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Birth of the cool

Niagara festival focuses on the advantages of cool-climate Chardonnays

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California's Monterey County, Beamsville Bench in Ontario, Burgundy, Oregon, Tasmania, New Zealand's Hawke's Bay, and B.C.'s Similkameen Valley -- what do they all have in common?

Well, they're all great wine-producing regions, but more specifically, they're all cooler-climate wine-producing regions that produce stellar Chardonnay.

These wines are the focus of a three-day event taking place July 18-20 in vineyards and wineries throughout Ontario's Niagara region.

The fourth iteration of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration ("i4c" for short) will feature 58 winemakers from nine countries pouring over 100 wines, and talking all things Chard.

And while it might sound oddly specific, there are over 400,000 acres of Chardonnay planted in cool-climate regions throughout the world, according to the i4c website (www.coolchardonnay.org).

Why celebrate cool-climate Chardonnay? In 2009, a group of Ontario producers were sitting around a fire, toasting the victory of Niagara's Le Clos Jordanne in a blind Chardonnay tasting over high-end wines from Burgundy and California. A couple more wines were opened around the fire, and suddenly an idea started taking shape -- a celebration of cool-climate Chardonnay.

The grape's reputation has been tarnished over the last couple of decades by warmer-climate producers making ultra-ripe, heavily oaked, buttery Chardonnay.

I'd venture the rise in popularity of crisp white wines such as Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Muscat/Moscato is in part a reaction to the glut of gussied-up Chardonnay that tastes more of wood than it does of fruit.

When produced in cooler-climate regions (and when it's not over-ripe or over-oaked), Chardonnay's crisp apple, pear, peach and citrus notes shine just as well as (or better than) the above-mentioned grapes. These flavours helped make Chardonnay so popular in the first place, before big vanilla and marmalade flavours from too much time on the vine and in the barrel took over.

How does one define cool climate in the wine world? Typically, wine is produced in regions that fall between the 30th and 50th parallels in both the northern and southern hemispheres. The closer you get to the edges of this warm band, the cooler the temperatures get.

Above the equator, the 50th parallel passes just north of Winnipeg, but also slices through Champagne and the Rheinhessen -- both fantastic cool-climate wine-producing regions (although the latter doesn't do Chardonnay). South of the equator, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Chile's Bio Bio regions are all near the 50th parallel -- and all are producers of great cool-climate wines.

Outlying wine regions aside, there are also pockets of cool-climate wine-producing regions affected by other factors.

Napa Valley is a warmer-climate region, for example, but Sonoma County right next door is best-known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- cooler-climate grapes. Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (and its breezes and fog) means Sonoma cools down more in the evenings than Napa, and daytime temperatures are more moderate.

Most of all, i4c strives to highlight producers that embrace the leaner, more complex, delicate cool-climate style of winemaking -- no matter where they're from.

Some of the world's finest, most complex white wines are made from Chardonnay whose producers embrace their place.

Premier cru white Burgundy is some of the most complex wine you'll taste, while Champagne is considered, well, the Champagne of sparkling wines for a reason.

Even Down Under, the importance of cool-climate Chardonnay can't be overstated -- Penfolds Yattarna, the winery's signature/flagship white wine, is made from grapes primarily grown in Tasmania.

I'll have more on cool-climate Chardonnay in general as well as i4c in particular later this summer, as I'm heading to Niagara to get a first-hand look (and taste) at what producers are excited about.

uncorked@mts.net
Twitter: @bensigurdson


FORREST 2011 CHARDONNAY (Marlborough, New Zealand -- around $26, private wine stores)

Pear, crisp peach, floral, apple seed and lemon rind are pretty focused on the nose of this New Zealand Chardonnay. It's a crisp, slightly herbal, light-plus bodied example of cool-climate Chardonnay, although there are plenty of crunchy crabapple and zippy citrus flavours to keep things lively here. 3 1/2

 

TAWSE 2011 CHARDONNAY (Niagara Peninsula, Ont. -- $21.06, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Tawse is a master of cool-climate wines in Canada, and this Chardonnay is no exception. Red apple skin, toasted nut, chalk, tangerine and light vanilla and spice on the nose are quite complex. It's a medium-plus bodied, remarkably elegant wine, with ripe apple, pear and peach notes complemented by more chalky/mineral notes, light acidity and just a touch of very subtle oak for fantastic texture. One of the best Chardonnays I've had for a while. 4 1/2

 

MER SOLEIL 2012 "SILVER" CHARDONNAY (Santa Lucia Highlands/Monterey County, Calif. -- $28.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This unoaked Chardonnay is quite a different beast. Pineapple, dried apricot, brown sugar, lemon candy and ripe green apple aromas are decidedly ripe and round. It's a full-bodied, lush Chardonnay, with deep tropical fruit flavours, sweet apple notes, and a rollicking 14.8 per cent alcohol -- meaning there's some heat on the finish. The regions may be cooler-climate, but this is warm-climate Chardonnay in sheep's clothing. It's still fairly tasty, though. 3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 D14

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Updated on Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 9:02 AM CDT: Formatting, changes image.

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