#i4C19 – The Coolest Weekend of the Year! 😎

We recently had the pleasure of attending the 2019 International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C), which ran from July 19-21, 2019 in beautiful Wine Country Ontario. With three days of signature events all focused on what some may consider the noblest of white wine grape varieties (sorry Riesling!), i4C brings Chardonnay to the forefront, giving it the spotlight it deserves. The ABC (“Anything But Chardonnay”) days, which manifested themselves in response to the oak chip butter bomb boxes of yesteryear, are long behind us. And it would not be summer in Wine Country Ontario without the opportunity to dive deep into the cool waters of cool climate Chardonnay. What better way to cool down in this heat than with a glass of Blanc de Blancs, right? 😎🥂

i4C is now in its 9th year, and this was our 3rd time attending the celebration, so this year we decided to take a fresh perspective on our favourite event of the summer. In past years, we approached i4C with a sparkling focus, spending our time tasting Blanc de Blancs from across the world and diving deep into the beautiful VQA sparkling Chardonnay from Ontario. After all, as a cool climate winemaking region, there’s much to say about Ontario sparkling wine! However, we did not want to repeat ourselves and so we felt we had a bit of a carte blanc… err, we mean, carte blanche! 😜

So, what were two Sparkling Winos to do? 🤔

Well, in the spirit of celebrating some milestones ourselves, we were feeling reflective, somewhat older and wiser, and you could say we took an “old school” approach. First, by making it a priority to attend i4C’s “School of Cool” sessions. And second, by taking full advantage of the “Judgement of London 2010” tasting at Southbrook Vineyards, which allowed us to taste 10+ year old Chardonnays from Ontario (almost 10 years after an epic showing in London’s Canada House). Together, these sessions emphasized age (sur lie, or on the lees, and in bottle) and we were curious – and very excited to learn more – about the aging potential of Ontario Chardonnay.

School of Cool

Presented by VQA Wines of Ontario, the Wine Marketing Association of Ontario and the Grape Growers of Ontario, The School of Cool is a joint session focussed viticultural, winemaking and marketing themes, accompanied by a series of tastings. While we were keen to learn all about lees from moderator Eugene Mlynczyk, MW and an esteemed panel of scientists, winemakers and technical directors, we were also excited to hear Julia Harding, MW deliver the keynote address. An established book editor by trade, Julia is now known as a “unicorn” for passing her Master of Wine exam on the first try, with flying colours. She is well regarded for her oenological and viticutural knowledge, and is working on a refresh of Wine Grapes, which she co-authored with Jancis Robinson. As the “right hand woman” to the world’s most esteemed wine critic, Julia is as knowledgable as she is delightful, and we thoroughly enjoyed her opening remarks to kick off this year’s i4C. Like us, Julia made the point: what new topics can we discuss after 9 years of i4C? 

Turns out, that Julia had much to stay about Chardonnay and it’s growing potential around the globe, including in Great Britain. Focussing on a series of vineyards in south and southwestern England, Julia highlighted the incredible sparkling wines being produced there and the challenge in achieving the same success and accolades with still Chardonnay. High labour, land and input costs, together with temperamental growing conditions and comparable options from around the globe for a lower retail price, makes English Chardonnay a tough sell. Add climate change into the mix and, well, who knows exactly where it will go. We found the parallels to Ontario Chardonnay similar and dissimilar. Similar in that there’s a sense of respect for tradition, concerns about climate challenge and dedication to quality, but dissimilar in that the value proposition of Ontario Chardonnay is a bit more… obvious? With excellent examples retailing from $20 to $35, there’s plenty for the consumer to enjoy (and at a fraction of the price, compared to many European cool climate regions producing wines of the same calibre). But, we digress. 😜

With temperatures heating up across Wine Country Ontario, things definitely cooled down thanks in part to one of i4C’s signature events, the “School of Cool.” While all three sessions (focussed on lees, climate change and consumer trends) were insightful, the lees session left the biggest impression on us. Moderated by Eugene Mlynczyk, MW, the session brought together Benoît Marsan, International wine chemistry instructor Université du Québec à Montréal, Gregory Viennois, Technical Director, Domaine Laroche, Paul Cluver, Director, Paul Cluver Wines, Pierre Fresne, Partner & Winemaker, Champagne Fresne Ducret and Jean-Laurent (J-L) Groux, Winemaker, Stratus. With such an esteemed panel, we were interested to learn more about lees, a topic that is both interesting and exciting (though we don’t get that excited about all yeast, let’s be clear). 

The most basic explanation of less would be leftover yeast particles in the wine. They’re leftover from autoloysis, where enzymes created during fermentation kill the yeast. Sounds dramatic, and maybe if illustrated in a comic book it could be, but for Chardonnay (still and sparkling) this adds delicious textures and flavours. Aging of wine on lees, then, enhances its sensory characteristics.

Discussed in depth by the panel, aging on the lees, or sur lie, was common practice for winemakers Pierre Fresne and J-L Groux, as well as for Gregory Viennois and Paul Cluver. Of course, length of time varied and so did takes on whether or not to undertake bâtonnage, or stirring of the lees. As with traditional method sparkling wine, aging on the lees imparts a brioche character, creaminess and richness. With so many cumulative years of winemaking knowledge shared among the panel, whether from the Champagne, Chablis, South Africa or Ontario, we wondered how much insight (and forecasting) is required when thinking about your wine “down the line.” We’re not talking about a couple years down the line, we’re thinking a decade. And no, not because J-L’s sparkling at Stratus is still being held, after ten years on the lees (though, we can’t wait to finally try it). With traditional method sparkling wine, winemakers use their knowledge, past experience and often times best guess as to what their bubbly will be like when it hits the shelves. Occasional tasting will help determine where the wine is at a point and time and where it may go in the future, but it’s never a sure bet. As we learned from the panel, many factors impact the wine’s aging potential – from the quality and character of the wine itself, the winemaking techniques and storage. Simple, right? Well, not so simple … since a 2009 Grand Cru Chablis will be very different in 2019, than a similar or same vintage Chardonnay from the Côte d’Or, Elgin in South Africa or the Beamsville Bench here in Ontario. 

