Raise a glass to Cool Climate Chardonnay on May 23rd

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May 23rd is International Chardonnay Day! A global celebration of one of the most popular and widely planted white-wine grape varieties in the world. Chardonnay originally hails from the Burgundy region of France and DNA fingerprints revealed that this noble grape is a cross-breed of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. The grape itself is quite neutral in character and highly adaptable which explains why it grows in practically every wine producing region in the world. While Chardonnay can thrive in a wide range of climates and soils, its characteristics are greatly impacted by climatic influences. Chardonnays from cool climate regions have higher acidity, are lighter bodied and typically feature aromas of apple, pear, citrus and stone fruit while chardonnays grown in warmer climates have lower acidity, higher alcohol and ripe tropical fruit aromas.

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Due to its neutral character, Chardonnay can translate the terroir of where it is grown better than many other varietals. It is often referred to as the “winemaker’s grape” because it can be vinified in many different styles ranging from lean, crisp and minerally-driven to rich, buttery and heavily oaked. The latter style, commonly associated with warmer climates, reached its peak in popularity in the late 1980s. But while many gravitated toward it, others joined the “Anything but Chardonnay” movement, seeking alternatives to the opulent and heavy white wines that had become the trademark of this varietal.  

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Over the last two decades, Chardonnay has experienced a remarkable resurgence due to a new wave of cool climate chardonnays with less oak, higher acidity, more elegance and finesse. In fact, the image of Chardonnay as big, boozy, oaky and buttery was largely the result of harvesting overripe grapes and the overuse of new oak in the winemaking process. Many of the aromas that are often associated with chardonnay are the result of vinification processes. For example, malolactic fermentation adds the dairy-like and buttery flavours and new oak imparts the toasty, nutty and vanilla aromas. While some oak can enhance the wine, too much can overpower it. Renowned wine writer, Beppi Crosariol, aptly noted that “Generally speaking, the hotter the climate, the more a winemaker will be tempted to lavish it with oak, and it’s easy to go too far. A ripe, fat, tropical-styled chardonnay can end up tasting like a lumber yard rather than a vineyard…A kiss of oak is nice, but too much is the kiss of death”.

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Cool climate regions like Niagara-on-the-Lake produce Chardonnays that are leaner and crisper in style with higher acidity and a more restrained fruit character. Cooler climates are ideal for producing chardonnay because they preserve the freshness of the wine and balance the alcohol which can get quite high in warmer climates. When oak is used, it is done in a judicious manner as winemakers recognize that too much oak can overpower the delicate aromatics and mask the wine’s true character. The restrained use of oak can add complexity and roundness to the wine while still allowing the fruit to shine through. In fact, many premium Chardonnays from the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellation spend some time in barrels but the oak is well integrated and the wines showcase a rich texture that is balanced by bright acidity.

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Below is a list of impressive cool climate chardonnays from the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake that would be wonderful options for your Chardonnay day celebrations and to enjoy year-round:

The Hare Wine Co., 2016 Frontier Chardonnay, $28 – This Chardonnay spent eight months in barrels which were previously used to age Vidal Icewine. The tiny amount of residual adds the impression of honeysuckle, tropical fruit, and lovely caramelized red apples on the nose, followed by a dry, light and fruity experience on the palate. A beautiful crisp and food-friendly wine, the perfect expression of a Niagara grown Chardonnay.

Marynissen Estate Winery, 2015 Gold Series Chardonnay, $15.95 – Marynissen is known for big bold reds and beautiful Chardonnays. The 2015 Chardonnay falls in line with a blend of stainless steel fermented and barrel aged Chardonnay resulting in a beautifully balanced bottle of wine with layers of tropical fruit and toasted coconut. 

Queenston Mile Vineyard, 2016 Chardonnay, $35 – The grapes were gently pressed and fermented in 7 French oak barrels, with one large-format puncheon. Plush, round mouth-feel supported by well-integrated oak. The weight on the palate is balanced by a pleasing burst of acidity on the finish, making this a versatile favourite at the dinner table.

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, 2017 Chardonnay, $35 – This Chardonnay is a deep straw colour just like a field of wheat ready to harvest. It has a nose of lemon curd, butterscotch and warm bread pudding. On the palate it is fresher than expected and showing a nice line of acidity. It finishes with a lingering baking spice note.

Stratus, 2016 Chardonnay, $48 – A nose of white stone fruit, peaches, apples, light butter, roasted corn, wet stone, flint, and an enveloping brioche give this wine an exuberant personality. This Chardonnay is creamy and balanced with a finely tuned stream of acidity that does justice to its cool climate roots.

Strewn, Chardonnay Terroir Canadian Oak, $35 – Silver Medal winner at the 2019 Citadelles Du Vin International Competition. More crisp than creamy with a whiff of oak on the nose that reappears on the finish. Fermented exclusively in new and one-year old Canadian oak barrels.

Trius Winery, 2016 Showcase Wild Ferment Chardonnay, $36.95 – This medium to full-bodied, rich yet still refreshing Chardonnay achieves a perfect balance between fruit and toasty flavours. Clear and bright with a lemon yellow hue and a bouquet of fresh biscuit, toasty oak, cold butter, barrel spice, grilled pineapple, red apple and a touch of toffee. 

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Mark your calendars as the 9th Annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) is less than two months away. This year, this highly anticipated international celebration of world-class cool climate chardonnays will take place the weekend of July 19-21. Several members of Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake will be participating in signature events in the heart of Niagara wine country along with other Ontario and international producers. This year 52 wineries from nine countries will be featured.  Visit coolchardonnay.org for more information and to purchase tickets.

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