Note: This article was initially written in July, 2019 and featured in my column for West of the City Magazine. It has since been updated to reflect additional wine selections and updates regarding the 2020 and 2021 International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C). It was re-posted as a #throwback feature in time for Chardonnay Day 2020.
No wine has withstood as many love-hate relationships as chardonnay. Many might remember that back in the 1990s it was the bottle you’d bring to every dinner party. If you ordered a glass of white at a restaurant, it was inevitably a chardonnay. People were far less interested in who was making it and where it came from than they were about just drinking it. Fashionable and marketable, it was a brand unto itself. It was the unofficial white wine of the decade.
And then everything changed. Chardonnay became the victim of its own immense popularity. A lot of wineries started producing chardonnay and playing up the attributes that people loved the most – sweetness and oakiness – until it became a caricature of itself. Mass producers used wood chips to capture that oak flavour but they overdid it so that oak became the dominant flavour.
By the early 2000’s, the thought of drinking chardonnay became almost gut wrenching. Restaurants replaced their chardonnay bottles with easy-drinking pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, ushering in the ABC era – as in, pour “anything but chardonnay!” The chardonnay brand was all but dead to most new world wine consumers.
Fast forward a decade. Improved winemaking practices have produced better wines, and no grape could be happier than chardonnay. Haters have been asked to set aside previously held notions against the grape and re-discover this wine’s more formidable attributes.
Did You Know?: Chardonnay is planted in every major wine producing country around the world due to its ability to adapt to a wide range of climates. It takes its name from the village of Chardonnay in the Mâcon region of Burgundy, France.
The perception that chardonnay is a full-bodied, fruit-forward wine with creamy, buttery, rich flavours is somewhat ironic due to the fact that the grape is actually quite neutral in character. Aside from conditions such as climate and terroir that determine the starting point, winemakers essentially have a blank canvass and can make the wine in any style they choose because it is so adaptable.
Chardonnay seems to easily translate the terroir of the region in which it is produced. Warm climate chardonnays, such as the ones made in Napa Valley, emit more tropical fruit flavours. But without a certain level of winemaker intervention, those lovely flavours can easily get carried away and become more baked or stewed like, making the wine fat and dull.
The better chardonnays come from cooler spots where grapes often teeter on the cusp of ripeness, bringing out more expansive aromas, minerality and a backbone of lively acidity. Aside from Burgundy, the birthplace of chardonnay, Canada is producing some of the very best made in the world today because of our “cooler” climate.
In fact, as a tribute to cool climate chardonnay, Niagara hosts the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) in July each year. This year’s event was to mark the 10th annual, however, due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s event scheduled for late July 17-19 has been cancelled. Instead, mark your calendars for July 23-25, 2021!
The i4C is such a great event to attend – not just if you’re a fan of chardonnay, but a fan of wine in general – as it celebrates and discusses new ways of producing, enjoying and thinking when it comes to chardonnay. It’s a great event for industry professionals, however it’s an even better experience for consumers.
We may never again go as far as proclaiming chardonnay to be the wine of the decade, but it does make for a great comeback story.
Below are some select cool-climate chardonnays that are highly recommended:
Bachelder 2017 Willms Vineyard Chardonnay
Believe it or not, this is Thomas Bachelder’s first chardonnay made from Niagara-on-the-Lake (Four Mile Creek sub-appellation), and from old vines planted in 1983 no doubt. Bachelder’s portfolio of wines really does now resemble a greatest hits collection of terroir and this chardonnay from the Willms Vineyard is another hit. The key is to taste this along-side any one of the other two chardonnays and locate the differences. The Willms is a wider bodied wine, richer and riper with more open flavours of orchard fruits (think baked apples and poached pears). There’s also some citrus notes, but not overwhelmingly so. Bachelder has allowed the wine to show off its sexy side (minerality, sleek salinity and reserved spice) with a rather seducing velvet-like texture. This has been well worth the wait. ($44.95)
Hidden Bench 2017 Estate Chardonnay
Situated within the Beamsville Bench, Hidden Bench is an artisanal, terroir-focused winery dedicated to crafting premium wines solely from their own certified organic estate vineyards. They’ve established an ongoing reputation for consistent excellence both domestically and internationally, producing wines of pronounced complexity and character which bear a sense of place and time. This estate chardonnay is a quintessential example of how meticulously maintained vines can lead to an outstanding result. Bright, fresh and lively textured, this is drinking beautifully now. ($29.95)
Le Clos Jordanne 2017 ‘Le Grand Clos’ Chardonnay
Welcome back! One of Canada’s most highly praised wine brands (pre-dissolution) is back and what a vintage to make that comeback in! In what will surely be remembered as one of the very best (if not the best) vintages of the decade for chardonnay in Ontario, we’re being treated with what can only be best described as vintage Thomas Bachelder. One sip and immediately you realize why this wine was destined to make its way back. Such poise with distinguished flavour profile, including apples, peach cobbler, lemon zest and a mid-palate minerality perhaps never experienced to this degree in previous releases. These vines have dug deep and have been waiting to show off their best expression yet. There’s even an irresistible saltiness that lingers on the palate that’s just so refreshing, adding to its beautiful complexity. Will cellar through 2025 and even beyond, but it’s practically begging to be opened now. ($44.95)
Closson Chase 2017 South Clos Chardonnay ($39.95)
If you haven’t yet been to Prince Edward County (situated about 175 kilometres east of Toronto), you’re missing out on what wine writers are calling the Burgundy of the new world. It is here that you’ll find one of the best examples of cool-climate chardonnay grown outside of Burgundy. The South Clos is bold and complex with spicy and caramel syrup notes. There’s excellent acidity holding the fort down until the long, balanced and round finish. Less than 400 cases produced.