Thinking about where we were in 2009 compared to 2019 makes a decade seem both long and short, and applying the same lens to Chardonnay or Blanc de Blancs leads to more questions (perhaps it’s because we’re aging too, who knows). This would be a good place to insert a joke here about aging sur lie from all the traditional method sparkling wine we taste, but we’ll spare you.

Judgement of London

With aging potential of Chardonnay on our minds, we were lucky enough to take part in the “Judgement of London 2010” at Southbrook Vineyards, in Niagara-on-the-Lake as part of i4C. 

So, what exactly was the “Judgement of London”?

Well, back in May 2010 at Canada House in London, United Kingdom, a showcase of Ontario’s finest Chardonnays took place. In total, twenty two Canadian wineries were represented at the “Judgement of London,” and Ontario shone through. From the Niagara Peninsula to Prince Edward County, VQA Ontario Chardonnay was well represented and held in high esteem. Jancis Robinson attended the tasting, and commenting on the diversity of Ontario’s Chardonnay offerings, she made note that these fine wines represent a broad spectrum of styles but that Burgundian influence is strong. She noted that the best of these wines were delicate and dense in flavour, benefitting from a successful 2007 vintage. Citing a few of her favourites as having their own personality and great charm, we are sure the winemakers there were very pleased. In the subsequent Financial Times article, Jancis extolled that “Ontario’s best Chardonnays can hold their own with the world’s finest.” A wonderful statement for a growing wine region, and made ever the more sweeter considering a not-so-sweet initial experience.

Jancis Robinson’s first professional wine tasting was on Canadian wine at Canada House in London back in 1976, when she began as a secretary at a wine publication. Apparently, none of her colleagues felt it was a worthy tasting to attend. She attended anyway but the experience was not a positive one for Jancis, nor the Canadian wine industry. Things have come a long way for both the Canadian wine industry and Jancis (who now regularly tastes Canadian wine and has said lovely things about our wines, as we’ve seen). 

To say that Southbrook proprietor Bill Redelmeier attended the “Judgement of London 2010” is an understatement. As we learned, he took initiative and led the charge to organize the showcase, after being inspired by Ontario Chardonnay’s performance at a California versus France Chardonnay tasting a year prior. With other “judgements” launching wine regions or wine styles into global awareness, we can’t help but think that this too motivated the winemakers of Ontario. Who doesn’t want to be recognized and hopefully exported across the globe, right?

So, here we were at Southbrook for i4C, with Bill’s anecdotes, delivered with a mixture of joy and restraint (from a cold, on the hottest day of the year!). It was a pleasure to have Bill take us on a journey back in time, pouring seven of the wines originally showcased at the “Judgement of London 2010.” 

With age on our minds, we wondered, how will these seven wines present themselves, now a decade later? As each wine was poured and the tasting flight came to light, we wondered how winemakers choices back in 2007 would be experienced today. Will 2007 continue to shine as a vintage? Will the percentage of new oak make a huge difference in 2019? Some of the seven wines poured are from wineries that no longer exist, or which have shifted focus completely. So to have this snapshot in time was a very special experience.

Bill poured the following selection of wines:

  • Southbrook Poetica, 2007
  • Trius Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, 2008
  • Clos Jordanne Chardonnay, 2006
  • Hidden Bench Chardonnay, 2008
  • Cave Spring Chardonnay, 2007
  • Penninsula Ridge Chardonnay, 2008
  • Tawse Chardonnay, 2007

Without getting into each in great detail, we can safely say that all but one wine aged gracefully. For the six of the seven that made it to the present day in fine form, we will echo Jancis’ comments that they have their own distinctive charm and personality. For us, the Southbrook’s Poetica continues to shine, with a lively acidity and baked apple character. Clos Jordanne’s was rich, nutty and intense… and we were not surprised it has held its own, down the line. Cave Springs’ 2007 Chardonnay retained much of its acidity and despite its richness, its mineral character made it distinct among the lineup. Tawse’s 2007 Chardonnay was unique in the line up as well, but with a more subtle minerality and freshness. For us, though, the standout was the Hidden Bench 2008 Chardonnay, which continues to shine with its electric acidity, beautiful fruity and nutty character and overall balance. As the tasting progressed, we kept going back to appreciate it in all its glory. What a cool experience, to say the least!   

And, if you’re wondering, Jancis published a selection of her favourites, including the Southbrook Poetica, Le Clos Jordanne’s Chardonnay and Tawse’s 2007 Chardonany. To see these hold up elegantly, despite their age, goes to show that VQA Ontario wine has grown in leaps and bounds, and continues its dedication to quality. 

Thanks for reading! ☺️

You deserve a nice crisp glass of cool climate Chardonnay! 😉 We hope you enjoyed our “old school” approach to reporting on i4C this year, however, that certainly doesn’t mean we didn’t take part in the other incredible signature i4C events! 😎 If you’ve been keeping up with us on Instagram you’ll know we had the chance to attend Flights of Chardonnay (our favourite!), The Cool Chardonnay World Tour Tasting & Dinner, and the Moveable Feast Brunch at Ravine! And we even captured the events during an Instagram Takeover for @WineCountryOnt. So we will leave you with some of our favourite photos from the weekend. For more about i4C, visit coolchardonnay.org. We hope to see you there next year! We can Chard’ly wait. 😎