Chardonnay Show and Tell (November 7, 2014)
I4C is the best thing that's happened to the Canadian wine industry since the introduction of the VQA appellation system in 1988. The cryptic name is a punning acronym for the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration.
First mounted in in 2011, this Ontario-based annual event in July invites producers of Chardonnay from around the world to show off their best products over three days at a variety of events and meals. This year's I4C, entitled "The Rebirth of Cool," attracted winemakers from Argentina, Australia (including Tasmania), Burgundy, California, Chile, Oregon, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain, as well as British Columbia's Blue Mountain, Sperling Vineyards, Tantalus and Tinhorn Creek. Half of the participating wineries were from Niagara and Prince Edward County, 24 in all. Strangely, there was no representation of Chardonnay from Lake Erie North Shore.
The event opened with a keynote address by the British wine writer Tim Atkin MW. His theme: As the fifth most widely planted variety on the planet, at around half a million acres, "Chardonnay is a victim of its ubiquity and a victim of its adaptability." There followed three panel discussions.
The first panel was "Techno vs. Tech-no," on what winemakers use in the cellar to make their wines. Ron Giesbrecht of Niagara College, and formerly the winemaker at Henry of Pelham, illustrated techniques that can be used to enhance wine by preparing four glasses of the same 2013 Chardonnay using different treatments. The first glass had nothing added – stainless steel fermentation, no malolactic (which was the least appreciated by the audience). The second glass had gum Arabic added to enhance mouth feel and to stabilize tartrates (the favourite of most of the hall). The third had three different types of oak chips from French barrels added at different temperatures. And the fourth had tannin added.
Giesbrecht once described Chardonnay as "the chicken of the vineyard," meaning that, unlike Riesling, it's a variety that is shaped by the winemaker. If you gave a chicken to ten different chefs they would produce ten different dishes.
The second session, called "Yield and Context," dealt with crop sizes and the fact that low yields don't necessarily make better wines. Jim Willwerth of CCOVI got the biggest laugh of the morning when he posited the idea that if you subscribe to the theory that lower yields make better wines then a zero yield should make the best wine.
The third session, called "The Living Vine: The Viticultural Continuum," got into the contentious subject of organic and biodynamic growing. John Szabo MS, who moderated the discussion, cited the case of a Burgundian winemaker who refused to spray his vines. When a fatal vine disease called flavescence dorée was discovered near Beaune in June last year, the local prefecture decreed that all vineyards in the region must be sprayed. Emmanuel Giboulot, a biodynamic wine grower since 1970, refused. The debate came down to individual rights and group responsibility. Giboulot was subsequently fined 500 euros for putting his neighbours' vines at risk.
In the evening participants gathered at 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines for a barrel-top tasting and pig-roast dinner complete with a rock band. The next day there were lunch tastings at various wineries, culminating in the evening with "The Cool Chardonnay World Tour Al Fresco Feast" at Vineland Research & Innovation Centre. By this time, I had tasted and retasted over the two days more than 100 Chardonnays from around the world and was ready to bite my wrist for some red wine. But it was a highly instructive experience because it put Canadian Chardonnay in a global context. And I'm here to tell you that our Chardonnays can stand against rest of the world without a blush.