I am honoured to be the ambassador for the Chardonnay grape in Ontario. I won’t trash talk the other varietals who aspire to Chardonnay’s majesty – they have their place in the allegiance of Ontario consumers – but only Chardonnay has captured the hearts of the many and lifted the sagging spirits of Maple Leaf and Blue Jay fans vintage after vintage.
There are some misguided individuals who are card-carrying members of the ABC club (‘Anything But Chardonnay’); but these lost souls are only familiar with the sweet, buttery, oak- juiced wines from countries whose names begin with A. Have pity them on them for they know not what they drink. They have not tasted Ontario Chardonnay which can be as ethereal as a young girl’s first kiss or as racy as Milos Raonic’s first serve.
My good friend Ron Giesbrecht, who has been making Chardonnay for 23 years at Henry of Pelham, has dubbed this variety, ‘the Chicken of the Vineyard.’ This has nothing to do with the grape’s lack of courage and everything to do with its versatility. Chardonnay is the winemaker’s blank canvas to which each is able to bring his or her creativity to bear. It is quintessentially the winemaker’s grape. What style do you want? Something that tastes like biting into a crisp, juicy Granny Smith Apple straight out of the fridge or something that tastes like peaches and cream with a hint of vanilla? Or something that smells of honeysuckle (the Chardonnay Musqué clone). The result all depends on what happens in the vineyard and the winemaker’s decisions in the cellar. Is the grape to be fermented and aged in stainless steel or oak barrels? Should it be put through a malolactic fermentation to soften its acidity; and should its lees be stirred in the barrel to extract more flavour? And then there’s the question of whether to blend wines made in stainless steel with those made in oak. And what sort of oak to use and for how long to leave the wine here. The permutations are endless.
But first, a little history. Chardonnay is a relatively new landed immigrant in Ontario. In 1946, Bright’s winemaker, Adhemar de Chaunac – who gave his name to the hybrid grape de Chaunac– visited Europe for the purpose of selecting varietals that would improve his company’s wines. He brought back with him 40 European varieties including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 1955 Brights produced the first 100% Chardonnay wine from those vines but did not release any bottles on the market.
The late Bill Lenko was the first grape grower in Canada to plant Chardonnay. Against all accepted wisdom Bill brought in cuttings from France in 1959 for his property in Beamsville, Ontario. The experts at the Horticultual Research Institute told him that vinifera would not survive Ontario’s winter. Well, that vineyard is still going strong under the stewardship of Bill’s son, Daniel Lenko. You can taste the wines made from these grapes today in Lenko’s Old Vines Chardonnay and Signature Chardonnay. Half a century ago those grapes were purchased, processed and blended into several generic white wines and it wasn’t until 1975 that Cartier vines made the first Ontario Chardonnay as a stand-alone varietal. (Cartier, incidentally, was bought out by Chateau Gai which later morphed into Vincor.) Today virtually every Ontario winery makes at least one Chardonnay.
And such is the pre-eminence of the variety that Ontario winemakers have come together to create an annual symposium to honour the variety. It’s called the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (I4C for short). The concept was to bring together cool-climate Chardonnay producers from around the world to discuss and taste this style of wine with the wine-buying public. The organizers are quick to point out that it’s a celebration, not a competition.
For the second I4C this past July, the keynote speaker was the British wine writer Stephen Brook who moderated a panel on ‘Extreme Winemaking’ – extreme in the sense of elevation, climate, rainfall, etc. At this opening seminar we tasted Chardonnays from Catena, Argentina, Yabby Lake, Victoria, Australia, Flowers, Sonoma Coast, Decelle-Villa, Burgundy, Hillebrand, Ontario and Blue Mountain, BC. At the buffet lunch that followed bottles of Chardonnay were placed on the tables and participants rush around bartering and negotiating for those on other tables. In the evening guests congregated at Jackson-Triggs for I4C’s Kick-Off Party. Donald Ziraldo opened the festivities by sabering a bottle of sparkling wine. Then 55 cool climate Chardonnay producers from 14 of the world’s coolest regions poured their wines. When The Arkells started to perform everybody moved to the amphitheatre area where a large tent had been pitched and all the wines were brought there. The energy was electric, an amazing buzz as 500 people drank cool climate Chardonnays from all over the world with rock music in the background.
Next day, eight Ontario wineries put on themed lunches. I was invited to Hidden Bench where the Chardonnay flowed like…Chardonnay. The proceedings began with Stephen Brook leading a seminar with some of the winemakers answering his questions, ‘Do cool climate Chardonnays reflect their terroir more than warm climate Chardonnays?’ Short answer, ‘Yes’. And ‘Does organic or biodynamic growing improve the quality of wine?’ Again, short answer, ‘Yes’ Generally speaking, I4C was a resounding success, all the events beautifully organised with the enthusiastic support of all the participating wineries, both local and international. I think it augurs well for the future of this event as its reputation spreads around the wine world. It certainly deserves to. The ultimate purpose is to change the meaning of ABC, in the inimitable words of Oz Clarke, the British wine writer, from ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ to ‘Another Bottle of Chardonnay.’
Tony Aspler, has been writing about wine for over 30 years. He was the wine columnist for The Toronto Star for 21 years and has authored sixteen books on wine and food, including ‘The Wine Atlas of Canada,’ ‘Vintage Canada,’ The Wine Lover's Companion`, `The Wine Lover Cooks` and `Tony Aspler’s Cellar Book‘. As a fiction writer, Tony has authored nine novels that involve wine. In 2007 Tony was awarded the Order of Canada.