My takeaways from the 2016 School of Cool

"Summer School? That used to be a penalty for slacking off during the year. But if you are a wine enthusiast, the School of Cool is a summer school you won't want to miss — this school is very cool indeed!"

If you keep up with the Ontario wine scene, you may be aware of, and sometimes attend, the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) in Niagara. This is a weekend of seminars, tastings, lunches and dinners, devoted to the interest, diversity, excitement and deliciousness of Chardonnay, with representatives from all corners of the wine world.

This year, the restrictions on my personal wine budget didn’t allow for the hotels and entrance fees to attend the full weekend. But I was privileged to join a group of Toronto sommeliers on the “magic bus”, that whisked us down and back from Toronto for Friday’s School of Cool seminar. I’ve attended many of them over the years, and have found that Friday’s School is usually the most interesting (if not the most vinous) event of the weekend.

Ian D'Agata_i4C facebook gallery
Ian D’Agata, courtesy of I4C’s Facebook gallery

The format is simple: a keynote speaker, this year Italian-Canadian wine writer Ian D’Agata, opened the conference, followed by a series of panel discussions on predetermined topics, chaired and directed by John Szabo MS. As in many wine-related discussions, we often get more questions raised than answers, but that’s part of the fun.

What is a cool climate?

As always, the questions of “What is a cool climate?” and the subsequent “what is cool climate Chardonnay?” infused the discussions, whether or not it was an official topic. And of course there was the ongoing and inevitable joke, that i4C takes place on the warmest, most humid weekend of the summer!

In his keynote address, Ian D’Agata discussed the difficulty of defining a cool climate, although we can point to clear examples such as Trentino-Alto Adige in northern Italy and of course Chablis, while others mentioned Champagne and the Loire. We can also point to regions that clearly aren’t cool — it’s all those in between the extremes that are difficult to characterize.

My favourite “practical” definition was offered by John Belsham, the winemaker from Foxes Island, near Auckland, New Zealand. As part of a panel discussing the ageability of Chardonnay, he suggested that truly premium (and ageworthy) Chardonnay “… can only be produced from grapes that are fully ripened …. relatively slowly, and in cool and dry conditions.” His practical definition is that appropriate “cool climate” conditions are found in regions where early-ripening varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir can fully ripen, but where none of the Bordeaux varieties can do so. That’s certainly direct, and has a certain satisfying simplicity — at least if you aren’t a winegrower in a relatively cool climate who is determined to ripen Bordeaux varieties, come hell or high water!

Digging deeper into cool

John Szabo MS
John Szabo MS

John Szabo struck a chord with me as he discussed a framework that attempts to objectively measure (or perhaps a better word is model) local climates. This is the work of John Gladstones, in his important and well-regarded book Wine, Terroir and Climate Change (Wakefield Press, Kent Town South Australia, 2011 – available as an e-book/pdf direct from the publisher, and abbreviated below as WTCC).

Gladstones states that temperature, not light, is the primary factor that governs vine phenology, that is, “the vine’s rate of physiological development through budbreak to flowering, setting, veraison, and finally fruit ripeness”. (WTCC p. 5)   Gladstones builds on the traditional concept of growing degree days, to quantify the growing season for regions or vineyards by adding in factors such as latitude, altitude, slope and inclination to the sun, soil type and drainage, and the impact of nearby bodies of water. This kind of precision would usefully quantify the relative “coolness” of various areas or regions, and in particular which grape varieties can achieve phenological ripeness in a particular environment.

Characterizing cool climate wines

As we know, different temperatures and temperature patterns shape the character of wines. As Gladstones says,

Lower temperatures, while reducing flavourant and pigment formation, help to retain the more volatile aromatics. Low ripening temperatures, combined with high relative humidities …. also lead to flavour ripening at low sugar contents and therefore low wine alcohol contents, together with relatively high natural acids as appropriate to coolclimate (sic) wine styles. (WTCC p. 20)

This is pretty much the technical version of Ian D’Agata’s “hallmarks” of cool climate Chardonnay: “high acidity, or certainly high perceived acidity … a certain crispness, freshness and vibrancy … a minerality … and a lightness of being.”

Circling back to the vineyard: theory meets practice

The first panel, entitled “To Pick or Not to Pick: Harvest timing and implications”, tied together two very different thoughts, laid over the background tasting of six distinctly different wines. On the one hand, Norman Hardie (Prince Edward County and Niagara), and Nigel Sowman (Dog Point Vineyard, Marlborough) spoke eloquently of how the characteristics of vineyard sites shape the growth and development, and hence ripeness and character of the grapes.

But I believe that all the panelists agreed that the picking decision was determined by the winegrower and the style she is aiming for. As Ian D’Agata pointed out, “clearly cool climate conditions alone don’t necessarily guarantee wines in a recognizable cool climate style, or even good wines for that matter”. The winegrower still has a great deal of control, for better or for worse.

One of the panels hard at work
One of the panels hard at work

The school IS cool

I’ve just touched on a few of the points that resonated with me at the seminar. But the great thing is that I usually come away with several issues to think about and research — reminding me of the need to keep reading and learning. In addition to the kickstart getting me back to the Gladstones book that I’ve set aside for some time, the elegant discussion by Jean-Benoit Deslauriers (Benjamine Bridge, Nova Scotia) on the role of low pH in aging wine started to make some connections for me, and bears further reading. Yes, the school IS cool.

Santé

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