John Szabo's i4C Buyers' Guide

Preview of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C)

by John Szabo MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato, Michael Godel and David Lawrason

Following David’s round up of cool wines from around the world last week, this week we feature a preview of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. “I4C” is the annual immersion into the world’s most planted white grape, held each third weekend of July in Niagara. There’s a reason so much acreage is devoted to chardonnay: it’s a genetically superior variety that makes excellent wine. As one of my favourite i4C tag lines had it, “518,900 acres can’t be wrong” (my updated world figures). From bubbles to full-bodied and even Icewine, Chardonnay is Canada’s most consistent, polydynamic, flagship variety (sorry, riesling). In the buyer’s guide we give you a short list of first-rate Ontario chardonnays represented at i4C and the order in which to drink them, as well as a short list of the foreigners I’ll be chatting and tasting with over the weekend. Whether you’re looking for orientation at the celebration or wishing to participate from the comfort of your deck, dock or dinner table, we’ve got it sorted like a perfect bunch on a vibrating table.


Elsewhere, read my brief report on one of Austria’s least known wine regions, the Thermenregion. Protected by a chain of hills and the Vienna woods just south of the capital, the Thermenregion, named for the numerous thermal hot springs in the area, is one of the warmer corners of this cool country. The Cistercian monks from Burgundy recognized the similarities to their homeland in the 12th century and imported some grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris) from back home. But its exotic local specialties rotgipler, zierfandler and sankt laurent that headline today.

i4C 2019: the 9th Edition, July 19th to 21st

2019 marks the ninth edition of i4C, a favourite yearly event of mine. Ticket sales have been swift, and weekend packages and the signature Chardonnay World Tour Tasting and Dinner are already sold out. But tickets are still available for Friday night’s excellent “Flights of Chardonnay” grand tasting at the Niagara district airport (like no airport lounge you’ve ever been in), as well as the highly entertaining Sunday morning hair-of-the-dog Brunch at Ravine Vineyards, including oysters, live music and some seriously competitive table tennis.

Students of the vine, trade professionals and serious drinkers shouldn’t miss Friday’s “School of Cool”, a full day of three masterclass sessions on pointy subjects like the impact of lees (dead yeast cells) on chardonnay, climate change, and twisted consumer perceptions, as well as a keynote by Master of Wine Julia Harding. And throughout the weekend another dozen decidedly more liquid events are taking place at various wineries across the region, many with spots still available. See the full schedule and buy your tickets.


As usual participating wineries are split equally between Ontario and the rest of the world, about 60 wineries in total. Canadian wineries outside of Ontario are listed under international wineries (and might as well be from another country considering Canada’s retarded liquor laws).

On my short list of foreigners to track down over the weekend are Dewetshof Estate and their surprisingly lean, single-site, limestone-driven chardonnays from Robertson, and Paul Cluver’s genuinely cool Elgin outpost inland from False Bay, both in South Africa. Australia is represented by the Yarra Valley’s excellent Coldstream Hills, as well as Penfolds, whose top end chardonnay, Yattarna, comes mostly from chilly Tasmania, while superlative Bin 17A Reserve and Bin 311 are made from Adelaide Hills and Tumbarumba fruit, respectively. These are Aussie revelations.

I4C wouldn’t be complete without Bourgogne, and I’ll you’ll find me tasting the stony offerings from Domaine Laroche in Chablis (to wash down the oysters, naturally), as well as Nicholas Potel’s impressive négociant range under the Maison Roche de Bellene label.

Among Canadian-foreigners, don’t miss Quails’ Gate’s tightly wound chardonnays from Kelowna towards the cooler, northern end of Lake Okanagan at nearly 50º latitude, and Nova Scotia’s most celebrated sparkling from Benjamin Bridge, a bottle of which pretty much made my Canada Day.

Closer to home, I’m very much looking forward to tasting recently revived Clos Jordanne. A project inspired originally by Inniskillin co-founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser and their joint venture with Burgundian producer Jaffelin in 1993 called Alliance, Le Clos Jordanne launched to wide critical acclaim with the 2004 vintage. Then owned by Canadian company Vincor, in partnership with Burgundy-based Boisset, and under the guidance of winemakers Pascal Marchand (Boisset) and Canadian Thomas Bachelder (Vincor), Le Clos focused exclusively on chardonnay and pinot noir from a collection of some of the best vineyards on the Niagara Escarpment near the town of Jordan. There was even a plan at one point for a Frank Gehry-designed winery.

Yet the project was shelved in 2016, when US-based Constellation Brands, who had bought out Vincor several years earlier, sold their Canadian Wine business to the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan for a billion dollars (1.03 billion). New management started to add up the numbers. They didn’t add up. 2012 was to be the last vintage of Le Clos. It was a sad day for Canadian wine.

