i4C 2018: Putting the “Cool” into “Cool Climate Chardonnay”

This past weekend we had the pleasure of attending the 2018 International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) – and what a whirlwind it was! 😍 Not only did we get the chance to attend as Sparkling Winos (where, spoiler alert, we tasted some pretty spectacular Blanc de Blancs from around the world), but we also had the opportunity to capture and share the event through Wine Country Ontario’s social media channels which helped us to focus our time on the absolutely amazing things happening right here in our beautiful province. (Note: in case you missed our social media takeover, check it out under “Highlights” on Wine Country Ontario’s Instagram page! 😉)

The 3-day celebration kicked off bright and early on Friday morning with The School of Cool – where winemakers, industry professionals and wine lovers united to taste and build upon their understanding of cool climate Chardonnay. Wine writer Jamie Goode led the first session, “The Perception of Chardonnay”, exploring sensory science and our perception of wine, followed by “Desert Island Combo” a Chardonnay and cheese pairing session by professor and top sommelier Peter Rod, and closing the day was master sommelier John Szabo with “Raising Chardonnay”, an in-depth look at the many vessel options available for fermenting and ageing Chardonnay before bottling.

Once all the “cool” kids got outta school (see what we did there? 😜) it was off the the Niagara District Airport for Flights of Chardonnay – an epic walk-around tasting, where all of the wines of the i4C were sipped and celebrated in an airport hangar during sunset. With the amazing atmosphere, delicious eats by local Niagara chefs, and a DJ setting the mood… it was good vibes only and a Chardonnay lovers paradise! We had the opportunity to chat with dozens of people, and it’s safe to say that the whole “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) movement is now but a distant memory. From steely, crisp Chablis to oak kissed and focused Ontario Chardonnay sourced from single vineyards, to exceptional examples from high altitude slopes in Chile, to mineral driven beauties from Alto-Adige, and so much more, the diversity of Chardonnay on display was seriously cool and the crowd was all about celebrating the versatility of this amazing grape varietal. 😎

But the weekend wasn’t all just sipping and swirling!

Following The School of Cool and Flights of Chardonnay (two of the i4C’s signature annual events), we had the chance to lose the bow-ties on Saturday afternoon as we went behind the scenes with the Grape Growers of Ontario to learn all about terroir and the labour and love that goes into growing and harvesting grapes here in Ontario! Kick the Dirt, a new event for i4C18, showcased the history, hard work, and stories of the grape growers for our local wine industry. After all, without our passionate and skilled growers there would be no grapes… and without grapes there would be no wine! Led by Kevin Watson, a former Grape King, we visited two iconic Ontario vineyards to see some of the oldest and most sought after Chardonnay vines in the province up close!

Our first stop was George II Farms on the Lincoln Lakeshore, where Bill George Jr. took us on a tour through the meticulously maintained 80-acre farm that has been family owned and operated since 1796. Bill helped us to understand the importance of vineyard location (slope, aspect, and surrounding bodies of water) and the relationship between grower and winemaker. We even got right into the ground to check out the soil for ourselves! 😂 While many of the wineries in Ontario do have vineyards on their estate, in most cases they’re not large enough to supply fruit for their full production. So the 180 or-so wineries rely heavily on the nearly 500 grape growers here in the province. All of the fruit from the George Family’s prized vines goes to Arterra Wines Canada (whose portfolio includes brands such as Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs).

While 100% of the grapes at George II Farms go to Arterra affiliated wineries, the grapes from our next stop, the Foxcroft Wismer Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench, have a greater variety of end-points. You may have seen Wismer Vineyards on a VQA wine label, and you should know that their grapes are tended to very precisely! Adamo Estates, which sources its Chardonnay grapes from the Foxcroft Vineyard, was represented by winemaker Shauna White who took us through Adamo’s winemaking process and discussed why Wismer fruit is the perfect fit for their wines. Adamo Estates is located in an emerging wine region here in Ontario, with younger vines and a cooler climate, so they rely heavily upon the passion and commitment of grape growers (such as Craig from Wismer Vineyards) when sourcing fruit for their wines. It was very insightful to see the relationship between the two first hand.

But back to the vineyards! During our visit, we noticed that the Wismer Vineyard had a higher elevation, different soil type, and imprint from the moderating effects of Lake Ontario, as it was further from the water than George II Farms. And you’re probably wondering: how do the grapes differ? Well, unfortunately we’re not grape growers, and we didn’t want to pick and diminish any harvest yields… but luckily we had the chance to taste wines made using the fruit from both locations, and both examples were seriously top notch! 👏 We found the Adamo Estates 2015 Foxcroft Oaked Chardonnay to be exceptional, especially considering the accessible price point, and a stunning example of a great VQA Chardonnay.

