Most fans of chardonnay, the world's most popular white wine, might be surprised at the taste of one of the best Ontario chardonnays I've had this year. Without a look at the label, even a trained taster might be forgiven for guessing the wine is made from another grape altogether. Normally, that sort of stylistic deviation would be considered a fault. Not in this case.
Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay Musqué 2010 ($15.95, score 92) tastes and smells just the way it should, redolent of ginger, pepper, tangerine, honeysuckle and coriander, a stark contrast to the tropical-fruit-and-vanilla profile common to chardonnay. Fresh, dry and vibrant, it would make a refreshing spring sipper on its own or with delicate fish and poultry dishes.
The qualifier in the name tells the tale: musqué. It's French for "musky" or "muscat-like," a term used to denote a clonal variant with a heady perfume. Though a full-fledged member of the chardonnay variety, musqué represents a genetic mutation. At some point in its growth cycle, a wayward vine back in time altered course. A cell failed to replicate the plant's DNA with faithful precision. No big deal; cells will do that. But in this case the berries took on a distinctive flavour, not unlike that of gewürztraminer or muscat, two especially aromatic varieties. An excited French farmer, likely several hundred years ago in Burgundy or Jura, took note and began propagating the vine separately from the rest.
As with most wine grapes, chardonnay boasts many clones. Farmers settle on one or more as much for adaptability to local growing conditions as for flavour per se. Some clones better resist mould in humid climates, others yield smaller berries and thus more concentrated wine. With the exception of two musqué clones, however, chardonnay tends to taste pretty much like, well, chardonnay, a relatively neutral variety that provides an ideal canvas for the smooth vanilla character imparted by oak-barrel aging.
"We remember our customers saying, 'Whoa, what is this?' " Angelo Pavan, Cave Spring's winemaker and founding partner, says of the wine. "It throws them. It stuns them."
Pavan, the first in Niagara to vinify musqué as a separate wine, recalls the fateful mistake in the 1980s that gave rise to a style that has since become a Canadian signature. His partner, Leonard Pennachetti, had been sampling grapes from a small plot of vines sourced from Paul Bosc Sr., chairman and founder of Château des Charmes. Unbeknown to Pennachetti, Bosc had been experimenting with a French musqué clone as part of his pioneering clonal-research program. Pennachetti thought he had acquired a more mainstream clone, hence his wide-eyed jaunt back to the winery to report his discovery to Pavan. The pair decided to vinify the plot as a separate wine.
Ironically, Bosc's own research with that particular clone, technically known as 77, eventually caused him to conclude it was insufficiently hardy to overwinter with success in Niagara. This prompted him to begin experiments with another musqué clone, 809, which yielded more favourable results. After years of blending 809 with other chardonnay fruit, Château des Charmes began bottling it as a separate wine in 2002. It is excellent. The currently available 2010 vintage took home the gold medal at the 2012 Ontario Wine Awards, competing against all other chardonnays – not just musqués – in the unoaked category.
Though French in origin, chardonnay musqué is virtually unknown as a wine in France. When 77 and 809 became commercially available on a wide scale through French nurseries in the 1970s, "people there were not that interested in going to something new," Bosc says. In other words, why mess with success? But Niagara had yet to find its footing with tender French varieties, and a climate of experimentation prevailed.
"The French nurseries were delighted when I showed so much interest in their clones," says Bosc, who had managed a large winery in Algeria and whose family started in the wine business generations ago in Alsace. "Here we like to take risks. We take chances."
Jim Willwerth, senior staff scientist in viticulture at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in St. Catharines, Ont., says our climate is well suited to yielding high concentrations of monoterpenes, the compounds responsible for the floral-spicy characters of musqué that might otherwise bake away in the heat of California, Chile or Australia.
Today one can find chardonnay musqués made by a host of wineries in Ontario and British Columbia, including Tawse, Vineland, Pentâge, Blasted Church, Hernder, Cornerstone and Malivoire (the latter with a gently spritzy, slightly sweet offering). Still others have begun mixing musqué clones with such varieties as riesling, muscat, gewürztraminer, pinot gris and viognier to craft captivating aromatic blends. Among them: Creekside Laura's White, 13th Street White Palette, Fielding Fireside White and Family Tree white by Henry of Pelham.
It's a fruitful evolution for a vine rooted in a mistake.