Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – July 9, 2016
International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration Preview, & Killer, Almost-Chardo Whites
by John Szabo, MS
It’s July, which means it’s that time again for some of the world’s top chardonnay producers to join their counterparts in Canada for the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) in Niagara, July 22-24. Since 2011, over 174 wineries from planet wine have poured their coolest chardonnays in Ontario, and this year, the 6th edition, another 30 visiting vintners will show their wares alongside 30 Ontario oenologues, well over 100 wines altogether, with many extra-curricular options. The program this year is as jam-packed as a winery tasting room on a long summer weekend, full of fun, covertly educational events, including the main event, the Cool Chardonnay World Tour Tasting & Dinner on Saturday night. See the schedule and get your tickets. I’ll see you there.
The LCBO joins the celebration with an i4c preview for the July 9th VINTAGES release. By design or diplomatic faux pas, the Ontario selections largely outshine the foreign ones, all from the watershed 2013 vintage, arguably the best yet for Ontario chardonnay. Read on for the best of the lot in the release, plus a few others great chardonnays I’ve swallowed lately. And for those of you who love chardonnay, but would enjoy a little dalliance, I’ve got three irresistible whites, which in a dark glass at the end of the night could pass for a delicious chardo, with an exotic twist.
Chardonnay: You Are The One
It’s never the special bottlings or experimental lots that define a wine region, no matter how impressive they are. It’s the baseline and the top end, and everything in between, which proclaim a region’s signature grape status. What’s the most consistent and reliable variety, at all price points, capable of displaying a range of styles yet still regionally recognizable?
By these criteria, Ontario has a clear champion: chardonnay. Riesling, it’s true, performs superbly and dependably well, and easily anchors the best value category. But it hits a glass ceiling of price and, more contentiously, quality. I know of no Ontario riesling that sells over $40, which would be hard to justify in any case in my view, and most are under $20, right where they should be, with notable exceptions.
Chardonnay, on the other hand, while weaker at the bottom end, can nonetheless peak interest under $20, and ramp up all the way to $50-$60+ with plenty of points of interest along the way. And at the ultra-premium end, the top wines handily equal, and often best, similarly priced wines from around the world. It’s rare that a young wine region hit upon a signature variety within the first generation, but with barely forty years of serious commercial winegrowing, Ontario has found a successful vector with chardonnay.
“We focus so much on Chardonnay as we believe it’s the first white grape of Ontario in terms of consistency, quality, and also its expression of terroir”, declares Daniel Speck of Henry of Pelham, one of the original Niagara wineries, echoing the sentiments of many others. You can bet that if I were planting a vineyard in Ontario, there would be a healthy percentage of chardonnay in the mix. As further evidence, last week at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada judging in Penticton, BC, there were no fewer than three flights of chardonnay, the largest group, along with pinot noir, that made it to the final rounds. This clearly shows that the bulk of entries was very strong (including wines from elsewhere in Canada, but many from Ontario) – it was a sheer pleasure to taste through them all. But it was also bloody tough to pick a top wine. (You and I will have to wait a few more weeks to discover the overall top wines.)
And The Original
In a move of supreme foresight, or sheer luck, chardonnay was the first vinifera planted in Ontario in the late 1950s by Bill Lenko. The local Horticultural Research Institute had cautioned Lenko that European grapes wouldn’t survive; how fortunate that he defied those warnings. Today, chardonnay is the most important grape by number of varietal bottlings in the province. It’s also the protagonist of Ontario’s biggest and most important event, the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, or colloquially “i4c”. Ontario vintners are proud to put their wares on display alongside chardonnays from all of the world’s coolest regions.
Summer School at i4c
So, if you’re still not convinced spend some time over the i4c weekend getting to know the top drops in your backyard. And for the particularly keen, take some summer school courses. I’m chuffed to be back as moderator for the weekend opening “Summer School of Cool” day of seminars on Friday, July 22nd. This year’s three riveting topics are Harvest Timing and Implications – for me the most important decision a winemaker makes every year, which dramatically impacts what’s in the glass. It’s a move you can never take a mulligan on. As the great Chablis producer Bernard Raveneau once told me, “twenty years ago only the most audacious producers had the courage to wait and harvest late. Now, only the courageous harvest early”. It’s a make or break call.
The second seminar explores the age-worthiness of Cool Climate Chardonnay, and the factors that most directly affect it, an FAQ if I ever heard one (plus we’ll be tasting some tidy old vintages – always a treat). And lastly, we’ll get into a deep topic of increasing relevance and bring it out of the winemaking shadows: Skins & Stems: Whole Cluster Winemaking (or Not): Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I know I know, it sounds geeky. But considering the increasing prominence of whites made with skin contact, it will be stimulating to examine chardonnay under this light. And as a first, red wine – in this case pinot noir – has been allowed into the celebration, opening the door to a discussion on the use of stems during vinification. If you’ve ever wondered why this pinot is more deeply coloured and exuberantly fruity, while that one is pale, floral, spicy and earthy, you may want to check this tasting out.
