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An eye-opening tasting of Ontario Chardonnay history during i4C in Niagara

By Rick VanSickle

To listen to Southbrook Vineyards owner Bill Redelmeier (top photo) tell it, there is no greater grape variety to show off the terroir of Ontario than Chardonnay.

He will tell you that in every pocket of Ontario’s wine regions, Chardonnay can tell its story distinctly and with conviction. There is no other grape that can do that at the level Chardonnay does, he argues.

It is the most widely planted vinifera cultivar in Ontario, and the fifth most widely planted grape in the world after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Airén. Consumers the world over dig Chardonnay, of that there is no doubt. And growers love it because of its moderately high vigor (depending on the location) and an upright growth habit. It is reasonably cold hardy and thrives in most of the main wine regions of Ontario and can be made into myriad styles from unoaked, to oaked, sparkling and everything in between.

Ontario wine
Steven Elphick tasting the range of the older vintage Chardonnays.

Some of the greatest white wines in the world (think Burgundy) are made from Chardonnay and that holds true in Ontario, where many of the top whites are made from Chardonnay.

That is why Redelmeier championed a team of Canadian vintners to show their Chardonnays to top critics in the UK at a curated tastings of wine at Canada House in London in 2010. Redelmeier wanted to do for Canada what a similar tasting in London did for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — put it firmly on the wine map of the world.

A total of 108 Canadian wineries were asked to submit wines for a blind tasting to determine which wines would be shown in London. They were all tasted blind by a panel of Canadian wine critics and the best of the best were sent to London for the tasting. In all, 22 wineries were represented, some with two Chardonnays to show.

This is what noted UK wine critic Jancis Robinson wrote in the Financial Times of London at the time of the tasting.

“The most distinctive were those called by locals simply County, meaning that they come from the relatively new Prince Edward County region that is even cooler than the benchland just west of Niagara Falls where the Ontario wine industry has historically been concentrated. The best of these wines have real delicacy as well as density of flavour. In general they were long on flavour and short on alcohol. Burgundian influence is strong, but those in my list are fine wines with their own personality and great charm, with 2007 a particularly successful vintage.”

Zoom ahead to where we are now, on the final day of the annual celebration of all things Chardonnay held in Niagara each July, and I am sitting in the tasting room with Redelmeier and noted wine country photographer and wine lover Steven Elphick ( surrounded by a collection of those very wines tasted in London in 2010.

Redelmeier has been holding the wines all this time for an occasion just like this to see how the top Canadian Chardonnays of the day would show a decade or more later. He poured the wines for an invited list of guests over the three days of i4C (International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration) to share and discuss the evolution of the Chardonnays over time. The big question: Would they age gracefully over time?

The wines poured were mostly from the 2008 vintage, but there were a few 2007s. As well, because each winery was allowed to take two wines if they were chosen, plus an older vintage Chardonnay, there was at least one 2005 wine in the tasting on Sunday.

You couldn’t have had two different vintages. 2007 was very hot and dry and, one would think, a short-lived vintage for Chardonnay. 2008, on the other hand was cool and somewhat wet, but noted at the time as being a fairly good vintage for Chardonnay.

Some of the wines tasted Sunday were reviewed by me on this website when they were released, so I can compare them to this tasting’s notes. Not all the wines were reviewable, as one or two had fatal flaws that could be attributed to things other than the winemaking, so I have left them out of my notes.

Here are the wines tasted and my observations.

Trius Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008 — The nose was definitely fading but notes of pear, baked apple, toasted almonds and subtle oak dominated the nose. It had an elegant feel on the palate with acidity still driving the bus, and a range of stone fruits and spice. A pleasant Chardonnay, but on the downward slide.

Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2007 — One of the superstars of this tasting, in my opinion, and not a shocker for me as I sang its praises when it was first released. Such a profoundly mineral nose with rich, pronounced apple and pear fruit, nougat and wonderful barrel oak spices. It’s still a very good bottle of wine (lucky you if you still have some in the cellar) that has gained richness and fat over time and shows layers of fruit, fine oak spices and finesse on the finish.

Southbrook Poetica Chardonnay 2007 (4.5 stars, original review) — This vintage of the Chardonnay may well prove to be as good as the stunning 1998. It’s a dramatic wine with tropical-pear fruits aromas to go with butterscotch cream notes. In the mouth it show pure opulence with creamy and juicy fruit enhanced by oak and vanilla spice.

Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace 2008 — This is one of two Le Clos and both are showing quite well right now. I would give the 2005 a higher score if I was scoring. But this is very nice for drinking up now. It has a poached pear, apple nose with well-integrated spice notes. Beautiful mouth-feel with a layered, complex approach on the palate that shows harmonious stone fruits, stony minerality and lemon freshness on the finish.

Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Chardonnay 2008 (4.5 stars, original review) — Soft, mellow Chard with wonderful broad aromas of elegant oak, citrus zest, peach, flint, wet stone and vanilla. Just gorgeous in the mouth with a balanced attack of creamy fruit, mineral and integrated oak flavours.

Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2007 — Very subtle nose of pear and minerals and a bit hollow on the palate. Likely past its peak of performance.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2008 — Holding tightly to the mineral notes of the Bench, plus pear, lemon and still some freshness. It’s broad, rich and mineral laden, gaining some fat, perfectly harmonious and so beautiful in its twilight years.

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2008 (4.5 stars, original review) — One of the best Chardonnays enjoyed this year. A gorgeous nose of pears, figs, vanilla, wonderful oak tones and sweet spices. It’s lush and fleshy in the mouth, almost exotic in a Burgundian sense. Layers of pleasure from sniff to swallow.

Tawse Robyn’s Block Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 — Tawse won the White Wine of the Year Award from Wine Access Magazine in 2010 for this 2008 Robyn’s Block Chardonnay. The Chardonnay received a score of 93 out of 100 – the highest ever achieved by a table wine in that competition at the time. It’s holding on to the pear, apple, citrus and mineral notes on the nose, but showing a bit of age on the palate. Charming, yes, but drink ’em if you have ’em.

Lailey Old Vines Chardonnay 2008 — Such a pretty nose that shows harmonious stone fruits and rousing spice notes. It’s rich and spicy on the palate with pear and citrus on a finessed finish. Showing nicely right now.

Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace 2005 — This was the winner of the flight, despite its advanced age. Such graceful beauty and a harmonious nose of stone fruits, elegant oak spice and lemon accents. It’s perfectly balanced and shows timeless graceful pleasure on the palate with everything hitting just the right notes. If you have some of this in your cellar, take your time and enjoy it. This is aged Niagara Chardonnay at its best.

The tasting was concluded with a Burgundy from 2001 (it was supposed to be a mystery wine, but we were poured it last in the flight for comparison and knew what it was). It was an Yves Boyer-Martenot Meursault Les Narvaux 2001 and certainly was not out of place in the flight. Similar traits included stony minerality, finesse and the same caressing texture that many of the Ontario Chards had in spades.