Chardonnay is an economically important vinifera grape grown in Ontario. In 2017, there were 11, 406 tonnes harvested, just shy of the 11,642 tonnes of Riesling. Depending on the year, it’s the number one or two white varietal. The Niagara region is preparing to host 62 wineries from 10 countries at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) July 20 – 22.
Oenophiles owe a debt of gratitude to those who have major input and impact on discovering and determining the types of wine grapes Ontario’s terroir can handle. Researchers such as Jim Willwerth, senior scientist of viticulture at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) spend hours researching (and sipping) the best Chardonnay grapes suitable for winemaking.
“There’s more and more focus on premium chard for still (non-sparkling) wines and there are different styles of Chardonnay. With the focus on some of our core viniferous varieties that (the industry) is promoting, one of them being Chardonnay, we’re trying to focus more on the best Chardonnay clones. What are the best selections of Chardonnay, looking at how they compare on different rootstock combinations and different soil types,” Willwerth explains.
The ideal characteristic of an Ontario Chardonnay grape is something other countries don’t select for: hardiness.
“Some clones of Chardonnay will have better cold tolerance than others,” says Willwerth. “We’re diving more into that type of research in terms of how they perform for wines and their fruit quality.”
Understanding leaf removal has helped to improve wine grape production. Earlier leaf removal for many varieties can reduce disease, he says, especially powdery mildew.
“You don’t want to remove too many leaves but just the right amount to expose the clusters enough to be protected with sprays. One issue with the grapes is they're extremely sensitive to powdery mildew,” says Willwerth, adding that there’s more leaf removal required for still wines than for sparkling.
With events such as i4C, Willwerth keeps his ear to the ground on what’s new and upcoming elsewhere in viticulture.
“This can lead to new research initiatives here in Ontario and new thoughts in terms of what we’re doing with chard either in the vineyard or in the winery. There’s so much diversity with Chardonnay, and by getting more exposure it helps us as researchers.”
Both Willwerth and CCOVI senior oenologist Belinda Kemp are researching honey flavours – those too sweet flavours considered faulty in wine, which Kemp says can occur in sparkling wines.
“We’re starting a project on that for the next few years to find out where it comes from and how we can manage it so it doesn’t override the other flavours,” Kemp says.
This research ties in with one of the sessions at i4C discussing the various tanks and barrels involved in wine storage and how they have an impact on flavour.
“There are more studies coming out and planned over the next few years that use Chardonnay as the grape. It’s an area of high interest – the fermentation vessels and what they bring to the wine,” she says.
Kemp lauds the ability of the winemakers and wineries in Ontario to pick up on the latest trends and the latest innovative techniques.
“They’re always willing to try new things whether it’s the winemaking or new equipment and in particular watching what’s happening within the wine-buying market in the world. They’re quick to react to the market. That creates innovative new wines that they’ve possibly not made before.”