If merlot, the smooth red frequently maligned as banal by connoisseurs, has a white-wine counterpart in the arena of pompous derision, surely it is chardonnay. Years ago there arose an initialism for the contempt: ABC. It stands for "anything but chardonnay," as in "Bartender, I'll have ABC."
Many people had grown weary of the variety because of the tendency among producers, notably in Australia, California and Chile, to drive up sugar levels and pummel the grape with excessive time in new, heavily charred oak barrels. Too often the result tasted like vanilla extract crossed with 1970s wood panelling. If great wine is made in the vineyard, as they say, "chardonnay" was seen as the consummate anti-terroir wine, a manufactured product that might as well have come from one of those artificial-flavouring labs in New Jersey.
The tide has been turning, however. There has been growing interest in the generally more delicate, crisper style of chardonnay that is the hallmark of brisker climates. That's the subtext of a laudable new annual summit in Niagara called the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, whose 2013 edition is taking place this weekend at various locations. Higher latitudes, higher ground and even a regular morning fog prevent chardonnay from getting fat and lazy. The grapes retain more acidity, which imparts backbone and verve. I would argue the wine also develops a more naturally complex, harmonious profile, the sort that discourages winemakers from resorting to the mask of heavy oak.
Sixty-four producers from around the world, including New Zealand, Oregon, Argentina and Burgundy, have descended on the peninsula to display their wares at public tastings, open-air dinners and technical seminars. The i4C, as it has been dubbed, has also begun to have a welcome collateral effect for Canada, drawing international attention to the country as a source of elegant, world-class chardonnay. If cool chardonnay is in, the land of parkas and snow tires at least bears a look-see, n'est-ce pas? Here's a cool little tour of new releases.
Closson Chase Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Give me this over most California chardonnays at its price any day. From Prince Edward County, it's full-bodied, silky and round, with a seamless texture carrying delectably ripe tropical fruit dolloped with butter and framed by mouthwatering acidity. Find it through www.clossonchase.com.
Bachelder Wismer Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $44.95
Originally from Quebec, Thomas Bachelder trained in Burgundy and eventually landed in Niagara, where he helped get Le Clos Jordanne off to a flying start as viticulture manager. He now makes wine under his own name in three cool-climate regions: Niagara, Oregon and Burgundy. This effort from Ontario's sunny 2010 vintage shines with ripe pineapple topped with cream, toffee and vanilla. There is substantial oak here, but it's impressively integrated, not woody at all. Marvellous. Visit www.thomasbachelder.com.
Château Génot-Boulanger Clos du Cromin Meursault 2010 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
The rich style of Meursault, a district in Burgundy, is in evidence here. It's medium-full-bodied, with a buttery core carrying hints of candied fruit, vanilla and roasted nuts, dusted with spice and framed by vibrant acidity. Excellent balance. Available in Ontario.
Billaud-Simon Les Vaillons Chablis 1er Cru 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $35.95
Chablis, the northernmost district of Burgundy, represents the quintessence of cool-climate chardonnay (unless you count sparkling Champagne, which arguably enjoys equal billing). This one exhibits that rare nutty tang that I adore, plus hints of butter and salt on a texture that starts soft and ends with bracing tang. Available in Ontario.
Domaine de la Motte Chablis Cuvée Vieilles Vignes 2011 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Vieilles vignes: It means old vines. And it usually means more concentrated flavour. This mid-weight, crisp Chablis bargain doles out plenty of juicy citrus and apple flavour infused with nuances of smoke and mineral. Splendid stuff. Available in Ontario.
Nautilus Chardonnay 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Mango, baked apple and stone come together in this medium-full-bodied effort from the Marlborough region better known for sauvignon blanc. Barrel-fermented and aged on the spent yeast cells known as lees has imparted a creamy richness and smoky tang. It proves that chardonnay can be luscious and lively at the same time. Available in Ontario.
Poplar Grove Chardonnay 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22
I've tweeted about this and mentioned it in my email newsletter, but it bears repeating. Silky and rich, yet with perfect acidity. Get it through www.poplargrove.ca.
Chateau des Charmes Chardonnay Musqué 2010 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
Decades ago, Paul Bosc Sr., Château des Charmes's chairman and founder, imported a little-known French clone of the chardonnay vine, one with an unusually spicy-floral character. It's called musqué, meaning "musky" or "muscat-like." The vine and the wine (also made by other estates) have since become a Niagara signature. This 2010 shows a pretty, entirely unoaked side of chardonnay, with medium body and notes of apple, spice and grapefruit zest. Available through www.chateaudescharmes.com.
Domaine Guerrin & Fils Saint-Véran Le Clos Vessats 2011 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $22.95
Down in southern Burgundy, the low-profile Saint-Véran appellation is something of a thrift store for seekers of fine French chardonnay. Medium-bodied, ripe with pear and apple flavours, this one does the trick. Aged in stainless steel for nine months, it's poised and precise. Available in Ontario.
Thomas Goss Chardonnay 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
The myth that Australian vineyards sit on a monolithic expanse of torridly hot terrain persists, sadly. More so than in California, producers have been taking their chardonnay to higher ground where the air is crisp, as in portions of the Adelaide hills, from whence this wine springs. Medium-bodied and lively, this fragrant example suggests flavours of orange, pineapple and lime. It's aged mainly in stainless steel, with 15 per cent in new French barrels for six months. Your standard oaky Aussie chardonnay it's not.