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Cel­e­brat­ing all things Chardon­nay this week­end in Ni­a­gara

When kale needed an image makeover, in­dus­try reps hired a trendy New York PR firm to make the leafy green the new black.

When Chardon­nay needed a brand over­haul, the wine gods tapped six Ni­a­gara wine­mak­ers with deep rolodexes to work some magic.

Seven years later, the wine once plagued by the ABC move­ment — any­thing but chardon­nay — is cool thanks to them. So cool that vint­ners from around the world, oenophiles and the cu­ri­ous will gather this week­end in Ni­a­gara to raise a glass or sev­eral to this once-ma­ligned grape at the In­ter­na­tional Cool Cli­mate Chardon­nay Cel­e­bra­tion (i4C for short).

It’s the sixth and big­gest edi­tion of this an­nual event, run­ning Fri­day through Sun­day (July 22 to 24). The lineup run­neth over with vine­yard tours, tu­to­ri­als about what makes Chardon­nay great (hint: grow­ing in cool climes like Ni­a­gara helps), and white linen feasts fea­tur­ing the best of wine coun­try cui­sine and 159 vin­tages from 61 wine­mak­ers around the world.

“It’s the only event where On­tario and Cana­dian wines are pre­sented along­side in­ter­na­tional wines right here in the heart of Ni­a­gara wine coun­try, with a great amount of ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence and col­le­gial­ity,” said Suzanne Janke, chair of this year’s event. “It’s so well-rounded. It’s not just a trade event. It’s not just a con­sumer event. It’s a great as­sem­blage (of events).”

But it took a great deal of risk and call­ing in favours to make i4C hap­pen in 2010 when it first launched.

Its ge­n­e­sis can be traced to the back­yard of wine­maker Thomas Bachelder. He and five vint­ner friends gath­ered in 2009 to toast a lo­cal Chardon­nay that trumped its Bur­gun­dian and Cal­i­for­nian coun­ter­parts in a blind taste test at the pres­ti­gious Cel­lier Wine Awards in Mon­treal.

It was a huge win for Ni­a­gara and for Chardon­nay, both of which were sad­dled with less than stel­lar rep­u­ta­tions in the wine world.

Ni­a­gara was still bad­gered by its plonk-stained past filled with Baby Duck and other cloy­ing con­coc­tions that de­fined early wine­mak­ing in the re­gion. Chardon­nay, of­ten over­whelmed by oak and over­the-top wine­mak­ing in those warm cli­mate re­gions, was be­ing dis­missed by those ABC’ers.

Both were in need of a few cheer­lead­ers who knew bet­ter. Those at that back­yard party con­ceived of an even big­ger cel­e­bra­tion to show­case how the most widely planted grape in On­tario could shine when grown in mod­er­ate cli­mates in­flu­enced by al­ti­tude, lat­i­tude, large bod­ies of wa­ter and other fac­tors.

“Our wines were be­ing so well­re­ceived in­ter­na­tion­ally but at home, peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Well, I’m not go­ing to pay that much for On­tario wine,’” said Har­ald Thiel, one of the six wine­mak­ers and pro­pri­etor of Hid­den Bench Vine­yards and Win­ery in Beamsville. “The point was to show we can make great Chardon­nay. Year in, year out, we make great Chardon­nay.”

Thiel and crew reached out to their con­tacts, who in turn reached out to theirs to join in “re­in­stat­ing the dig­nity of Chardon­nay” and cre­at­ing a flag­ship event with an in­ter­na­tional pro­file that Ni­a­gara’s other tip­ple-fests lacked.

The fol­low­ing sum­mer some of the best cool cli­mate Chardon­nay pro­duc­ers from around the world, in­clud­ing 28 from On­tario, poured their vin­tages at Ni­a­gara winer­ies. The event, which high­lighted the clean, fresh char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wine, af­firmed what or­ga­niz­ers al­ways knew and con­vinced oth­ers to tear up their ABC mem­ber­ship cards.

“It was a big risk and a lot of work. It was a labour of love. We all used our con­tacts, all our friends,” Thiel re­called. “We all worked very hard to have a sig­na­ture wine event in Ni­a­gara.”

To him, Chardon­nay is one of five va­ri­etals that best re­flect Ni­a­gara ter­roir — that sense of place that shows it­self in the tastes and tex­tures of wine.

Ries­ling, Pinot Noir, Caber­net Franc and Ga­may Noir are the oth­ers. But on ac­count of the real es­tate it oc­cu­pies and its ver­sa­til­ity in the right hands, Chardon­nay gets a week­end-long affair, though this year it will share the spot­light at some i4C events with cool cli­mate reds.

“It is a cool cli­mate grape,” Thiel said. “Chardon­nay will grow any­where but when it’s grown in a cool cli­mate, it’s el­e­gant and bal­anced. When it’s grown in hot cli­mates, you get wines that are over­done. They’re big and have too much al­co­hol, and that’s what kick-started the ABC move­ment.”

As much as i4C has proven the po­ten­tial of a wine that so many loved to hate, it’s also given a boost to Ni­a­gara’s rep­u­ta­tion as a world­class wine re­gion, he said.

“In the last six years, Ni­a­gara has been on the map for its dry wines as much as its ice wines. These wine­mak­ers go away and say ‘I’ve tasted On­tario wines and they’re re­ally good.’ So when we go away to pour in Lon­don or New York, they al­ready know about us.”

And the event keeps grow­ing be­cause of what vis­it­ing wine­mak­ers see here, he added.

Ar­ron Bell, as­sis­tant wine­maker at Do­maine Drouhin Ore­gon, has wanted to re­turn to i4C since his first visit three years ago. Chardon­nay de­serves its own event, he said, and those six Ni­a­gara wine­mak­ers were “smart to start it.”

Un­til i4C, Bell’s ex­po­sure to Ni­a­gara wine had been lim­ited, and On­tario’s ex­po­sure to his wines be­yond Pinot Noir was equally nar­row.

What he loves most about the event is what it’s done for Chardon­nay, how­ever.

“There’s a lot of very good Chardon­nay made in the world in a very fruit-friendly, non-Cal­i­for­nia style,” he said.

“It was re­fresh­ing to me to see that. There are a lot of so­phis­ti­cated Chards be­ing made.”

That’s ex­actly the out­come those six wine­mak­ers en­vi­sioned when they took on the task of chang­ing Chardon­nay’s image.

“I al­ways dreamt it would be that way,” Thiel said.

“I al­ways en­vi­sioned an event to cel­e­brate Ni­a­gara. We needed to choose a va­ri­etal in­stead of hav­ing just an­other tast­ing.”

Sun­light fil­ters through Chardon­nay grapes at 13th Street Win­ery in St. Catharines.

PHO­TOS BY STEVEN ELPHICK & AS­SO­CIATES

Har­ald Thiel: “In the last six years, Ni­a­gara has been on the map for its dry wines as much as its ice wines. These wine­mak­ers go away and say ‘I’ve tasted On­tario wines and they’re re­ally good.’ So when we go away to pour in Lon­don or New York, they al­ready know about us.”

The sixth and big­gest edi­tion of this an­nual event is run­ning Fri­day through Sun­day.

From the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Cool Cli­mate Cel­e­bra­tion Cool Chardon­nay World Tour event at the Vineland Re­search and In­no­va­tion Cen­tre.

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