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Cool Climate Chardonnays Surprise and Delight

Woman at a Wine Festival

Picture this: Sun-drenched vineyards dotted with sheltering marquees, handsome chateaux, and vine-covered farmhouses. As you stroll among the vines, the fine stemware in your hand shows off a wine brimming with bright rich fruit, nuanced by citrus and mineral notes — so refreshing on a midsummer’s eve. You take a sip. This chardonnay is a far cry from the two-by-four oak plank varietal you’ve come to expect. Until tonight, you were an anything but chardonnay (ABC) drinker. Not any longer.

It’s a shame that the noble white grape’s popularity has plummeted among many oenophiles. Chardonnay’s fall from grace is directly related to over-ripened fruit, mishandling of oak, and high alcohol content (especially for white wine) rather than the grape itself.

Too often, warm weather chardonnays tend to lose focus. They should offer the delicate aroma and taste of fresh cut apple or tropical fruit backed by lemony acidity. If oak is used, it should offer spicy or nutty complexity and play a supporting role that never upstages. And good chardonnay should pair well with food such as seafood, shellfish, cream, poultry and even pork. However, too often, ponderous, low-acid chardonnay is a far less versatile food wine.

And that, my friend, is precisely the point of The International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration which took place in Niagara-On-the-Lake, Ontario Canada, in July. Chardonnay doubters and devotees gathered together over three days of tasting, seminars, and, of course, fine local cooking to celebrate the Chardonnay grape—cool climate style.

Norman Hardie Holding a Glass of Wine

Winemaker Norman Hardie grows his wines on Prince Edward Island where the weather can be decidedly changeable.

Inspired by Oregon’s annual Pinot Noir Celebration, wine-makers from France, Italy, Germany, and Austria joined those from North America’s more northerly grape-growing climes (Ontario, B.C., Oregon) and the southern hemisphere’s Tasmania and New Zealand to show us that chardonnay can be seriously cool.

I managed to sip, and savor at two events — The World Tour and A Moveable Feast. On Saturday evening, winemakers trotted me through chardonnays as pale as straw or as golden as the late afternoon sun. Chateau de Meursault smacked of pear and toasted almonds — with a most judicious use of oak. Domaine Laroche Chablis 1er Cru Les Vaillons was all apple and gunflint. Italy’s Tenuta Mosole and Vie de Romans’ (French name for an Italian wine) offerings proved there’s more to the fresh white wines of Northern Italy than Pinot Grigio.

From Ontario, I delighted in Norman Hardie’s unfiltered chardonnay made in Prince Edward’s County’s frequently finicky weather, and an un-oaked crisp lovely from a new-ish winery called Pondview. Oregon, just as it does with Pinot Noir, impressed guests with Evening Lands Vineyards Amity-Eola Hills Chardonnay, as did Adelsheim Vineyards Caitlin’s Reserve. Rounding out the evening were the finely chiseled wines from Ataraxia (South Africa) and Sattlerhof and Lorimer (Austria).

Man Cooking Pork Chops on Truck

Chops cooked on this transformed old truck hit the spot with cool climate chardonnays.

Many of the wines appeared again at the Moveable Feast Sunday brunch held at Ravine Vineyards. (Not a plastic fork, glass, or paper plate in sight). We piled our plates with dry-smoked ribs and double-thick pork chops, plucked fresh from a jury-rigged grill on the flatbed of an old pick-up, and garnished with Peach and Cipollini chutney and we paired them with nutty, toasty wines. Blueberry French toast and a deconstructed Quiche topped with morels and flaky pastry played off northern European wines. Curried vegetables and buttery new potatoes cozied up to vanilla notes of many of the U.S offerings. Lemon tarts, macaroons, and raspberries with Crème Anglaise needed wines with absolutely no wood (and better still, sipped with very good coffee).

Surprisingly, my palate remained delightfully in tact. No chardonnay had been too cloying or too rich for the splendid repast. I learned that cool chardonnay can be everything the Chardonnay grape is meant to be.

Picture this. You stroll into the expansive chardonnay section of your favorite wine shop. They just happen to have an Oregon chardonnay open. “Would you care to have a taste?” he asks.

“Yes,” you reply, “That would be cool.”

Just What is Cool Climate Chardonnay?

Chardonnay is one of the most complex white wines – and one of the most misunderstood varietals – in the world of wine. While it remains immensely popular (it grows almost everywhere in the wine world ) its recent notoriety has been as a wine to avoid rather than one to celebrate.

Man Selling a Bottle of Wine

Mission Hill’s Director of Sales (Canada), Ingo Grady, shows off his cool climate chardonnay.

Serious wine enthusiasts already know that some of the most exquisite white wines are made from the chardonnay grape, and, in most cases, these are from cool-climate regions. And while the definition of “cool climate” has yet to be agreed upon (an endeavor we’ll be taking on at the 2011 i4c), it is understood that there is a definitive distinction.

Chardonnay as most know it became popular in the nineties, when it was the wine of choice for those who were new to wine. Made with ripe fruit and fermented and matured in young oak vessels, these wines had a rich texture, low levels of acidity, flavors of butter, ripe tropical fruit and vanilla and reasonably high alcohol. These characteristics made these chardonnays perfect for sipping, but the dominant oak made them unappealing as food wines. Typically, these popular chardonnays came from the New World, specifically regions known for hot growing season climate conditions. But as consumer tastes evolved, popular-priced chardonnay went into decline and the global white-wine palate found other, more aromatic and refreshing options.

Yet the great white wines of Burgundy, Champagne and Sonoma seemed to enjoy an unflagging following among wine connoisseurs. The common element in these great chardonnays is the cool climate in which these wines originate – a climate that allows the grapes to ripen slowly and, as they ripen, assertive citrus fruit flavors develop that are retained in the bottle. The wines from cooler regions display higher levels of acidity, and because the fruit character is more delicate, these wines discourage aggressive use of oak, especially wide-grained and young oak. Lean and crisp, these wines are perfect for food and, with their complex and expressive fruit character, they are also perfect for sipping on their own.

Plate of Salad, Bread and Cheese

Unlike many warm climate chardonnays, chardonnays produced in cooler climates pair well with foods.

The chardonnay bandwagon is once again on the road, and it is the wines of cooler regions that are fueling this resurgence. Chardonnays from cool-climate zones in Europe and the New World are now the darlings of the wine world – delicate, sophisticated and wonderful expressions of fruit, minerals and distinct terroirs. If you haven’t tried a cool climate chardonnay, you should.

— by Julie Pegg, RFT wine & spirit expert

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Julie Pegg, RFT Contributor

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop.