Defining Cool at I4C (October 5, 2011)
originally published in Grapevine Magazine
A simple statement on the radio has sparked a chain of events that may well give the Ontario wine industry the leap into international prominence it so badly needs.
It all began when Bill Redelmeier, proprietor of Southbrook Vineyards, heard an interview on CBC in 2009.
A Montreal wine writer, Marc Chapleau, had set up a blind tasting of fine white Burgundies versus top California Chardonnays. Unbeknownst to the tasters, he had slipped in a ringer – a bottle of Niagara's Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Vineyard Chardonnay 2005. The tasters put this Ontario wine in first place above some very expensive Burgundies and iconic Napa Chardonnays.
On that radio program, Le Clos Jordanne's then-winemaker Thomas Bachelder said, self-deprecatingly, that any one of 10 Ontario Chardonnays could have produced the same result. The light went on for Redelmeier: Why not take the top Ontario Chardonnays to London and have them tasted by the world's most exacting wine critics? The idea was to show the wine writers and importers there that Ontario is more than just icewine.
Billed as Ontario Chardonnay: Seriously Cool, this event happened in May, 2010 at Canada House in Trafalgar Square. The tasting was such a triumph that it energized another group of winemakers who dreamed of emulating the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC), Oregon's highly successful Pinot Noir revelry. This annual three-day Pinot fest was founded in 1987 in McMinnville, Oregon, and over the years it has brought together over 11,000 wine lovers from around the world.
An ad hoc committee of Harald Thiel (Hidden Bench), Thomas Bachelder, Ed Madronich (Flat Rock Cellars), winemaker Ann Sperling (Southbrook), consultant Peter Gamble (Ravine Vineyard), winemaker Dan Sullivan (Rosehall Run) and winemaker Deborah Paskus (Closson Chase) began discussing the possibility of creating such an experience in July, 2008. Thiel was elected chair of the event. Originally the group had thought of making it a celebration of the Riesling grape which does so well in Ontario. But the wine industry had missed the boat on that variety as the Riesling Rendezvous in Washington State had already bagged Riesling in 2007 for an annual event hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle.
So the committee fixed on Chardonnay. "Chardonnay is not only a varietal that Ontario can do, but Canada as a whole can do it right across the country," says Thiel. "You see Chardonnay at $10.00 and Chardonnay at $50.00. It covers the whole range of wines. Every producer in Ontario is doing a Chardonnay of some sort."
Emulating IPNC, the committee dubbed their event the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, I4C for short. The catchy name prophetically suggests a rosy future for cool-climate Chardonnay, and specifically when it's grown in Ontario. "We wanted to make sure we had an event that celebrated Chardonnay," Thiel told me over lunch. "Chardonnay has been maligned a bit – you have the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay). But the problem is Chardonnay has been done in places where it shouldn't have been done. I believe that Ontario is one of the areas where Chardonnay can truly excel."
The concept is to bring together cool-climate Chardonnay producers from around the world to discuss and taste this style of wine with the wine-buying public. The organizers are quick to point out that it's a celebration, not a competition. And what exactly is the definition of a cool-climate Chardonnay producer? This question will be the subject at one of the seminars to be held at Niagara College, but as far as Bachelder is concerned, it's more than a geographical imperative: "We want to reach out to the wineries that are cool by latitude, which is us, cool by altitude, which could be parts of California, or cool by attitude, like someone who makes the changes necessary, for instance, in the growing trellis to shade the fruit and give even the hotter-climate Chardonnays vivacity and grip and tightness. We're missing California this year, and I think California is missing the boat. They need to be included with the cool-climate gang. California North Coast, Russian River – we
need to see those wines here next year."
And who gets invited to the party? First the committee members knocked on the doors of local wineries to become founding partners, then they settled on the first 15 houses to represent Canada, 13 from Ontario and two from British Columbia. "Then we went by regions where we had contacts," says Thiel. "The first year it's difficult to get people out until you have an event. We went to the South Island of New Zealand, to the Hermanus in South Africa. We went to Austria, particularly the Burgenland area near Vienna as well. We went to Burgundy and Chablis naturally, and northern Italy. That's how we established our first grouping this year. In the future we'd like to reach out to certain California producers, Carneros, and even Sonoma Coast."
Fifteen wineries from the New World have signed on and 16 from the Old World, making a total of 46. One of the conditions for admittance, similar to the IPNC, is that the winery owner or the winemaker have to be present to pour their wines. And like the IPNC's famous outdoor salmon bake on the Saturday night, I4C will put on a pig roast called "Chardonnay and Cochon." Since Chardonnay is such a versatile food wine, there will be many wine pairing opportunities. Over the course of three days, participants will be exposed to around 125 Chardonnays, from sparkling to unoaked, from barrel-fermented to icewine.
"For the average consumer, the ability to taste a wine from Niagara or PEC beside a wine from New Zealand or Northern Italy – or from Burgundy for that matter – and to see where we are comparable and where we are different, that's important," says Thiel.
"There's a huge market out there that is tired of Chardonnay, drinking Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc," says Bachelder, "and there's another market out there that's drinking really inexpensive Chardonnay from very far away. Both those markets, whether 'tired of' or 'never discovered', might get a jolt when they see how good Chardonnay can be at even $20.00. It's a lot less money than some Chardonnay from France. That's where Ontario can excel – in the luxury market. Somewhere between $20.00 and $40.00 there's a lot of ground to be made."
If you can't it make to Niagara College, you can always attend the taste and buy event at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Sunday. The keynote speaker for I4C was the American wine writer Matt Kramer.
The ultimate purpose of the event was to change the meaning of ABC, in the words of the inimitable British wine writer Oz Clarke, from "Anything But Chardonnay to Another Bottle of Chardonnay."