Thomas Bachelder's name has been synonymous with some of the best local Chardonnay since he began making wine in Niagara. The Quebec-born winemaker began his career in the wine world as a journalist.
His passion to learn more about viticulture and winemaking eventually led him to study in Burgundy, the home of his love: old world Pinot Noir. Having studied there as the A.B.C. (Anything But Chardonnay) movement was mobilising, Bachelder wasn't really all that keen about Chardonnay. But tasting a series of premier and grand cru Chardonnays in Chassagne-Montrachet was his epiphany on just how truly great the grape can be. The tension, energy and texture of those Chardonnays turned him into a life-long lover of the grape. Bachelder has since gone on to make world class Chardonnays in Burgundy, as well as Oregon and Niagara while guiding Le Clos Jordanne through its formative years.
He and his wife Mary Delaney have recently fulfilled a dream of starting a wine label of their own. The first project is a series of three 2009 Chardonnays from Burgundy, Niagara and Oregon—the three regions where they've worked and lived. All vinified identically, this project explores the differences and similarities of the terroir in these cool climate regions. Last year the Niagara Chardonnay made its public debut at i4C. This year he'll be pouring at the World Tour Tasting and during the Land, Lake and Sea lunch.
We recently had an opportunity to talk to Bachelder, who is a founding member and vice-chair of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, about his winemaking philosophy, his thoughts on cool climate Chardonnay and why this year's i4C shouldn't be missed.
Michael Di Caro: Chardonnay is known to be a winemaker's grape because the options of what you can do with it are nearly infinite. How would you describe your personal approach to Chardonnay?
Thomas Bachelder: I'm a big believer in the magic of barrel fermentation and long aging. I think that barrel fermentation is not oaking, but it is that magic that happens, the interaction and the slow oxygenation but not oxidativeness, that happens over 16 months. I feel that if you push past the vintage to the next and you go towards 14 months you get something much more textural that shows its terroir. You get rid of the baby fat. The texture is what makes the wine lover stand up and say this is world class. They're never saying its stone fruit, lychees or papaya. They're saying it's the texture of a Montrachet and I love this. I really do believe that comes from long barrel aging in which the oak has a chance to integrate and the texture has a chance to lengthen out. Of course, if you left it in there forever the wine would dry out. But that's why you ferment it in barrel hot, as opposed to cool in a tank like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. You ferment it hot to let it blow off some of the fruit. Then age it to let it blow off some of the baby fat. Then you come closer to the reality of that local piece of dirt—the local terroir. What I'm shooting for is wines that are fermented in barrel but don't necessarily smell of oak, and have the smell of where they come from. I'm really trying to go against this inox[ydable] movement as if barrel fermentation was something bad. Good barrel fermentation makes the most sublime white wine on this earth.
MD: You've made Chardonnay in three of the cool climate regions participating here (Niagara, Oregon & Burgundy). Those are very different places so how would you define cool climate?
TB: You're so right. A lot of people would say Niagara isn't cool climate. It's continental with cold winters and warm summers. Oregon has no rain all sumer and nothing but rain all winter. Burgundy is of course the origin of the grape. When l compare our three Chardonnays I always say that in Niagara and Oregon you have largely clonal plantings, good Dijon clones (that was a fault of Oregon in the past but now they've corrected it), on wider spacing. Burgundy you have limestone soils, 10,000 vines per hectare and the grape bloody well originated there. It evolved there. That said the commonality between Burgundy and Niagara is limestone. The commonality between Niagara and Oregon is the wider spacing. It's still cool climate, but they have more of a new world flavour and this richer young vines fruit. So I think the definition of cool climate is that maybe it tastes like it should have acidity. When I taste warmer climate ones that are grown on nearly cool climate soils because they might be higher up in elevation on a mountain, or they acidified judiciously or they arranged the canopy in a way to shade the grapes so they grow the way they would in a cooler climate, that's cool by attitude. We make space for that in i4C. So cool climate tastes like it should be cool climate and in a warmer cool climate, the Chardonnay still tastes cool climate, but in an easier way. In the end it's all about the dinner table. You pick up that glass of cool climate, higher end, Chardonnay whether it's Meursault or Ponzi, and after that first sip and first bite of food, you know it all just goes together.
MD: Chardonnay is a bit of a classic celebrity story with a great rise over the past few decades and then a great fall with the A.B.C. (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. But in recent years it has been on a comeback. What do you see as the future of Chardonnay going forward?
TB: Chardonnay is the world's best white grape. I like being a little provocative these days. I'm not asking you if you prefer Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, or Sauvignon Blanc. I'm saying Chardonnay is the world's best white grape and you can prove it by its popularity from hot climates to cool climates. You can also prove it because it's the red wine drinkers white wine. People who don't drink any whites will choke down a Chardonnay. That huge mass of red drinkers who won't drink any other whites but sparkling and Chardonnay, push it over the edge and make it the greatest white grape in the world. The $5.99 Chardonnays in the U.S. supermarkets make a lot of people happy. At the high end previously we only had Ferraris. As we grow we'll have 6-7 regions around the world that are seen to make Chardonnay for $20-40 that are really toothsome and more of the world will get to try good Chardonnay without having to learn to spell Chassagne-Montrachet. Then after those people can graduate to Chassagne-Montrachet if they want. So I think two to three categories of Chardonnay will exist and the time will have come and gone to beat-up on all Chardonnay. I think we've passed that time already, but the general consumer may not know it yet. It's an education. This movement is about bringing people back to cool climate Chardonnay, you can read high-end to that because it does cost money to make good Chardonnay. It can't just be a tank and oak chips. You need to go past the vintage so that means at least two sets of barrels. But it also doesn't need to be $60 or more per bottle.
MD: You'll be at Henry of Pelham's Land, Lake and Sea lunch as well as the World Tasting. For those sitting on the fence about buying tickets what would you say to them?
TB: If you've ever picked-up a major wine magazine and seen a story about one of these big white tent events and you wondered what it would be like to be a glitterati and participate in one, come to Niagara for i4C. For less than the cost of a nice dinner for two out in Toronto you won't just be able to taste what's local, but some of the world's best producers as well. All you need to do is walk from one table to the next and you can have your own blind tasting of Patagonia, vs. Meursault, vs. the Niagara Bench vs. Prince Edward County and Oregon. It's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket. Even if you bought a plane ticket you'd have to visit a lot of different countries to taste what you can here in the space of a few hours. Be on time, learn to spit and try as many wines as you can. It's a fantastic opportunity. Ontarians need to get down here. The world is coming to our doorstep.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.