This Chardonnay fest is The School of Cool
Five years ago I wrote in Quench: “I4C is the best thing that’s happened to the Canadian wine industry since the introduction of the VQA appellation system in 1988. The cryptic name is a punning acronym for the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration.”
This year’s event reaffirmed in spades this assertion and I4C’s beneficial impact on the global wine scene.
The three-day extravaganza in July, feting the world’s most popular grape, is held in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It has become the must-attend event for not only the local wine community but also wineries around the world, which eagerly await an invitation to participate.
The ninth annual event featured wines from California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, France and Italy as well as wines from a healthy contingent of fifty wineries from across Ontario and British Columbia.
To understand the significance of I4C, you have to know that Chardonnay is the fifth most widely planted grape variety on the planet, accounting for over 210,000 hectares of vines across 51 countries.
The centrepiece of this Chardonnay-fest was The School of Cool — a series of three seminars on winegrowing and winemaking. These seminars featured panel discussions in which vintners from around the world exchanged ideas with local winemakers.
The morning started with a keynote address by Master of Wine Julia Harding. Harding was Jancis Robinson’s wingwoman for Robinson’s website and seminal reference book, The Oxford Book of Wine.
Harding’s theme was “What cool climate means to me.” She distilled her thesis down to three words: Latitude, Altitude and Attitude. She spoke of climates warmer than Ontario’s, but these were mitigated by the coastal effect and inland fresh water. And she explained that wines produced using Chardonnay grown at high elevations in hot regions (for example, in Argentina) can be considered cool climate wines.
Harding informed us that half the vines planted in English vineyards are Chardonnay, mainly used for sparkling wines. She also said that climate change is more of a threat than a benefit to English wine.
Perhaps the event’s most informative panel session was “Everything you wanted to know about Lees but were afraid to ask.” The audience learned through this technical discussion that long lees ageing can produce honeyed notes and buttery flavours (those brioche and toasty aromas you detect in champagne), and that lees aging decreases white wine’s susceptibility to brown.
Those egg-shaped, concrete or ceramic fermenters that are now all the rage with winemakers promote the movement of lees and obviate the need for bâtonage (stirring lees to keep the yeast alive) and pumping over.
J.L. Groux, winemaker at Stratus, made the case for bottling white wine unfiltered and still on its lees even though the consumer gets a hazy product. “(You get) increased complexity and mouthfeel, adding longevity to the wine and protecting it from oxidation.” Afterwards we tasted eight wines and were quizzed on how long each one had been kept on its lees.
The second session was called, ‘It’s not just the heat; it’s the volatility: Weather volatility and the impact on Chardonnay production.’
Jim Willwerth, Senior Scientist in Viticulture at CCOVI, led the discussion with, “We […] Chardonnay is the classic cool climate variety, more versatile than other cultivars.” Late ripening, he explained, maximized the terroir effect. And when it comes to climate change, “wine grapes are the canary in the coal mine.”
The final session addressed “The Changing Faces of Chardonnay — how are consumers’ tastes and perceptions changing around cool climate Chardonnay styles?”
The good news is that consumers appear to be embracing the cool climate model as opposed to the big, buttery, oak-driven style of warmer regions like California and Australia. And which of the 100-odd Chardonnays I tasted during the day was my favourite? It came from South Africa — Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay 2017. I must get some in my cellar.