But just this past June, the former Canadian operations of Constellation, renamed Arterra Wines Canada, announced that they were dusting off the Le Clos Jordanne brand. Thomas Bachelder was the natural choice to revive it. “As a Canadian company, it is so important for us to rebirth Le Clos Jordanne wines, and to bring the well-deserved prominence of this vineyard back into the Canadian spotlight,” said Jay Wright, president and CEO of Arterra. “Our goal is to re-introduce wines expressive of this very special place – and there is no better person to bring this vision to life than Thomas Bachelder, with his unparalleled passion for this region and this vineyard.”

Fruit is sourced from the original vineyards, namely Claystone Terrace, Talon Ridge, and Le Clos Jordanne itself. “It’s great to start with a classic year [2017] and with some older vines,” says Bachelder, who has been anticipating the revival of Le Clos since he and Arterra shook hands in the spring of 2017 (and kept a good secret). The 2017 chardonnay will feature at i4C.

As for other top picks from Ontario, see the buyer’s Guide below.

i4C Buyer’s Guide Act One – Lightweight Cool Ontario Chardonnay

Trius Showcase Blanc De Blancs ($55.20)(i4C and winery)
John Szabo – Start your i4C off with this lean and crunchy, traditional method sparkling on the more elegant, refined side, from Niagara sparkling specialists Trius. Despite four years on the lees, this pure chardonnay is surprisingly fresh, light and lively. I appreciate the succulent acids, and the linear, svelte palate. 

Leaning Post The Fifty Chardonnay 2017, VQA Niagara Peninsula ($22.00) (i4C and VINTAGES)
John Szabo –
Move on to this sharp value offering from Leaning Post’s (mainly) home vineyard, blended with other Niagara Escarpment benchland sources, a fresh, reductive-flinty, sapid wine. Barrel fermentation leaves little wood impact; this is all about the fresh white fruit (pear, apple), and the citric acids, not to mention the lingering finish.
Sara d’Amato – An enticing, crunchy chardonnay that is just coming into its own. Showing very little wood influence with citrus and tree fruit well defined by bright acidity. A slight bit austere in the most compelling fashion.
Michael Godel – “I love ’17 for earlier ripening grape varieties,” says Ilya Senchuk, “because of acidity and concentration gained.” Fifty refers to the locality (and the road and the cemetery), in Winona where Leaning Post farms. Approximately 70 per cent fermented in barrel, all Bench fruit from several sub-appellations.
David Lawrason – This is a rather shy, young, green apple chardonnay very much in a Chablis style if just a bit weightier. It is nicely firm, tart-edged and slightly bitter. Chill well and beat the heat.

The Farm Unmarked Chardonnay 2017, Niagara Peninsula ($22.00) (i4C and winery)
John Szabo –
To complete the circle, the Neudorf Family’s farm near Jordan (Twenty Mile Bench sub-appellation), includes vineyards that were formerly used for Le Clos Jordanne. The pedigree shines through in this well-crafted, firm, tightly wound, stony expression. It’s well balanced and sinewy, with no discernible oak (‘unmarked’), but with notable lees contribution in the creamy, round mouthfeel and gently yeasty flavours. Length and depth are very good in the price category to be sure.
Michael Godel – Unmarked as in a combination of earmarked and unoaked, I would think. This Neudorf family raised chardonnay is sharp, leesy and so clean on a line its in Petit Chablis to Chablis mimic, lovely, so drinkable, expertly tart and equipped with a smile.

i4C Buyer’s Guide Act Two: Welterweight Cool Ontario Chardonnay

Hidden Bench Estate Chardonnay 2017, Beamsville Bench $29.95 (i4C and VINTAGES)
John Szabo – Year after year, since the inaugural release of the 2006 vintage, Hidden Bench’s blend of three estate vineyards is among the most reliably impressive Canadian chardonnays, at an attractive price in the premium chardonnay universe. This 2017 is a topsy-turvy ride of ripe and tart fruit, sweet and fresh, lively and unctuous, with no obvious influence from oak. I like the walk between density and liveliness, and the genuine depth of flavour, the kind that only comes from low yields and careful farming.
Sara d’Amato – Consistently a top value and notable class act, this organically grown chardonnay is gently oak aged in a mix of small and large oak barrels. Made in an unfined and unfiltered style so expect a hint of cloudiness and perhaps some sediment. Although this wet vintage was a challenge for some in the region, this example shows great integrity, refinement and even some opulence. Floral with notes of rose and peach blossom. Excellent length.

