As a devotee of Chablis, which I would nominate as my desert-island wine if desert islands had fridges, I am impulsively drawn to any chardonnay that bills itself as "cool." Chablis, the northernmost district of Burgundy, is the quintessence of cool-climate chardonnay, known for producing the most compellingly crisp, lean, electrically charged interpretations of the world's most popular white grape.
That's what coolness does. It preserves acidity and mineral-like verve while permitting grapes to mature slowly, with not just sugar but also full physiological ripeness, delivering subtly complex flavours along the way. On the chardonnay flavour spectrum, Chablis – which generally sees little or no new-barrel contact – is the opposite of the plump oak-bomb style more typical of warm climates and uninteresting restaurant wine lists. Think of a crunchy green apple versus a grilled slice of pineapple topped with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.
But there is a rising tide of chardonnay out there laughably posing as cool. I've noticed a spike in the rhetoric even since last year, when I last wrote about the stylistic dichotomy on the occasion of the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, a three-day festival that's become the Niagara Peninsula's biggest and best party.
Cool is in, as you might have guessed if you're a regular reader of back labels or if you follow wine trends. Three months ago, the Emmy-winning American wine personality Leslie Sbrocco hosted a master class in Toronto titled "Cool Climate Chardonnay – California Style" hosted by a California-wine trade group. "Cool climate is the hot phrase when it comes to California Chardonnay," she stated in a press release.
In other words, cool has become sophisticated. It's the way of the future, especially in the face of global warming, which many winemakers say has been ratcheting up sugar and alcohol levels to unfavourable extremes in some regions. Sweet oak bombs, by contrast, are increasingly considered déclassé, the Double Down burgers of white wine.
Yet generally when I see the words "cool climate" on the back label of a 14.5-per-cent-alcohol, oak-matured California chardonnay, I smell something fishy even before I pop the cork. Almost invariably, one syrupy sip verifies my suspicion: It could not be further from Chablis than if it had been grown on Venus. To borrow a term from today's cultural-theory discourse, many winemakers, not least in California, are guilty of coolness appropriation.
Yes, high altitudes and ocean breezes can bring chilly discipline to otherwise balmy, sun-drenched vineyards. But such effects are often obliterated with winery tricks (special yeasts and the like) by producers wisely convinced that many consumers like to talk dry while drinking sweet. Conversely, as I've noted in the past, winemakers in bona fide frigid climates can choose to harvest late and slap sweet chardonnays with heavy oak to yield liquids that could easily be mistaken for something out of the hottest pockets of Napa Valley in the 1990s.
It's all relative in the end. Too often, "cool-climate" wines bear scant resemblance to the sort of profile most of us actually intend by the term (paging Chablis!), at least those of us regularly exposed to wines from such regions as Northern France, Niagara, Prince Edward County, New York state and New Zealand. They might be very good wines, don't get me wrong, but they simply don't pass the acid (or mineral) test. And that's not cool.
Most selections below will be poured at various events at this year's International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, which takes place July 21 to 23 and features a keynote address by California-based Karen MacNeil, one of the world's most distinguished wine educators and author of the excellent book The Wine Bible. Check www.coolchardonnay.org for tickets and event information. Some wines are available in stores as noted.
Domaine Laroche Les Vaudevey Chablis 1er Cru 2014, France
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $38.95
Medium-full-bodied and wonderfully complex in that whispering way of Chablis. Great tension and leesy depth of flavour, with notes of apple, nuts and citrus. It's like a fine Champagne, only without the froth, and in this case the bubbles would have just gotten in the way. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Stratus Chardonnay 2014, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $48
Full, silky and generous. Tastes a lot more like a fine Californian chardonnay or oaky Meursault than Chablis, with notes of butter, pineapple and toasted nuts. Expertly balanced, with ample acidity standing up to all that lusciousness. Available at the winery and direct through www.stratuswines.com.
Sperling Vineyards Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26
From cool East Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, this is grown on the home ranch of Ann Sperling, the director of wine-making and viticulture at Niagara's Southbrook Vineyards. It's medium-bodied, tight and tense with acidity, just enough to accentuate the apple-, pear– and peach-like fruit. There's but a whisper of oak in the mix, evidence of the expert's hand in the cellar. Genuinely cool chardonnay. Available direct through www.sperlingvineyards.com.
Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2016, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
All over southern Australia these days winemakers are clamouring to find elevated sites to capture more vibrant flavours than has been the norm in that country. They should all move to Margaret River in the remote west, where coolness is easy to come by. Here's an impressive example from a terrific producer, registering just 12.5– per-cent alcohol (how un-Australian!). It's got lemon-lime zestiness, apple and, remarkably for a ripe chardonnay, a suggestion of herbs. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.
Trail Estate Chardonnay Unfiltered 2015, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $32
The winery is located in Prince Edward County, a couple of hours east of Toronto, but the fruit in this cuvée comes from Niagara. Medium-bodied and instantly crunchy with solid acidity. Deftly oaked. The subtle wood never gets in the way of the fresh apple-pear fruitiness, which is supported by nuances of pastry dough and toast. The residual sugar is a scant 2 grams per litre and alcohol level just 12.2 per cent. Classically cool-climate chardonnay. Available direct through www.trailestate.com.
Invivo Chardonnay 2016, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.15
Medium-bodied and juicy, with a bright profile of green apple, melon, tropical fruit and grassy herbs as well as whispers of vanilla and smoke. Available in Ontario at the above price.
Mer Soleil Reserve Chardonnay 2015, California
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $34.95
This comes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, an elevated region above the Salinas River valley that enjoys cool breezes from Monterey Bay. Despite the climate, which is cool by California standards, the wine managed to achieve a formidable 14.9-per-cent alcohol. More than a year in oak delivered added volume and texture as well as a caramel note to the sweet-tasting, syrupy-peach fruit. A crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but to me it tastes more like old-school California than new-age "cool." Available at the above price in Ontario (on sale for $29.95 until July 16), $33.99 in British Columbia ($29.99 until July 29), various prices in Alberta, $39.03 in Saskatchewan, $33.35 in Quebec, $39.30 in Nova Scotia.
Rodney Strong Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014, California
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $29.95
This hails from the Sonoma Coast, a cool enclave, at least by California-vineyard standards. But if this is cool-climate chardonnay, I wonder what they call run-of-the-mill chardonnay in California. Pancake syrup? Described as "zesty" and "lively" by panelists of a major U.S. tasting competition, the wine weighs in at 14.5-per-cent alcohol and, yikes, 11 grams per litre of residual sugar. Expect a thick texture and rich flavours of sweet tropical fruit, butter and caramel. Chablis it's not. Available in Ontario at the above price.