So here’s the deal. There I was, in long-sleeved summer shirt, long pants and dress shoes. I was sweating and hadn’t even had a sip of wine after hiking up the dusty Cherry Avenue, past farmhouses and vineyards to Tawse, the Vineland site of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (or IC4 for you “cool” insiders out there).
It was obvious I had over-dressed once I saw the owner of the venue, Moray Tawse, wearing what can only be described as a Bermuda swim suit (complete with a sailboat and sunset design) and a golf shirt, the very epitome of casual attire.
Crap, what was I thinking?! It’s like 42C in the shade and feels like 50. The owner of the place has set the bar on the dress code at swim trunks (they may have been shorts, I didn’t ask), and I’m standing in the heat melting and looking at a table of sort-of chilled Chardonnay that goes on forever.
I’m talking about all of this with an acquaintance, who really doesn’t want to hear anymore complaining, and says: “Man up, it’s summer in Ontario, what were you expecting?”
Which, of course, is right, even considering that this was a “cool climate Chardonnay” event. So with an increasingly soaked shirt, I dove head-first into a table of 100 Chardonnays from around the world brought to Tawse by 56 winemakers at the main event for IC4.
It was billed as an “evening of sensational sipping, extraordinary food (OK, it was good but impossible to make it extraordinary under the circumstance) and incredible live music (true!), set amongst the vines on Niagara’s famous Bench.”
As legendary folk musician Murray McLauchlan (I interviewed him for a paper in the Yukon in the 80s over breakfast and he sent his eggs back to the chef three times, but he seemed a tad less cranky now as the decades have passed, but, hey, so am I) played his sweet, catchy, melodic tunes, I joined the crush of tasters for an around-the-world taste of Chardonnay, the one grape that many in Niagara say is the region’s star (I think the Riesling folks might beg to differ, but that’s a debate for another day).
The Chardonnays presented showed the vast stylistic differences from around the world with this often-maligned variety. Niagara, of course, was well represented with many of the top Chardonnays produced locally, and small samplings from Burgundy, Italy, New York, New Zealand, B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, Prince Edward County, California, Oregon, Austria, Chile and likely a few regions I’m missing.
It’s hard to draw conclusions from the tasting, other than to say Niagara has both come a long way in terms of quality Chardonnay but, also, there is still room to close the gap on some of the major Chardonnay producers from Burgundy. Or, conversely, should Niagara even aspire to the style of Chablis, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuisse or Puligny-Montrachet? Or should they just let Niagara’s terroir express the best of what we do here and improve on that?
Niagara’s major Chardonnay producers like to compare their wines against Burgundy, that is their benchmark and it is why many producers have chosen to throw so much weight behind the production of Chardonnay in Niagara. Tawse, Hidden Bench, Le Clos Jordanne, Southbrook and now Pearl-Morissette and Thomas Bachelder, build their portfolios around a core of very fine Chardonnays. Also, in Prince Edward County, Norman Hardie and Rosehall Run (those 2008 chards are developing so beautifully), to name only two, have also chosen Chardonnay as the key white variety to express County terroir.
So, with all this love for Ontario Chardonnay and the terroir, or expression of place, are the aspirations of local wineries better placed on our style rather than chasing a Chablis or Meursault expression? It is a question many struggle with.
But, saying all that, it sure was fascinating to taste Ontario Chardonnays along a table that included some top examples from other places in the world.
Derek Barnett, winemaker at Lailey, was pouring his wonderful Old Vines and Brickyard Chardonnays right beside Burgundy’s Maison Alex Gambal.
Gambal, an American who went to Burgundy with his family in 1993 and never left, purchased a vineyard and now crafts Chardonnay under his own label including a wonderful Maison Alex Gambal Puligny-Montrachet 2008 ($65) that shows such poise and balance in the mouth to go with minerals, citrus and pure harmony.
It’s all about the finesse, Barnett says. While Niagara has come a long way in terms of quality, he explains, it also has plenty of room to grow. Which only makes sense considering Niagara is still a very young wine region compared to the rest of the world. Quality is improving with each passing vintage and wineries still need to decide (or hone) where they want to go with their Chardonnay style.
Barnett loved the format of the Tawse event (and, I must say, was dressed for heat much better than I), a chance to compare and take notes from so many outside producers and even comparing Ontario wines. “It’s been a tremendous experience,” he says.
