Could 400,000 Acres Be Wrong?
One of the most widely planted grapes, easy to grow and extremely malleable, Chardonnay, the ‘son’ of Pinot Noir has been the good son. So how did it come to be that there was an entire movement against this friendly and accommodating grape? The ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement started just over a decade ago primarily due to a flush of over-oaked Chardonnays in the marketplace but this resilient grape continues to fight its way back into the hearts of wine lovers.
I am guilty as charged, very rarely selecting a Chardonnay over a graceful and fresh Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. But surely 400,000 acres can’t be wrong. The International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) suggests the love never died, it just needed some counselling.
So I decided to sign up for some i4c counselling sessions. With over 200 Chardonnays poured over three days by passionate and engaging winemakers from all over the world, if I was going to fall in love with Chardonnay again this was definitely the place to do it.
My first session began with a panel discussion and tasting moderated by Steve Spurrier, consulting editor for Decanter Magazine and President of the Circle of Wine Writers home-based in the U.K. Introductions were made by Albrecht Seeger, family friend and grape grower extraordinaire, his life’s work including the cultivation and farming of some of the oldest Chardonnay blocks in Niagara. His vineyard planted in 1977, was the only Chardonnay vineyard at the time, a long way from the over 9,000 acres planted to date, surely a testament to the value and worthiness of this noble grape.
But Steven Spurrier put it all into context with one phrase, as somehow I knew he would, when he opened the weekend stating, “Chablis justified everything.”
Chablis in the minds of many, denotes simply a dry white wine, but in fact a true Chablis is the result of centuries of nurturing select vines in the Burgundian region in France. A wine district designated primarily to the cultivation of Pinot Noir for red, and Chardonnay for whites, ‘father’ and ‘son’ growing alongside each other since the 12th century.
The Chablis region of Burgundy is specifically defined by Chardonnay and its soils, arguably producing some of the most elegant and harmonious wines in the world. Winemaker Jacques Lardière from Louis Jadot, the famous Burgundian house, suggests it is because of the land and believes “the terroir is always speaking behind the style of the producer.” He goes on to describe that when you taste a great wine ‘the more elegant and pure…the harder it is to define. You see it but you can’t express it, it is simply elegance and total harmony.”
This makes complete sense to me as I think of all the great wines and food pairings I have experienced, it has always been about balance, difficult to explain but something you know to be. And much like a great chef, winemakers must find the right ‘recipe’ for each wine to create harmony in the glass.
The next day at the ‘Duelling Seafood’ luncheon hosted at Pillitteri Estates Winery I found some of this sought after harmony in not only the wines but the food pairings. A very thoughtful menu taking into account the versatility of Chardonnay and showing all sides of this noble grape.
Lunch began with a variety of Chardonnays paired with different oysters on the half shell. 2011 Pillitteri Chardonnay Musqué paired with Malpeques Atlantic Oyster, 2011 Road 13, Vineyards Chardonnay paired with Kusshi oysters, my new favourite after a recent trip to B.C, and 2010 La Chablisienne Montagny 1er Cru with Kumomoto Oysters to name a few.
Traditionally the fresh acidity of a wine lifts the flavours of the seafood to a higher level and the second course of P.E.I. Blue Mussels were brightened by a refreshing 2011 Vineland Estates Elevation Chardonnay. However the true test for me would be the next pairing of a full barrel ferment Chardonnay. One produced by Reif Estate Winery where I work and the other by Inniskillin where my father used to make wine, both produced from some of the oldest vines in the region. My fears that a bold Chardonnay would overpower the delicate seafood were quickly allayed as my butter coated lobster melted in my mouth along with the creamy, smooth Chardonnays. Winemakers Roberto and Bruce had found balance and harmony in their wines.
A 2007 Pillitteri Chardonnay Icewine would finish the afternoon and as I sipped on this unique Niagara treasure, I felt great admiration for all the winemakers in the room. The wines had been a testament to a great grape variety to be re-discovered and a testament to the fact that 400,000 acres and thousands of passionate winemakers must be right.