Rosehall Run Chardonnay JCR Rosehall Vineyard 2017, VQA Prince Edward County, Ontario ($29.95) (i4C and winery)
Michael Godel – Despite the ups, downs and ups again this has indeed found its way, charming us with insights and how richness ensues. A sleeper County chardonnay that continues to explain the concept of cool climate viticulture done right. Another winner from Dan Sullivan.

Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2017, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada ($29.95) (VINTAGES)
Sara d’Amato – There is something for everyone in this well-balanced chardonnay that is generous and nervy at the same time. Gently oak-aged with fleshy, well ripened stone fruit at the forefront. Mid-weight with unsurprising complexity and excellent length.
Michael Godel – This CCV has rarely if almost never moved with such circulative pace, of acidity and structure encapsulating the fruit. Safe, bound and secure as it can be in the present so that the unwind will bring more and more pleasure. CCV ’17 is chardonnay functioning for winemaker Keith Tyers’ understanding of vineyard and vine.

i4C Buyer’s Guide Act Three: Heavyweight Cool Ontario Chardonnay

Domaine Queylus Chardonnay Reserve Du Domaine 2017, Niagara Escarpment ($34.95) (i4C and winery.)
John Szabo –
Another wine crafted by Thomas Bachelder (he’ll be doing double duty at i4C), Queylus’ 2017 Réserve sits on the far edge of the Niagara style spectrum, with low yielding fruit hitting an almost sweet, late harvest note, and delivering an impression of sweetness on the palate. The main interest lies in the texture rather than the aromatics, which in this case are subdued, featuring mostly doughy-leesy, oatmeal-like notes alongside some compoted pear and apple fruit. Long barrel ageing ensures the development of more oxidative character, but also allows the palate to flesh out in generous fashion, creating a creamy, broadly-proportioned ensemble. This will satisfy fans of more rich and generous chardonnay expressions.

Bachelder Chardonnay Wismer Wingfield Ouest 2016, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($44.95) (i4C)
Michael Godel –  Expressive, of both orchard and stone fruit in the same basket, beads of humidity forming on the aromatic skins. Not sweet but ripe as must be, tight, tart and structured along right proper angles. The real deal in chardonnay, with integrated wood, balance, precision and focus. Great length!

Stratus Chardonnay Unfiltered Bottled With Lees 2017, VQA Niagara On The Lake ($48.00) (i4C and winery)
John Szabo –
Don’t be alarmed by the slightly cloudy appearance (you were forewarned by the “unfiltered, bottled with lees” declaration on the label); not filtering preserves a wine’s full flavour potential, while including the lees, oxygen scavengers, means greater flavour development through yeast autolysis (yeast breakdown), and reduced need for preservative sulphites. So, you’ll just have to get over the floaty bits and cloudy look. The nose is ripe, rich and complex, offering panoply of white and yellow fruit alongside gently flinty, struck match reduction (a good thing), while the palate is genuinely concentrated and fleshy, lifted by a distinct succulence and sapidity. This is really good wine, concentrated, full and firm, a significant mouthful, with excellent length. It’s not the kind of chardonnay you knock back without thought; it demands some attention and concentration – a late night chardonnay.


Tawse Robyn’s Block Chardonnay 2015, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Ontario ($45.95) (i4C and winery)
Michael Godel – The 2015 vintage brings a complicated and complex Robyn’s Block, full of ripe fruit and replete with some of the finest acids this side of the Niagara Escarpment. Not as “mineral” as Quarry Road but just as striking.

Queenston Mile Chardonnay 2016, St. David’s Bench, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($34.95) (VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – Queenston Mile is a new project by the folks at Creekside. This is a quite rich, complex almost creamy chardonnay with nicely lifted aromas of nutmeg, toast, dried apple, butter and lemon custard.

i4C Buyer’s Guide Act Four: Cool International Chardonnay available at VINTAGES

Moillard Chablis 2018, Burgundy, France ($24.95) (i4C and VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – This is a light, tightly wound, very youthful, not very aromatically expressive Chablis (unoaked chardonnay) but the flavours gain momentum on the palate. Quenching.

Esk Valley Chardonnay 2017, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($24.95) (i4C and VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – A quite rich, intense, firm and well-balanced chardonnay, made in a toasty, reductive style with some matchstick and onion around lemon, green apple fruit.

Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay 2017, Elgin, South Africa ($29.95) (i4C and VINTAGES)
David Lawrason – A complete, complex chardonnay with warmer latitude ripe melon, green banana fruit, and its cooler coastal situation where good acidity still reigns. It is almost perfectly balanced.

That’s all for this report. I hope to see you around the next bottle (of chardonnay at i4C!).

John Szabo, MS