Cool Chardonnay and Top Smart Buys
This week’s report celebrates cool climate chardonnay, in time to coincide with the 3rd annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4c) that runs from July 19 - 21 at various venues throughout the Niagara Peninsula. See all the details on our Rebirth of Cool blog.
Cool chardonnay is also the theme of the July 20 VINTAGES release, and I’ve picked out a half-dozen premium bottles to highlight. There are also several more Smart Buys for you to choose from.
400,000 Acres Can’t be Wrong!
As one of i4c’s clever tag lines puts it, “400,000 acres can’t be wrong”. Chardonnay is the most planted fine wine grape on earth, and there’s a simple reason for that: the variety makes quality wine. Although I’m a champion of the indigenous and often obscure, chardonnay has spread around the world (occasionally at the expense of local varieties) for its reliability and consistency, not to mention adaptability to many different climates and soils, and supreme quality in the right places. From the grower’s perspective, chardonnay provides about as reliable a crop as any, and it’s far less fickle than pinot noir, alongside which it is often grown. It’s also well-known and easy to sell. It’s as close to money in the bank as it gets in the wine business.
And for wine lovers, chardonnay is rarely undrinkable. It’s occasionally rather neutral and dull, or overworked, but almost never an outright failure. For those enthused by terroir, chardonnay is like an x-ray machine, able to penetrate all but the thickest layers of oak to reveal the outlines of its dirt and climate of origin. As Prince Edward County winegrower and chardonnay specialist Norman Hardie puts it, “When grown with love and fermented with care, Chardonnay is one of the few varietals that truly showcases the terroir it is grown on.”
But despite wide adaptability, most serious wine drinkers, this one included, prefer the results when chardonnay is ripened slowly and evenly in a cool place. And cool can come from any one or more of several factors: higher latitudes, (like Ontario or Champagne or Central Otago in New Zealand), high elevation (like the Adelaide Hills in Australia or parts of Mendoza), or coastal/maritime influence (as in the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, or the Mornington Peninsula, to name but a few). So fortunately, the options to grow cool chardonnay around the world are as abundant as road construction sites in a Toronto summer, only with more efficient results. That’s reason to celebrate.
Hence the creation of the i4c, to celebrate chardonnay from the world’s coolest places. Shortly after last year’s event I wrote: “So when it all comes together, cool climate, great dirt and savvy hands, the results are sensational. And there’s no world monopoly – dozens of regions, Ontario included, are making fine chardonnay in the key of cool. If you missed this year’s i4c, be sure to sign up next year (scheduled for July 19-21, 2013). Because if you think you know chardonnay, it’s time to drink again.”
Well, it’s time to sign up. This year’s keynote speaker is Steven Spurrier, a prominent British figure in the international wine trade for almost 50 years, and I look forward to hearing his insights on both Canada’s place in the wine world, and on chardonnay in general. Sixty-two wineries from Canada and abroad will be pouring 120 chardonnays over the weekend throughout a series seminars, tastings, lunches, as well as the feature event, the Cool Chardonnay World Tour and Dinner on Saturday evening. Just prior to the World Tour, David Lawrason and I will be leading a not-too-be-missed WineAlign-exclusive Cool Chardonnay Boot Camp (at David’s insistence to be renamed the “Chardonnay Sandal Camp”, since we’ll be sitting outdoors under a massive old tree at the Vineland Research Institute – a gorgeous setting). So we hope to see you there on Saturday at 4pm. (Click here for details and our promo code.)
In the meantime, I’ve picked out a half-dozen cool chardonnays from the premium end of the spectrum.
2011 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay, South Africa ($32.95). Anthony Hamilton Russell focuses exclusively on pinot noir and chardonnay on his cool, maritime-influenced 52 hectares of stony, clay-rich, shale vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley at the southern tip of Africa. This superb 2011 chardonnay is crafted in a very old world style with bright acids, integrated oak and no small measure of earthy-mineral character, with a real sense of palate presence and genuine depth.
2009 Billaud-Simon Vaillons Chablis 1er Cru, France ($35.95). I visited this domaine a little over a decade ago and was impressed then by the purity and precision of these highly traditional Chablis. I’m happy to report that not much has changed since, other than the vines have grown older. The ’09 Vaillons, from a south-southeast facing cru on the left bank of the Serein River facing the grand crus has excellent depth and concentration, and quite full and plush texture in line with the warm vintage, though underpinned by significant acidity and leesy-minerality. I’d say this is near peak – ’09 is not the vintage to lay down in most cases, but this is premium Chablis to be sure.
2010 Bachelder Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay ($44.95). Bachelder’s Wismer Vineyard chardonnay delivers better freshness than many 2010 Niagara chardonnays in addition to great complexity, offering a broad range of flavours covering the cedar, baking spice, green walnut, candied citrus and fresh brioche (yeasty-lees character) spectrum. But it’s every bit as much about the texture: fullish, rich and creamy, with balanced acid-alcohol and excellent length. Drink this now, or hold 3-5 years.
2010 Château Genot-Boulanger Clos Du Cromin Meursault ($49.95). Here’s a fine example of Meursault, mixing the expected earthy mineral notes of the region with dusty wood character and plaster dust, incense and other wood-derived flavours. Acids are sharp, almost but not fully balanced by fleshy fruit, though this should knit together nicely over the next 2-3 years.
2010 Brewer-Clifton Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, California ($45.98). This is a style of chardonnay I appreciate: balanced, tight, mineral driven, with notable lees influence in a quasi-reductive style, crisp acids, and very good to excellent length. Wood is very moderate (just 30% new oak), while green apple and citrus-pear flavours dominate. A classy wine from one of Santa Barbara’s top outfits. (Available in Ontario through Barrel Select)
Framingham Chardonnay 2009, Marlborough, South Island, Marlborough, New Zealand 91 $19.95. This is an edgy style, yet another example of very fine Kiwi chardonnay, perhaps the most under rated, successful variety for the country, reflected in the very reasonable price. It has some funky-leesy notes that add significant complexity to an already rich and concentrated palate, with very good to excellent length, not to mention structure and complexity. (Mar 30 Release)
Top Smart Buys
This week’s smart buys includes five fantastic whites ranging from $20.95 for the finest Auxerrois you’ll likely ever taste, to a tidy little South African Chenin Blanc for an enticing $12.95, passing through a pair of superior Kiwi sauv blancs and a re-release of a dynamite Spanish Godello priced in VINTAGES sweet spot at $15.95. Red drinkers will regale with a pair of substantial wines from the Douro Valley and its steep slate slopes, one each for the traditionalists and the modernists. Click through the links below to see all of the details.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier
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From the July 20, 2013 Vintages release:
Photo credits: Flowers Vineyard & Winery; Steven Elphick & Associates