In the meantime, warm up your chardonnay palate with the following excellent examples.
Buyers’ Guide: Cool Chardonnay
Jay Johnson must have been possessed. Or maybe he reached enlightenment, or solved the mystery of the universe. Whatever happened, it conspired to make the Flat Rock 2013 The Rusty Shed Chardonnay, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($24.95) the best yet from this chardonnay-pinot specialist. It hits pitch perfect balance between fruit and wood, acids and alcohol-richness, while offering a fine array of still youthful citrus and pear/apple/orchard fruit. This is a head-turning wine.
Another ‘best yet’ in 2013 comes from Pearl Morissette and the 2013 Cuvée Dix-Neuvième Chardonnay, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($38.20). It’s the most ‘chardonnay-like’ chardonnay to emerge from the Pearl Morissette cellar to date, fermented in assorted, mostly old oak casks, then left unmolested without racking until bottling save for a partial short passage in Georgian clay qvevri which, according to Morissette, snapped the wine back into shape after a period of ‘laziness’. It really excels on the palate – this is all about the texture, unctuous and luscious – and palpable salinity that acts like the fulcrum in tandem with acids to rein in and balance the billowing, lightly oxidative orchard fruit. You’ll get a good ways through War and Peace before the finish dissipates.
The Speck boys found a terrific groove in 2013 as well, offering us the conspicuously excellent Henry of Pelham 2013 Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay, VQA Short Hills Bench ($29.95). It’s delightful to see this top tier wine from Henry of Pelham crafted with such restraint and delicacy – I suppose it’s the confidence that comes with 30 years in the business that you can let your old vines and vineyard speak more loudly than your barrel supplier or winemaking savvy. This is a wine of genuine presence and depth.
Also at the top of their game, Hidden Bench’s 2013 Estate Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara ($28.75), is another Niagara classic with every bit the complexity, flavour, savouriness and seamlessly integrated wood of the best. And this is just the ‘entry level’, a blend of HB’s three estate vineyards designed for earlier enjoyment. But it delivers marvellous density and intensity on a lithe and vibrant frame. And it’s a steal for the price. Buy a few bottles to enjoy while you’re waiting for the trippy 2013 Felseck vineyard chardonnay to be released later this year.
And lest our guests feel slighted, here’s the top value non-Canadian selection from the July 9th release: Tabalí 2013 Reserva Especial Chardonnay, Limarí Valley, Chile ($18.95). The Limarì valley and its high active limestone and cool coastal influence is in my view Chile’s most suitable chardonnay region, at least of those in commercial exploitation. This is a complex, well-balanced wine to be sure, but what excites me most is the palpable saltiness, the crunchy acids, the well-integrated oak (9 months in barrel), and the lingering, lightly creamy finish. A fine value in premium chardonnay, at a sub-premium price.
Buyers’ Guide: Killer, Almost Chardonnay-like Whites
I’ve enthused about Soave’s Pieropan before, so you won’t be surprised to see the Pieropan La Rocca 2013 Soave Classico DOC Soave, Veneto, Italy ($37.95) on this list. It’s one of the great single vineyard wines of Soave, and indeed of Italy, from a limestone-based site that delivers an exceptionally rich and creamy wine here in 2013. The texture is absolutely gorgeous, creamy and layered, ample and mouthfilling, while crackling acids aided by palpable saltiness reel in the richness and retain balance. Best 2016-2025.
Admittedly I find the wines of Paso Roble in California’s Central Coast area often overblown, but one of the mighty exceptions is the great estate of Tablas Creek, a joint venture between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, and American importer Robert Haas. The 2013 Côtes de Tablas Blanc, Paso Robles, California ($33.95) is a superb white blend of viognier, grenache blanc, marsanne and roussanne, inspired of course by the Rhône, and grown from cuttings brought directly from Beauscatel. The vineyards sit on the west side of Paso on cooler, limestone soils, which, coupled with the old world winemaking philosophy, result in exceptionally well balanced wine, ripe and rich but equally fresh, with neither excess nor deficiency of any elements. The creamy, orange peel-laced finish lingers on and on. Very classy and collected; best 2016-2024.
Palacios and quality are virtual synonyms, so don’t miss the Palacios Remondo 2012 Placet Valtomelloso, DOCa Rioja, Spain ($29.95), a pure viura grown at nearly 600m one of the highest vineyards in Rioja, just hitting perfect drinking stride now. It can be considered a more modern style, which is to say absent the obvious oxidative and coconut/sandalwood flavours of long American oak-aged, traditional examples, but it has an impressive range of flavours of its own. I like the gently creamy but balanced palate and the long finish, all white flowers and soft fruit. Really lovely; best 2016 2022.
From VINTAGES July 9th, 2016
That’s all for this week. Happy Canada Day!
John Szabo MS