After kicking up a storm at Kick the Dirt (and wetting our whistles with some delicious VQA Chardonnay) we built up quite the appetite! Luckily, the signature event of i4C18 was just around the corner. Located in beautiful Ridley College (which, depending on your level of Harry Potter fandom, looks like something out of Hogworts or if that’s lacking, then jolly ol’ England), the Cool Climate Chardonnay World Tour was simply incredible. With perfect weather in store, we had the opportunity to sample some amazing wines from across the globe during the walk-around tasting.

Our World Tour started in Ontario – where we thoroughly enjoyed the bright, crisp 2013 Quarry Road Chardonnay from Tawse and were blown away by the 2015 Showcase Wild Ferment Oliveira Chardonnay from Trius. Thanks for the pours, Paul and Craig! 🙌 But we’d be remiss to not sample other cool climate Chard from across the globe, and were fascinated by the rich 2015 Seven Flags Chardonnay from Paul Cluver Wines in South Africa, the mineral driven 2014 Quebrada Seca Chardonnay from Maycas del Limari in Chile, and the crisp and elegant 2017 Kleinstein Chardonnay from Cantina Bolzano in Alto Adige, Italy.

By now you’re probably like… “Wait, what? No bubbles?!” …no way! 😜 Sparkling was out in full-force at i4C18, and you better believe we tasted as many as we could! All Blanc de Blancs in style (100% Chardonnay), we visited our friends from Blue Mountain (representing British Columbia), Cave Spring Cellars and Château des Charmes (representing Ontario), and Lightfoot & Wolfville and Benjamin Bridge (representing Nova Scotia) for the full coast-to-coast Canadian sparkling experience! And of course we couldn’t miss stopping by and making some new friends at Champagne Collet, pouring their stunning Blanc de Blancs Champagne. 😍

The tasting was followed by an incredible al fresco dining experience, with delicious cool-climate cuisine prepared by local Niagara chefs, and exceptional hospitality provided by the team at i4C! It takes a village to put this weekend together, and we were blown away by the passion and dedication displayed by all of the volunteers. Hey, @NathanGHooper and @WineWithChar, you rock!

Post-dinner, we danced the night away with the coolest of grape varietals (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gamay all made appearances), and the coolest of people. All in all, what a night here in Wine Country Ontario!

And just when you thought it was all over… think again! The pinnacle of an amazing Chadonnay filled weekend was Bubbles on the Bench, a new (and hopefully annual, Harald! 🙏) event hosted by our friends at Hidden Bench. The goal? To showcase the explosion of Canadian fizz with a coast-to-coast tour of Canadian bubbles, paired with seafood dishes from the chefs of Piano Piano and Montreal Plaza.

We sipped and savoured Ontario showstoppers from Hidden Bench, Cave Spring Cellars, Rosehall Run and Château des Charmes which was yet another reminder of how well our bubbles show in the national and international context. Representing beautiful British Columbia was Blue Mountain and the east coast showed off its sparkle with stunners from Benjamin Bridge and Lightfoot & Wolfville.

With winemakers remarks and great insight from David Lawrason, Bubbles on the Bench was proof that Canada is well on its way to becoming a sparkling wine powerhouse. While we’ve been saying it for years (😎), it’s amazing to be under the same roof rubbing shoulders and sipping bubbles with industry professionals, as well as consumers, that feel the same way we do. If Dr. Belinda Kemp (of CCOVI at Brock University) agrees that the sparkling here is amazing, it must be true. After all, she’s a doctor! 😉

Aside from being a whirlwind, the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration is an incredible opportunity to explore and reflect on the local, national and international cool climate winemaking scene. We learned so much, and will leave you with a few of our final thoughts from weekend (other than, one more glass of sparkling, please)! So, here goes:

Cool climate Chardonnay is diverse.

You might think: one grape varietal, a set of similar climactic conditions, only a limited amount of production methods… the wine should be pretty similar, regardless of its origin, right? 🤔 Wrong! Like a canvas and paint given to a group of artists across the globe, the results will never be the same, though you will see some similarities. These include crisp, bracing acidity (indicative of cool climate); respect for and a reflection of local terroir; use, and not abuse, of oak; and, downright deliciousness. Sauvignon Blanc, who? Give us an electric cool climate Chardonnay any day!

Blanc de Blancs reign supreme.

