Wednesday, October 13, 2010

BC VS Ontario - Chardonnay

In our BC VS. Ontario series we are looking to showcase the differences and uniqueness of Canada's two main wine producing Provinces. In this article we look at Chardonnay which grows well on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and in the many different climates of the long Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. The aim is not competition but rather an exploration on what makes the wines produced both different and similar. We've selected two Chardonnays from each region that show the styles :

Hidden Bench Estate Winery 2008 Chardonnay - $32
Chateau des Charmes 2006 Paul Bosc Vineyard Chardonnay - $22

Okanagan Valley:
JoieFarm 2008 Reserve Chardonnay - $30
Mission Hill 2007 Perpetua - $33

The Niagara Peninsula may offer the terroir in Canada that resembles Chardonnay's famous ancestrial home, Burgundy, the closest. It may be to no one's surprise then that the best Chardonnay produced here are Burgundian in character: elegant, austere and age worthy.

As with Pinot Noir, its Burgundy cousin, Chardonnay loves warms days and cool nights making the Niagara Peninsula a natural fit for the grape. The temperature on the peninsula is regulated by the two Great Lakes which form its Northern and Southern borders; Ontario and Erie. The best plots for Chardonnay depend on the style of wine the winery wants to produce - or, the wineries let the terroir dictate the style. Vineyards inland from lake Ontario, right up against the Niagara Escarpment, like Chateau des Charmes, tend to be warmer than vineyards closer to Lake Ontario, like Hidden Bench, where the hot Ontario summer is cooled by winds coming from the lake.

The other similarity to Burgundy is that most Niagara Peninsula wineries produce single vineyard Chardonnay (many produce more than one) which showcase the terroir of a specific site, offering unique tastes and characters. The practise of identifying and cataloging the unique qualities of each plot of land took Burgundian monks centuries to perfect which means any similar work done on the Niagara Peninsula will pale in comparison - but the effort is being made.

Oak programs ranging from 100% new French oak to older wood and even Canadian oak are implemented on the Peninsula and varry greatly from winery to winery with many fine un-oaked Chardonnays being produced as well.

The Hidden Bench 2008 Estate Chardonnay is an example of the blending that does occur on the Peninsula when constructing a house style. The winery produces two single vineyard Chardonnay as well.
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Chateau des Charmes produces two single vineyard Chardonnays and when tasted side-by-side one can taste the difference between the terroir that produces the juice. The Paul Bosc Vineyard is closer to the lake than the home St. David's Bench Vineyard and has a slightly cooler microclimate. The resulting wine, the 2006 Paul Bosc Vineyard Chardonnay, is the more masculine of the two with austere mineral qualities.
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The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia produces a range of Chardonnay styles from light and fragrant to serious and oaky. The practise of showcasing terroir is strong in BC but does not always conform to the Burgundian notion of a single plot of land. Many BC wineries are still in the long process of experimenting with their vineyards, learning what to plant (or re-plant) in the best sites. When their own plantings do not suffice they will source the fruit they need from the many grape farmers throughout the valley. The best examples of this practise are still able to create a blend that accurately represents the unique characteristics of the Okanagan. In contrast, many blended BC Chardonnays fall short and the consumer is simply left with a basic, albeit sometimes well made, but otherwise uninspired single varietal wine that does not speak to its place or even vintage.

Fairly new to BC, there is a growing trend towards producing single vineyard Chardonnay. They are few and far between today and have a long way to go to catch up the the terroir specific releases so common in Niagara.

The JoieFarm 2008 Reserve Chardonnay is produced from grapes sourced from many different sites in the Okanagan valley, this is an excellent example of the top blended Chardonnay that BC has to offer.
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The Mission Hill Estate Winery 2007 Perpetua is produced from grapes grown exclusively in their Osoyoos vineyard. The Perpetua has excellent fruit intensity and flavour complexity which balances well with the acidity and creates a lovely, long finish.
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Seek out these four wines, or similar wines, and do your own comparison. You may find you prefer one style to the other or maybe you'll enjoy them all for their differences. Due to Canada's archaic liquor laws and feuding Provincial liquor board monopolies, this may be hard to do. Fine restaurants and social media are good resources to source hard-to-get wines in your corner of the world.
- Liam Carrier ©copyright 2010

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