Last week some of the wine world’s top minds and talents came together in our backyard to talk, share and celebrate all things Chardonnay. When it was time to get back to work on Monday, Chardonnay had reaffirmed itself as the head grape in charge of the white wine kingdom with its cool climate persona as its most celebrated and fierce expression.
When the latest chapter of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, a.k.a. i4C, closed last weekend it left a few lasting thoughts amongst the thousands of empty bottles, memories and smiling wine consumers and industry professionals. The most vivid of these thoughts is the sheer expressiveness of today’s cool climate Chardonnay. Nowhere was that more apparent than i4C’s School of Cool where blind flights of Chardonnay punctuated lively discussion. Every wine poured spoke loudly and proudly with its origins on display from steely, taught Chablis and Champagne that are as bracingly restorative as the year’s first breath of autumn air, to the elegant luminosity of perfumed Argentinean and Chilean Chardonnays with the satisfying texture of a perfectly pulled cappuccino. But the consistent standouts amongst every flight were the hometown wines embodying the electric tension and floral sweetness of a sun-shower. All wines poured for the crowd of industry pros were impressive and beautifully distinct expressions of cool climate Chardonnay that stood apart like a Beyoncé amongst the heaps of algorithm-thirsty caricature Sauvignon Blancs and playlist-chasing anonymous Pinot Grigios that fill global wine shelves.
You can make Chardonnay anywhere, but when you put it in the right spot and push it to its natural high potential it’s capable of very good things. Get out of the way like Matthew Knowles and that’s when the real magic happens.
That was the message that underlined everything at the School of Cool beginning with Master of Wine, educator and writer Julia Harding’s keynote that concluded with her seeing positive things for cool climate Chardonnay going forward as producers and consumers around the globe are gravitating towards “fresher styles of wine with more restraint, elegance, less oak and precision.”
But it isn’t all promise for cool climate Chardonnay. Like virtually all things around the globe its biggest threat is climate change. As panel moderator professor Jim Willwerth of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute laid out being on the edge of viability is the secret sauce that gives cool climate Chardonnay its exciting and distinctive edge—an enviable superpower oft imitated but never duplicated. While the heat of global warming helps make life easier for cool climate growers on paper, it also brings with it a large increase in weather volatility with late spring frosts, hail, winter vine damage, flooding, wild fires and droughts. Unfortunately those viticultural nightmares are the new reality and have afflicted i4C growers and producers with everything from reduced crops, to lost vintages and total vineyard write-offs. The one plus is that now that we’ve acknowledged and recognised this threat we can channel a defiant spirit and knowledge into a will to overcome. “The same things that affected my grandfather affect us today. The difference is we have technology on our side,” said panelist Johann de Wet of his South African family winery De Wetshof. He went on to add that just like past pioneers of cool climate regions who made great wine in places skeptics said was impossible, we still have a chance to combat climate change and continue making great Chardonnay.
The other great threat to cool climate wine is learning the-less-is-more and get-out-of-your-own-way lessons. Winemakers on the very technical all-about-lees (the spent yeast cells responsible for giving long-aged Champagne those lovely toasty and nutty flavours) panel confessed past wine crimes like too much lees stirring to the over filtration of wines all done in the name of making a better bottle. But too often they end up stripping away a wine’s distinct personality resulting in unremarkable and anonymous Chardonnay. The take way for future winemakers in the audience is you must embrace what the vineyard and vintage is providing and you’ll be rewarded with wines of personality. Judging by the number of wines at i4C taking a more natural approach with wild ferments and unfiltered and zero dosage bottlings this sage advice is not just being heeded, it’s being embraced.
The final big lessons from i4C is the versatility and diversity of the cool climate Chardonnays. Whether it was sparkling, unoaked, skin contact or classic barrel ferments there was an eclectic diversity of delicious cool climate Chardonnay to suit anyone’s tastes. This year’s i4C showcased that no grape is more elegant and diverse in what it can deliver in the glass and beyond. This versatility was on full display at Flights of Chardonnay. With a wine-pun moniker the i4C kick-off event held in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s airport hangar demonstrated Canada’s growing wine culture with veteran Ontario wine lovers mingling with Toronto’s diverse millennial wine crowd. Despite feeling like you just emerged from a long steamy shower the venue was perfect with savvy attendees taking 10 minute fights from the city’s island airport and rolling into the event celebrity-style to hang out with a squad of friends for sunset selfies and a night of exploring the stories behind the bottles by sharing a glass of Chardonnay and conversation with local and visiting winemakers.
Flights also set the tone for unofficial theme of the weekend—cool climate Chardonnay is the perfect partner for whatever is on your plate. It continued into the Grand Tasting and Dinner and the closing Moveable Feast Brunch. Throughout the weekend local Niagara wine country culinary talents like Tide and Vine, Backhouse, Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute and Ravine showcased the synergy of cool climate Chardonnay and food. Crispy blanc de blanc sparklers brought out the best in briny East Coast oysters like they were BFFs. Elegant barrel ferments showed the texture and tension necessary to make a crispy pork belly on pickled slaw ensemble pop like a bold pocket square or designer purse. While minerally, wild ferment Chardonnays brought enough savory character and funk to dance with beefy sliders and golden frites.
If there was one overall take away from this year’s i4C it’s that with the versality, diversity and distinctiveness of this generation of cool climate Chardonnays, it should be your go-to grape when you feel like a white wine. So don’t forget to mark your calendars for i4C next year. With it being the 10th edition and the International Cool Climate Wine Summit proceeding, there’s sure to be some extra celebration on tap too cool to miss.
@ Vitis Magazine