
Certified organic and biodynamic, Southbrook is a winery that can truly lay claim to making a difference. Each wine is an education, a tasteful result of meticulous farming activity efforts, further proving that green initiatives can work in an Ontario vineyard. One would be fortunate to have any of winemaker Ann Sperling’s chardonnays in their cellar (from a ‘wild ferment’ version to single vineyard offerings and everything in between), but the one that tops the list has to be Poetica – only made in the best vintages and in limited quantities to ensure the highest quality.
Situated on the lower slopes of the Niagara Escarpment, Tawse is an organically and biodynamically practiced winery, owned by Moray Tawse. The inspiration for this Niagara property came from Tawse’s love of Burgundian pinot noir and chardonnay. Uniting traditional winemaking techniques with state-of-the-art technology, Tawse is dedicated to producing terroir-driven wines of exceptional elegance, depth and character. Single vineyard expressions, particularly from the Quarry Road and Robin’s Block sites, are consistently ranked on critics’ and buyers’ must-have lists, with the latter being perhaps the most prestigious, but the former being the most terroir expressive.