Eating & Drinking

TASTING NOTES: Ontario’s top chardonnays take Manhattan

By David Lawrason

In an office tower above Times Square this past spring, a wide-ranging selection of Canadian chardonnays was poured for the assembled wine press and pundits of New York City. It was all part of a promotional expedition by Canadian vintners called Seriously Cool, the follow-up to a similar exercise in 2010 at the London Wine Fair, where our wines were a hit with surprised Brits who were barely aware that Ontario made chardonnay, let alone top-notch wines that resemble white burgundy.

Ontario’s generally coolish climate and the limestone-based soils that rim Lake Ontario in Niagara and Prince Edward County echo the terroir of France’s great chardonnay region. Local observers have been aware of this for over 20 years, and now, as Ontario’s vineyards mature and winemakers gain more experience, the quality and body of good work is exploding. In January, 100 Canadian chardonnays (including a handful from B.C.) were poured blind for Ontario pundits in a screening exercise to decide which would go to New York.

Fifty-four wines earned a ticket, almost half of them from Ontario’s 2008 vintage — a cool year that sewed in the acidity to complement the minerality that is a signature in Ontario. Almost 65 percent of the 2008s made it through. From the riper, softer 2007 wines, nine of 17 got the thumbs-up, while the 2009s mustered only seven passes out of 24 entries, perhaps because many showed some youthful awkwardness. Several older “library” vintages and a pair of sparkling chardonnays are also making the trip.

There was no requirement that the wines be currently available to consumers in Ontario, but I have selected some of the most exciting New York-bound wines that are available at Vintages or by ordering from the wineries. The average price of the wines is about $35, which may sound outrageous, but please consider that this is also the average price of lower-end white burgundy, and the quality is generally on par. It may be shocking to think that Ontario can be, and should be, playing in this sandbox, but Mother Nature has dealt us the wherewithal.

Closson Chase 2008 Chardonnay
$34.95 • Prince Edward County • 91 points
Winemaker Deborah Paskus is an Ontario chardonnay specialist making County and Niagara versions. Three of her wines are bound for New York. This is a full-on, rich yet vibrant chardonnay with full extraction and layers of flavour driven by low-yield fruit and long aging in new French oak barrels. Look for toasty peat smoke, caramel, and peach pie aromas. Length is excellent. Very impressive.

Exultet Estates 2009 Chardonnay
$35 • Prince Edward County • 90 points
A new star is born. The debut vintage from Gerry and Lia Spinosa’s vineyard near Milford in the County’s deep south shows a very classy, fragrant nose of nectarine, butterscotch, and generous oak smoke and spice. It’s mid-weight, elegant, and almost silky smooth, with a sweet attack, then a tart, mineral, very spicy, and slightly hot finish. Excellent length.

Huff 2008 South Bay Chardonnay
$29.95 • Prince Edward County • 89 points
This is a worthy successor to the 2007 that was named Ontario’s White Wine of the Year at the 2010 Ontario Wine Awards. It’s a sleek, slim, elegant chardonnay with lifted aromas of toast, almond, cedar, and lemony fruit. There is a touch of sweetness, but the finish is lean, mineral, and lemony, with very good length.

Norman Hardie 2008 County Chardonnay
$35 • Prince Edward County • 89 points
Norm Hardie is out to capture classic burgundian edgy minerality in Prince Edward County’s limestone-laden soils. The nose is very lifted and toasty, with a sulphur-related flintiness common in old-school burgundy. It also has almond, butterscotch, and dried apple fruit. It’s light-to-mid-weight, smooth yet tense, with mouth-watering stoniness. Excellent length. Best now to 2017. Vintages 184432.

Casa-Dea 2009 Chardonnay
$15.95 • Prince Edward County • 86 points
Only five unoaked chardonnays are making the trip to New York. This particular example shows the County’s ability to make fresh, stony, chablis-like whites. There is a hint of mint on the nose, along with mild, well-meshed apple, mineral, and citrus flavours. Very good length and good value.


Tawse 2008 Robyn’s Block Vineyard Chardonnay
$45 • Twenty mile Bench • 93 points
This was Canada’s White Wine of the Year at the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. Sourced from a 28-year-old biodynamically farmed vineyard named for owner Moray Tawse’s daughter, it is a masterpiece of well-integrated pear fruit, toasty almond barrel notes, and mineral complexity. It has penetrating acidity, firm structure, and outstanding length. Should age a decade or more.

Hidden Bench 2008 Estate Chardonnay
$32 • Beamsville Bench • 91 points
This is the first and least expensive of three Hidden Bench 2008s being released this year.  Owner Harald Thiel believes in aging wine longer in the bottle at the winery. This is ready to drink — a powerful, rollicking golden wine with flavours of crème brûlée, toast, cashew, peach, and tangerine nuances. It’s lush, creamy, and rich, underpinned by firm acidity, with a nutty, slightly bitter finish.

Southbrook Poetica 2007
$50 • Niagara-on-the-Lake • 91 points
Southbrook’s Poetica series features original works by leading Canadian poets, providing them a new audience and a dinner-table stage for their work. The wine is huge, with an opulent nose of cashew, peanut, peach cobbler, and vanilla fudge. It’s powerful, rich, and vibrant — almost austere and excruciating in its very presence. or

Le Clos Jordanne 2008 Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Chardonnay
$40 • Twenty Mile Bench • 89 points
Le Clos Jordanne was founded as a Burgundy/Niagara joint venture specializing in chardonnay and pinot noir. This wine pours a deep yellow-gold. The nose is intense with nutty, spicy, pine needle, butterscotch, and pear/peach fruit. It’s medium-to-full-bodied, tart, and angular, with butterscotch sweetness. Excellent length. Vintages 33910.

Scores: David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality. A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 86 to 89 very good; 80 to 85 good.