The classic “Champagne Blend” of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier is classic for a reason. Together, the best of the resultant wine comes forward: structure, acidity, fruit, elegance and a lingering finish. That said, Chardonnay does not lose its sparkle when fermented and bottled singularly, into a traditional method Blanc de Blancs. Not only does it hold its own, but the Chardonnay reigns supreme and reminds us why it’s the most important of the three grapes in the blend (…the Beyoncé of the blend, if you will)!

As we had the opportunity to take on the Media Room at i4C18, you know we made it a point to try every single sparkling that we could! Without delving into our detailed notes of each wine, our take-away is that whether a Blanc de Blancs comes from Champagne, Burgundy, Jura, Alsace, Nova Scotia, British Columbia or a cool climate growing region elsewhere… it is always elegant, with punchy acidity, somewhat restrained when youthful, and rich with autolytic character and brioche notes when aged. Young or old, citrus and tree fruit dominate and beg the question of… one, or two, more sips? 😎

Ontario sparkling shines.

While Blanc de Blancs reigned supreme as an overall category, we’d be remiss to overlook the all-star line-up of bubbles representing Ontario. From the soft, youthful approach of Château Des Charmes’ Blanc de Blancs, to Cave Spring’s rich and complex Blanc de Blancs, to the mineral driven Ceremony of Prince Edward County’s Rosehall Run, and the rich, creamy Prestige of Palatine Hills… Ontario showed beautifully. In fact, Ontario shined in the category and demonstrated that a Blanc de Blancs in and of itself is a complex “sub-category” of both Sparkling Wine and Chardonnay. So cheers to VQA Ontario! 🙌

Canada is becoming a sparkling wine powerhouse.

We touched on this a little bit when reflecting on the absolutely amazing Bubbles on the Bench event hosted by Hidden Bench. Whether made in eastern, central, or western Canada… bubbly is a common thread of exceptionality in this great country. We’ve been banging the beat to that drum for a while now and it’s remarkable to sit in the same room with winemakers, industry representatives and wine lovers alike, saying and loving the same thing! From 2017 winemaker of the year Shiraz Mottiar (Malivoire), to David Lawrason (Wine Align), to Hidden Bench proprietor Harald Thiel and renowned “sparkling specialist” Dr. Belinda Kemp, the accolades around Ontario and Canadian sparkling were flowing. And, so were the amazing Canadian bubbles! We were in sparkling heaven, and we didn’t even “cross the border” into another wine producing country’s offerings! Things are looking effervescent for Canada, and if this brunch event was an indication, Canada is quickly becoming a sparkling wine powerhouse.

Canadian cuisine is seriously cool.

Between gourmet food trucks at Flights of Chardonnay, high end vine dining in the vineyards, an “under the stars” dining experience at the Cool Climate Chardonnay World Tour and incredible food prepared by Piano Piano and Montreal Plaza at Bubbles on the Bench, we were reminded of just how wonderful the bounty of Niagara, of Ontario, and of our country truly is! We’ve already booked lunch plans at Piano Piano and are trying to figure out a reason to head out to Montreal (…and hey, Montreal Plaza is just the ticket). Lobster salad, anyone?! 🤤

Grapes are a labour of love.

We took the Kick the Dirt event literally, and actually kicked some dirt! But as we learned from the proprietors at the two vineyards we visited – George II Farms and Wismer Vineyards – grape growing is a labour of love, whether you have your hands on the resultant juice or not. Learning about vineyard conditions, soils, micro-climates and successful (and stressful) varietals, we had the chance to see and hear about vineyard practices “in situ” and taste some resultant Chardonnays from Arterra Wines and Adamo Estates. When’s the last time you can say you climbed into the ground in a vineyard, and got your hands dirty, before sampling some of the Chardonnay made from the fruit of those very vines? 😎

Stone cold idea exchange.

The incredible thing about the i4C is that while it really is all about the grape, it brings people together in a unique and exciting way. From winemakers, to winery representatives (hi, Gillian! 👋), to industry professionals, scientists and writers, we came together to share our love for Chardonnay and cool climate wine. Whether you’re coming in from Chile, Alto Adige, or Champagne… i4C presents endless opportunities to discuss the inputs, processes, outputs and opportunities/challenges around cool climate viticulture. On our end, we had the chance to discuss sparkling wine with so many people and it was affirming to see the love in the room for the possibilities in this category. Cheers to that, eh!? 🙌

So, without further ado, our favourite wine was…

…not so easy to choose! 🙈 In fact, we couldn’t possibly whittle it down to just one because there were so many terrific examples of still and sparkling Chardonnay at i4C18. So do yourself a favour, get out there and taste some of the incredible cool climate Chardonnay coming out of our great province. There is still time to purchase the wines featured at i4C18 online through the LCBO! Cheers! 🥂