Canadian Wine Insider – August 2022

Chardonnay Will Define Us

By David Lawrason

It is ironic and important that Canada is likely to be defined on the world stage by the world’s most popular and ubiquitous white wine grape. Couldn’t we have found something sexier and more exotic, like Austrian gruner veltliner or Greek assyritiko? Or sieggerebe from B.C.’s Lake Country, as was originally envisioned in the late 70s?

Well, as it happens chardonnay really likes the latitude, climate and soils that Canada has to offer. And because everyone knows chardonnay, not assyrtiko, let’s just tally-ho and carry the gift horse shoulder high. I am certainly on board because great, or even very good, chardonnay is my favourite white wine. And Burgundy needs some serious competition within its stylistic wheelhouse.

Chardonnay is already a big deal in Canada. There were 186 chardonnays entered in the National Wine Awards of Canada 2022 competition held in Niagara Falls in June. It was the largest category at the awards. A whopping 137 won medals. There were four platinum, 30 gold, 58 silver and 45 bronze medals. With more than half scoring 90 points or better, the quality across the board is very high.


In her analysis of the Chardonnay category at the 2022 NWAC, veteran wine judge Treve Ring of Victoria made this comment. “On the first morning of blind judging I had two chardonnay flights, and in both the panel and I awarded gold medal scores. It’s indicative of the strength of the category, proven by an outstanding four Platinum Medals this year (split between Ontario and B.C.), and a treasure chest full of gold and silver awards.”

The “Chardo Swap” at I4C in Ontario

The annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (I4C) that runs in late July in Niagara is also helping cement our reputation in international circles for chardonnay made in Ontario, with B.C., Quebec and Atlantic Canada joining in. Born from the passion for chardonnay in Niagara in 2011, it took the very progressive step of inviting cool climate chardonnay producers from around the globe, to partake and put Canada on the map.

This year the educational session called School of Cool was led by an inspirational, mellifluous address by British wine writer Andrew Jefford. Great writing and elocution should inspire, if nothing else, and Jefford delivered the kind of performance that makes one marvel and reflect. There was nothing daringly new in his words, but there was a beautifully constructed music allegory and an ordering of the wine universe that made utter sense. The address is available here.

The main focus of the two-part tasting sessions that followed was a swap of chardonnay juice between wineries of the Niagara Escarpment and Niagara-on-the-Lake. One barrel (300 litres) barrel) of juice from Thirty Bench on the Niagara Escarpment and one barrel from the Montague Vineyard in NOTL were made available to each of six winemakers from the other region, to ferment and age as they wished. The wine was from the cool Niagara-typical 2017 vintage, delayed by COVID to be put in front of the I4C faithful here in 2022. The idea was the brainchild of Brock University’s Belinda Kemp, a leading wine researcher and advocate in Niagara. 

To drill down, the only really important conclusion to be drawn for consumers was whether, in a blind tasting, place trumps winemaking. 

Craig MacDonald, head winemaker for Trius Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake made a chardonnay from the Beamsville Bench fruit. “I went bonkers,” he said. “I did a full malolactic fermentation and aged the wine 15 months in neutral oak, not normal winemaking for me. But in the end the site was still driving the game.”

I correctly identified his wine as Niagara Escarpment, and did so for another seven of the twelve wines presented, with a couple of last-minute changes of heart. I tended to “miss” the wines that had more oxidative handling. In any event, I wish this seminar had found a better way to measure this response, other than an unrecorded show of hands among about 300 informed tasters. A consumer research opportunity missed.  

From the Niagara Escarpment wines I was looking for more tautness and minerality. From the Niagara-on-the-Lake sites a bit more ripeness and softness. But in this cooler year the acidity made me guess Escarpment on some NOTL examples. And that is perhaps the real lesson. Niagara is very vintage sensitive and in time we may grow to appreciate, talk about and sort out that sensitivity as Burgundy has done over a much longer period.  

The wineries that participated in the Chardo Swap were selected due to their history of chardonnay production. They included, in presenting order: Trius, Cave Spring, Stratus, Westcott, Chateau des Charmes, Bachelder, Southbrook, Malivoire, Inniskillin, Thirty Bench, Ferox and Henry of Pelham.

I was unable to attend other tastings at I4C due to teaching commitments, so I missed many of the Ontario chardonnays on hand. But I do get to try them often over the course of time, and can certainly vouch that Niagara and Prince Edward County are turning out some gems. I have identified some personal favourites below.

On the Chardonnay Trail in the Okanagan

Soon after I4C I flew west and spent a week in the Okanagan in early August visiting 18 wineries from the top of the valley to the bottom. I was not on the trail of chardonnay specifically but chardonnay turned up at virtually every tasting.

Certainly, many of the best that I tasted were from the northern reaches of the Valley. At O’Rourke Cellars in Lake Country there was amazing linearity and minerality in the chardonnays, from vines planted on the steep granitic hillsides about ten years ago. In South Kelowna Slopes (now an official sub-appellation) I had excellent chardonnays from CedarCreek, Tantalus and Spearhead. I particularly liked Tantalus 2021 Bear, a modestly priced young-vine un-oaked edition that is as truly close to Chablis in character as I have ever had in Canada.  And the Platinum winning CedarCreek Aspect Block 6 from the home site is nothing short of amazing, one of my highest scoring Canadian wines of the year. In West Kelowna I enjoyed the very suave estate-grown Stewart Family Reserve 2020 Chardonnay with dinner at Old Vines restaurant. 

In the Central Okanagan I tasted at Foxtrot, Upper Bench, Red Rooster in Naramata, and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. The chardonnays begin to take on more body and power in this area, neatly demonstrated at Spearhead when I tasted their refined 2019 Saddleback Chardonnay from Kelowna directly beside the broader, more powerful 2019 Duncan Vineyard Chardonnay from Naramata. The nifty Foxtrot 2020 Chardonnay, that weighed in at only 12.5 percent alcohol, showed great poise but — as fruit came from three areas including cooler Peachland and Similkameen — it was not typical.
The gold medal winning Upper Bench 2019 Chardonnay was in great form, and an unoaked 2019 Chardonnay Sur Lie from Red Rooster was showing well. In Okanagan Falls, Liquidity winemaker Amy Paynter told me that her single block clone 76 chardonnay planted in 1994 was her favourite estate wine and it is indeed very fine. I used the word elegant three times in my hand written notes.

The rapidly expanding vineyard areas of the South Okanagan, particularly in East Osoyoos and the new Golden Mile Slopes sub-appellations are more taken up with red grapes, but there is still considerable chardonnay being grown too, often at slightly higher, cooler altitudes. Wineries from the north like Mission Hill Family Estate are sourcing chardonnay from Black Sage Bench and an Osoyoos vineyard called Border Vista, but their top Legacy series Perpetua is gradually including more fruit from Naramata. Elsewhere in the south I tasted at Black Hills, Tinhorn Creek, Maverick, La Stella and Nk’mip, and in every case their chardonnays were more tropical, riper, fuller and sometimes notably warm on the finish from elevated alcohol. The power is there, and if you are a fan of California and Oregon chardonnays, as thousands are, this is where to look.

Ten Great Canadian Chardonnays

The following list includes chardonnays that are personal favourites from Ontario and B.C. Some are Platinum and Gold winners at the 2022 National Wine Awards of Canada. Some are fairly expensive with $40 to $60 being the range for Canada’s top wines, which I think is very reasonable compared to prices being asked in California and Burgundy for wines of similar quality. And some wines may or may not be currently available. From the wine page you can click through to Purchase This Wine to check out availability, and if not available you can begin to line up for the next vintage.


Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Chardonnay 2019, Twenty Mile Bench

Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard 2019, Vinemount Ridge

Stratus Chardonnay Unfiltered & Bottled With Lees 2020

Stratus Chardonnay Unfiltered & Bottled With Lees 2020, Niagara Lakeshore

Bachelder Wismer Foxcroft "Nord" Chardonnay 2019

Bachelder Wismer Foxcroft “Nord” Chardonnay 2019, Twenty Mile Bench

Leaning Post Chardonnay Grimsby Hillside Vineyard 2019

Leaning Post Chardonnay Grimsby Hillside Vineyard 2019, Lincoln Lakeshore

Broken Stone Chardonnay Home Farm 2019, Prince Edward County

British Columbia

CedarCreek Aspect Collection Block 5 Chardonnay 2019, Okanagan Valley

Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2020, Okanagan Valley

Quails’ Gate Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay 2019, Okanagan Valley

Foxtrot Chardonnay 2020

Foxtrot Chardonnay 2020, Okanagan Valley