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The International Cool Climate Chardonnay Festival is in it’s third year and takes place over just a couple of days in the heart of the Niagara wine region in Ontario, and showcases some of the top producers of said grape from around the world – with, of course, a healthy dose of Ontario represented. For a rather inaugural festival, the number of attendees was already up to about 350 people, and the event had already outgrown its first venue. Not only is this festival attracting top producers such as Taittinger Champagne and Hamilton Russell (South Africa), it also attracts wine personalities such as Matt Kramer (of Wine Spectator). Friday’s “School of Cool” Seminar was actually 3 separate mini sessions which are focused on specific aspects of chardonnay (climate, minerality, and to my delight, sparkling). And the way the organizers set up the panels was brilliant. Not only were some of the producers whose wine was being showcased, but it also included wine writers or personalities and was moderated by John Szabo, Canada’s first and only Master Sommelier. But what stood out for me was that the panels also included scientists or professors from one of the winemaking schools in the region. What a great thing to have that perspective offered. It may have been one of the top 3 things I enjoyed about the I4C.
The other 2 things in my top 3?
- That over the 3 events I attended, there was nothing but the featured grape poured. Yes, there were a few blends (especially as champagne was featured), but there was not a cabernet sauvignon or sauvignon blanc in attendance. The palate will get tired when you’re at one of these types of festivals, but with such laser focus, it was an amazing opportunity to really focus how one varietal can showcase such different characteristics depending on region, producer, and vintage.
- Henry of Pelham Winery were my hosts for the 4 days I was touring the region and they were incredibly gracious hosts. The team had their hands full with 6 suppliers (aka winery principals or brand export directors) in town as well as a full guest house of Albertans, but we were never made to feel like an obligation. We rubbed elbows and broke bread with some pretty amazing wine people. If I do the quick math (and I’m terrible at math), there was at least 30 generations of wine families present. For a cork dork like me, I was in heaven.
The riddling racks allow the dead yeast cells to settle in the neck of the bottle where it is later removed by a process called disgorgement. If you look closely at the necks of the bottles towards the bottom of the rack, they are a bit easier to see.
The i4C also had 2 evening events – there was a bonfire and BBQ held at one of the wineries, which was really laid back and a lot of fun. There was no ‘stuffiness’ nor was it overly pretentious. There were literally just open bottles of chardonnay on barrels around the party area, a stellar pig roast, and a bluegrass band to entertain us. Saturday night was a family style dinner held at the grounds of a college in St Catherines, and was catered by a nearby cooking school. I’m not sure if it was because I was sitting with Clovis Taittinger and the Speck brothers (I feel I should mention their wives as well, there were a lot of laughs at the table!), or if it was the beautiful summer evening, or maybe even the chardonnay, but again, the quality of the event was outstanding.
Since I have been back, I have been singing the praises of the festival and Niagara in general. We’re very lucky in Alberta to be so close to the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys that are producing top notch wines these days, but it’s important to remember that Ontario is slightly more established, and their wines are slightly different in style than British Columbia. The riesling, gamay noir, cabernet franc, and yes, of course, chardonnay are wines that should not be forgotten about. Some notable wineries to try when you get a chance are: Henry of Pelham, Trius, Stratus, Chateau des Charmes.
France had a lot to live up to.
Tara Smith is Sherbrooke’s wine & spirits purchaser and also manages to ‘get around’ (town, that is) drinking wine, whisk(e)y, and occasionally even beer while promoting Sherbrooke’s brand.