While hot, and sticky, and not the perfect conditions for tasting Chardonnay and taking notes (in fact, I barely got to a quarter of the wines that were offered for tasting and pretty much stuck to wines I hadn’t tried before) I did find some that stood out for me.
Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2009 ($35, released shortly, 92 points) — Love the new label on this classic Chardonnay that’s fermented and aged in French oak, 40% new barrels, 60% one year old barrels. It’s rich and minerally on the nose with pear and tropical fruits with toasty vanilla notes. Wonderful structure and fruit persistence on the palate with racy acidity.
Norman Hardie Chardonnay Cuvee L 2008 ($49, 92 points) — The top-tier Cuvee L is a blend of the best of the best Chardonnay from both Niagara and the County. The 2008 cuvee is 65% Niagara fruit and the rest from the County. This is a very fine wine, leaning toward luxurious and textured with tropical/pear fruits and spurts of citrus mingling always with that distinct flinty-minerality.
Ravine Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2009 ($38, 92 points) — This is a gorgeous, stylish Chard with vanilla cream, tropical, apple fruits and lovely spice. Fine oak and spice in the mouth, great acid backbone and ripe fruits suggest a long life in the cellar.
Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty Shed 2009 ($25, 92 points) — Maybe the best Rusty Shed since 2004? I’m not sure, but I love this Chardonnay with layers of citrus, green apple, vanilla spice and the elegance of oak on the nose. The palate has all of that and a fresh acid core to keep it all in balance. Ripeness of fruit and wonderful acidity.
Pearl Morissette Estate Winery Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme Chardonnay 2008 ($45, 93 points) — Burgundian trained Francois Morissette has flown under the radar as he prepares to unleash his Niagara Chardonnays and Pinots on the world. His first Chardonnay uses only neutral oak stylings and indigenous yeasts. The nose is extraordinary and so unlike other Chards being produced locally. Very tropical nose of apricot fruit and citrus with underlying minerality and citrus zest. It’s ripe and pure on the palate with a balanced attack of fruit and minerals.
Domaine Laroche Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots 2007 (93 points) — Laroche starts with no oak aging for his lower-tiered Chablis and finishes at 30% new oak for his Grand Cru Blanchots. It is such a refined beauty with a nose of flint and fruit and profound minerals that mingle with an array of fruit flavours. Delicate, perfectly balanced fruit, subtle spice in an even, balanced approach through the finish. It’s all about the finesse here.
Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2009 (92 points) — Thomas Bachelder has been busy since leaving his job as the winemaker for Le Clos Jordanne. His newest concept is to make three Chardonnays from different regions — Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy — to “tell the truth of all three regions,” he says. He has finished the three wines but is still waiting for VQA approval on the Niagara Chardonnay and didn’t let us taste his other two wines at Tawse. His Niagara chardonnay is made in a tight, minerally style that is more about finesse and grace than power and defining fruit. I love the mineral nose and fruits on the palate that are revealed in layers rather than as a singular blast. As I said, a very tight wine that will be interesting to watch as it evolves.
Peller Estates Signature Series Sur Lie Chardonnay 2009 ($30, 91 points) — An interesting nose of biscuit, butterscotch, apple and vanilla. Love the mineral notes on the palate and the smoky fruit flavours with underlying citrus and apple notes. Very fine Chardy.
The day and evening at Tawse also featured food prepared locally by August Restaurant, Wellington Court, Zooma Zooma Café that Pie Plate.
Served family style was:
• Seasoned pulled pork with Niagara apricot BBQ sauce on cornmeal buttermilk bread (August)
• Fresh Niagara greens with five spice pecans, Chardonnay infused cranberries and mango-ginger vinaigrette (Zooma Zooma)
• Hand-cut French fries with roasted garlic aioli (Wellington)
• Niagara peach tart with Chardonnay cream (Pie Plate)
The evening, for me, finished with a very necessary ice cold beer from Lake Huron craft brewer, Neustadt, with Ravine’s Alex Harber, Robyn Thiessen and her wonderful parents at their house that butts up to the Tawse vineyards. The Thiessen’s are long-time grape growers and have one of the finest back decks overlooking Niagara wine country that I can imagine. And the beer was very cold and very delicious. Just what we needed.