In wine, as in clothing or music, what was popular yesterday can be cringe worthy today. You may remember Blue Nun and Mateus assuming you're old enough to have survived the era of leisure suits and Jell-O tuna fish moulds (with which the wines were sometimes paired). But these days I'm thinking of a certain style of chardonnay.
There was a time when hot-climate chardonnay was the in thing. It boasted superripe, opulent fruit thanks to unfettered sunshine (hello, California, Australia and Chile). In the cellar, winemakers lavished that cloying low-acid fruit with extended contact in new, heavily charred oak barrels, imparting complementary notes of vanilla, toast and spice. Big, fat and subtly sweet, these oak bombs won over North American palates by the millions.
Then came the backlash. It went by the initials ABC, for "anything but chardonnay," a reference to the increasingly discerning public's boredom with McChardonnays that all seemed to taste like a mango impaled on a smouldering two-by-four.
Gradually, the fashion shifted as consumers (and many winemakers) began to draw a distinction between hot and cold, or more accurately between warm and cool. On cool vineyard sites, grapes preserve more acidity, creating a bracing tension that the French colourfully call nervosité. You can find that nervy backbone quintessentially in the chardonnays of Chablis in northern Burgundy, where crisp fruit, a sensation of mineral-like verve and little or, more commonly, no oak are the name of the game.
You can also find it in ample supply in some of the better chardonnays from Canada. The paradoxical advantage of our northern vineyards eventually gave inspiration to a splendid annual Niagara festival called the International Cool-Climate Chardonnay Celebration, or i4C for short. Now in its sixth run, it takes place this year July 22-24 at numerous locations around the peninsula. For tickets and a rundown of events, check www.coolchardonnay.org. More than 60 domestic and international winemakers will be pouring some of their finest.
"Where once it was criticized or thought to be curious to be growing wine in a belt like this, people are seeking out these wines," says Suzanne Janke, chair of this year's i4C. Even in New York City, she says, "the sommeliers are excited" about Canadian chardonnay.
Judging by the huge i4C wine lineup, I'm not sure every bottle will capture what I would classify as cool-climate. Californians in particular have jumped on the cool-is-hip bandwagon with zeal, making much ado about the acid-preserving influence of their chilly morning fogs and Pacific breezes. The Chileans like to boast about the frigid air of high-altitude vineyards on the Andes foothills. And so on. But, for me, the back-label rhetoric often doesn't translate into the glass.
Matt Kramer, the brilliant Wine Spectator columnist and author who was a guest speaker at i4C in 2011 and 2015, says that fogs, ocean winds and high elevation can indeed temper the heat in otherwise sun-drenched vineyards. On the flipside, he told me that "even in indisputably cool winegrowing zones it's possible, thanks to, say, late harvesting, for a winemaker to create a wine that actually tastes like it comes from a warmer place because of a very ripe taste and lower acidity than we conventionally associate with 'cool.'"
Like me, Kramer – who is also the author of True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words – believes that coolness is inherently relative. "'Cool climate' is now more evocative in the public mind than it is defining," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with that. Whether it's an accurate descriptor is something only the wine itself can say."
What's cool? You be the judge.
Blue Mountain Reserve Chardonnay
2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $29.90
Full-bodied yet with a big spring in its step, this Okanagan gem is polished to a satin sheen, with flavours of ripe peach, apple and tropical fruit supported by subtle vanilla and toasty spice. Smartly handled oak, with just 50 per cent of the juice spending 10 months in a combination of new and used barrels and 50 per cent fermented and aged in stainless steel. Available direct, www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Norman Hardie Chardonnay
Unfiltered 2014 (Niagara)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $39
Based in Eastern Ontario's Prince Edward County, Norman Hardie makes this white from Niagara-grown grapes. Medium-bodied, bone-dry and faintly chalky in
a good way, it comes across with orchard fruit and an enticingly smoky, matchstick nuance from extended lees contact. There's a strong nod to Burgundy here and that, too, is a good thing. Available in Ontario.
Tawse Quarry Road Vineyard
Chardonnay 2012 (Niagara)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $36.15
Full-bodied, sumptuously layered and expertly crafted, this organic chardonnay sports flavours suggesting pineapple and pear complemented by yeasty-toasty depth, a whiff of stone and electric acidity. Available direct, www.tawsewinery.ca (and featured at this year's i4C event).
Parker Coonawarra Estate
Chardonnay 2014 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Australian winemakers have made great strides in shifting away from the oak-bomb chardonnays of old, and this example is an eye-opener. Remarkably vibrant, it shows tropical fruit and good flavour depth without excess weight or alcohol (weighing in at a relatively modest 12.5 per cent). The oak is well-handled, lending subtle toastiness. Available in Ontario.
Poplar Grove Chardonnay
2015 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.05
Medium-full-bodied, with ample and satisfying mid-palate weight carrying an orchard-fruit medley along with nuances of vanilla and toasted nuts. Subtly oaked and well-balanced. Available direct, www.poplargrove.ca.
2014 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.99
Medium-bodied, with ripe fruit, disciplined and subtle oak and a happy hint of Cineplex popcorn. It's all held together by tight acidity. www.cedarcreek.bc.ca.
Flat Rock Cellars The Rusty
Shed Chardonnay 2013 (Niagara)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
Medium-full and silky, with big apple character, lemon zest and a hint of smooth caramel. Nothing flat or rusty about this shed. Available in Ontario (and featured at this year's i4C event).