Inniskillin 2017 Montague Vineyard Chardonnay ($25.95)
The 2016 vintage of this single vineyard chardonnay earned a silver medal at the 2018 International Wine and Spirits Competition, proving that Inniskillin isn’t just a one-trick pony that produces world-class Icewine. The 2017 growing season wasn’t nearly as hot or as long as 2016’s, and so, the fruit was able to form better overall balance, including acidic structure and just the right amount of sweetness. The result is yet another well-made expression of Ontario chardonnay.
Louis Latour 2018 Mâcon Lugny Les Genièvres ($23.95)
Here’s a great example of an “un-oaked” chardonnay, made in Burgundy, that will make your head spin. If the under $25 value isn’t enough reason, it has a rich and savoury butter nuttiness to it – typical in “oaked” chardonnay! Grapes are sourced from within the village of Lugny, located high up in the south of the famous Mâcon region. Thanks to its terroir, it was the only village planted with chardonnay 30 years ago.
La Crema 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
This is a cool climate chardonnay that’s medium-bodied and crisp with notes of apple, pineapple, nutmeg and buttered toast. It’s a general crowd-pleasing wine that can pair with most white meats and seafood dishes. It’s modern in its style and approach, and that should work in its favour for many consumers looking for a straightforward chardonnay to enjoy without having to pay over-reaching prices. ($29.95)
Kendall-Jackson 2017 Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
Sourced from four distinct cool climate coastal vineyard sites, including Monterey County (50%), Santa Barbara County (33%), Mendocino County (16%) and Sonoma County (1%), Kendall-Jackson’s signature chardonnay boasts tropical flavours of pineapple, mango and cantaloupe that mix with citrus notes that burst on the palate. There’s some toasty oak and slick butter rounding out the finish – which will be widely appealing, no doubt. Fits right into a price-point that’s hard to ignore. ($21.95)
Arterra 2017 Chardonnay ($29.95)
Arterra is the premium label born out of Jackson-Triggs and currently produces pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Grapes were selected from premium sites in Niagara to create this smooth and quite elegant wine which showcases layers of citrus fruits, honey, wet river stone, white flowers, and subtle undertones of smoke on the nose and palate. This is a very balanced and intricate chardonnay, round and full with a very plush texture. Pair this with rich comfort foods like fettuccini alfredo with chicken or a creamy risotto.
Stratus 2017 Chardonnay ($49)
Such an elegant chardonnay crafted with a stroke of pure mastery by winemaker J-L Groux. Stratus doesn’t want you to dwell on the fact that this wine is made in a natural style with indigenous yeasts and is unfiltered. Afterall, it’s nothing new. They’ve been doing this with their chardonnays for a while now. What Stratus does want you to dwell on is this wine’s exuberant personality. Deliciously balanced and finely tuned, this does justice to the very essence of cool climate winemaking. Experience notes of freshly buttered bread, ripe apples, peaches, roasted corn, stone minerality and subtle flint smoke. A contemplative wine if there ever was one.
Tawse 2014 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay ($45.95)
This single vineyard, flagship chardonnay bottling comes from 35 year-old vines of the Robyn’s Block estate vineyard. The vineyard, named for eldest daughter of Moray and Joanne Tawse, is renowned for its ability to produce wines of superior quality year after year. Made organically – and more specifically, biodynamically – this, from the cooler 2014 vintage, is abundant with sweet melon, coconut and caramel, complimented by oak aromas. Bright acidity with lemon, lime and pineapple flavours makes this refreshing and utterly satisfying to the very last drop.
La Crema 2016 Saralee’s Vineyard Chardonnay
Another selection from La Crema, the Saralee’s Vineyard chardonnay is from one of the world’s great “cool” spots, the Russian River Valley. It is full-bodied and creamy textured, with notes of lychee, citrus, flowers, lemon curd and baked pear. More elegant and broad in style – and in focus – this is one to serve with rich and creamy dishes. A really gorgeous wine that delivers all of the fundamentals. ($54.95)
Quails’ Gate 2016 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay ($43.95)
This is the flagship white wine made at one of British Columbia’s most prominent wineries. The orchard fruit aromas are mind blowing. You’d swear you just took a peach cobbler out of the oven. Your first mouthful will be rich and bursting with stone minerality. Take a minute, then enjoy a second mouthful and notice its creamy, buttery charm. Perfect with salmon and baked potato. This wine is made to be enjoyed now.