Written by Jennifer Huether, MS
Is chardonnay Ontario’s great white variety?
Great chardonnay has the ability to translate terroir to us, the sense of place and vineyard from where it is grown. It can also be extremely complex, crafted unlike other white varieties. Nature has an opportunity to shine through this grape, but so does the deft hand of the winemaker. The challenge to strike a fine balance between acidity and weight, texture and mouthfeel is the pursuit of our talented winemakers.
If Ontario is to be seriously considered as a benchmark region for chardonnay, the wines need to display the ability to evolve and gain more complexity with age (10 plus years). Are we there?
I had a chance to speak with five local winemakers on the subject of why Ontario chardonnay should now be considered a game changer for our local region, and here is what they had to share:
“Chardonnay does amazingly well and we have been trying to get people on board for over a decade. The challenge is that chardonnay is made all over the world. So many people equate oak or a buttery character with chardonnay, but here we make wines that are more austere and don’t use big oak and loads of malo/lees. So it’s a bit hard to define chardonnay here and to market it properly to people.”
“Here we get the acidity and backbone that makes chardonnay wonderful and we don’t over oak it. It is a fine line between edgy and elegant and if you take it too far it goes one way. Chardonnay doesn’t have the aromatics to support the wine such as pinot gris. Winemakers around the world would be jealous based on when we can pick our chard grapes based on PH and acidity. Acidity is a hallmark of allowing chardonnay to age. That backbone never subsides and that is where you get longevity. Both acidity and fruit keep going. Eight to 10 years the wines start showing their best. I love the arc!”
Chardonnay vineyards for ageability: Moira Vineyard.
Drinking fabulously now: Malivoire 2013 Moira Chardonnay.
“We have slowly changed the way we make our chardonnay, as a winery and as a region. Emphasis on more acidity and minerality now and paying closer attention to when we choose to harvest. We are not looking for high sugar, but a balance of acidity. We have also dialed our oak back and are only using light long toast now. While it can be up to 20 percent new oak, its still very low toast. For Two Sisters Vineyards, we are only allowing up to 30 percent malolactic fermentation, leaving more firm acidity for greater ageability.”
“We are lucky to have access to Lenko old vines chardonnay, planted back in 1959. These vines add weight, depth and character, all naturally.”
“We are definitely seeing chardonnay come around again. I think it took a while for people to get over the over-oaked full malo styles of old. I’m seeing more customers committed to laying some Ontario chardonnay down in their cellars to reap the rewards it will bring. I love seeing where the chards are going with further bottle age. They are really holding up so well in most years and really shining years later in some of the cooler vintages.”
“Chardonnay has always had a strong foothold in Ontario but the future is looking even better as customers appreciate more and more the potential of Ontario chardonnay and all the unique vineyard sites around the peninsula and what they have to offer.”
Examples that are aging beautifully right now: Two Sisters 2015 Unoaked Chardonnay and 2016 Chardonnay.
“Niagara is really spreading its wings as it relates to the production of a broad selection of very differently styled, top-flight chardonnays.”
“There can be no doubt that our excellent reputation among international cognoscenti has a lot to do with our ability to craft chardonnays stylistically similar to the great paradigms in Burgundy, unlike other New World regions whose climates and soils might be slightly too ‘generous.’ But even within the context of those Ontario chardonnays made using classic Burgundian winemaking philosophies, there’s greater diversity in our range now. The very different soils, sub-soils and climates of Niagara’s various north facing benches and of the warmer areas of Niagara-on-the-Lake allow passionate winemakers to showcase the attributes and individuality of their chosen vineyard’s terroir.”
“From lithe and elegant all the way to rich, full and intense, Niagara’s artisans are creating many spectacular and also age worthy chardonnays. Greater understanding of the vineyard sites, meticulous viticulture and wisely reduced cropping levels have played a role in our advancement, but at the root of it all are winemakers who are driven to create chardonnays that will stand with the finest in the world. We’ve proven that the potential is here, so it’s on us to be at the top of our game.”
Showing beautifully now: On Seven 2018 ‘Pursuit’ Chardonnay.
“I started making wine in British Columbia where I found that chardonnay needed a lot of intervention to avoid it becoming a “donut” – that is a wine that starts and finishes with a lot of character but is missing something in the middle. Ontario chardonnays, by contrast, have a lot of harmony from start to finish, and often require little intervention in the cellar.”
“After making chardonnay for about 10 years from organic grapes in several Niagara sub-appellations, these are the traits I admire:
- Four Mile Creek – the lacustrine soils provide immense minerality, while the warmer growing conditions give richness and texture consistently vintage after vintage. I love the contrast between fullness on the palate and brightness of structure to make long lasting wines.
- Lincoln Lakeshore – soils in this area are lighter and well drained, keeping vines healthy and satisfied, but the influence of Lake Ontario dominates. These vines bud out later than Four Mile Creek, and develop under consistently cooler conditions throughout the summer. By fall the lake keeps vineyard temperatures more steady here, resulting in rock-solid chardonnays vintage after vintage.
- Beamsville Bench – the dominant features here are north-facing slopes, offering indirect sunlight throughout the growing season. Combined with steady breezes and mineral soils, this sub-appellation shows a lot of nerviness in chardonnay. The resulting wines are often slower to show their stuff, but well worth the wait.”
“My sense of the benefit to organically grown chardonnay comes from higher extract. Organic grapes are continuously challenged by the environment, so their immune system is constantly working, giving greater density to the pulp and skins, and thus more extract. Extract relates to mouthfeel, fullness and texture on the palate (but not residual sugar) – all things that contribute to a complete and delightful wine and age-worthiness.”
Wine to pick up: Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay
Ironically, I’m chatting with Thomas about chardonnay while he is in Mâconnais, in Burgundy!
“What makes a great Ontario terroir-driven chardonnay? Barrels for starters. Barrel ferments, even in neutral barrels (it’s not necessarily about new oak). The time and oxidation that the barrels bring. There is great lees contact in the barrel. Each barrel is it’s only micro-fermentation. If you have 12 barrels of a cru at play, you have lots of room to play with. Barrel selection is very important.”
“I really like how the chardonnays develop and get lean, more focused and more terroir-driven after 10-12, even 18 months or 22 months. Especially older vineyards. These develop great primary and the beginning of tertiary flavours. Time in barrel is a part of supporting a great chardonnay.”
“Dolomitic limestone in Ontario on the Bench where you get this longer growing season – so a little more time for the wine to impact minerality and more complexity with that extra hang time. It’s not just about getting more sugar.
“It is amazing how floral Niagara chardonnays can be. Ten year-old wines from Niagara – our 2011’s are still tasting super fresh and have room to grow still.”
Wine to collect: Bachelder 2019 ‘Bai Xu’ Vineyard Chardonnay.
Jennifer’s love affair with wine started in her early twenties, and she has made it her full time job ever since. Academically, Jennifer passed both her Diploma of Wine and was Canada’s first female Master Sommelier. Passionate about uplifting women in wine, Jennifer has been a volunteer and mentor for several organizations including CAPS, Vinequity, GuildSomm and Femmes du Vin. You can find her now curating the list at Fresh City Farms, teaching or chatting about plant based food and wine.