I’m experiencing a sort of Chardonnay renaissance right now. Like so many people, I had soured on the grape after a couple of initial bad experiences with cheap, gloppy, steroidally-oaked monsters that led me to believe that Chard was overrated and undeservedly well-known, the sellout of the white grape family. This, it turns out, is a tragically limited worldview that illustrates the dangers of drawing conclusions based on a small sample size; the problem wasn’t actually that I didn’t like Chardonnay (which is responsible for some of the best, most acclaimed and most expensive white wines in the world), but that I didn’t like bad Chardonnay (which, thankfully, isn’t a problem at all). I have started to distance myself from this rough start with the grape, and despite my previously-ingrained bias, I’ve been noticing that almost every single Chardonnay I’ve had recently has been, well, good. The oak-and-alcohol-bomb style previously so rampant throughout the New World is starting to recede, and the current movement in the world of Chardonnay seems to be more geared toward balance and allowing the flavours of the actual grape (rather than only the barrel it was aged in) to express themselves. This is a positive development for the Canadian wine industry, as this grape probably does its best work in cooler climates, retaining the structure that can be so easily lost in warmer zones yet still ripening even in shorter, colder growing seasons. I was therefore quite surprised during my recent trip to the Okanagan when one winery owner told me that they would be reining back their production of Chardonnay in favour of other white varietals — they made a tremendous, restrained yet flavourful Chard, but they were turning away from it because they thought that Pinot Gris could outsell it 5 to 1. My newfound appreciation for the world’s best-known white grape must have hit me then, because my first immediate thought was: “Has everybody gone nuts?”
Perhaps it was as a miniature resistance to this modern movement against Chardonnay (which I was fully part of a year or so ago) that I made sure to buy a bottle of Chard at Painted Rock Estate Winery, located 10 minutes south of Penticton on the eastern shores of Skaha Lake. The first thing I noticed upon pulling up to Painted Rock was that it might have found the ideal location for growing wine grapes in Canada: up on a plateau, fully exposed and sloping gently westward (all of which allow the grapevines to get as much sun as possible); bordering a large body of water (which moderates temperature); and just outside of the hottest part of the Okanagan (providing the heat needed for ripening). Actually, all of that was the second thing I noticed when I got to PR: the first thing was that it had the smallest tasting room I had ever seen. It looked like a luxury outhouse, standing alone and seeming particularly puny as the only structure up on the bluff, surrounded by space. (And yet, despite its questionable appearance, it was the only tasting room I went to where the reds were all temperature-controlled — I’m all for forgetting the fancy stuff and focusing on what’s important!) Painted Rock is the new darling of the Canadian wine scene, a recent addition to the industry that has met with both critical acclaim and significant demand since releasing its first lineup of wines in 2009. I went there partly to see what the fuss was about and partly because I was curious about PR’s primary focus on big red wines (a.k.a. Canada’s great vinous white whale). Yet despite visiting for the red, here I am, writing about their Chardonnay.
PR’s stated focus is to make quality-driven, ultra-premium wines; before I even got to the wine, I could report that they certainly use quality-driven, ultra-premium packaging. The Chardonnay was presented in a thick, heavy, could-be-in-a-rap-video fancy glass bottle, and thankfully what came out of it more than lived up to its illustrious housing. The wine was a bright, vivid, medium lemon colour and showed a deft mix of fruit and oak-based notes on the nose: part mango, candied pineapple and preserved lemon, part vanilla, smoke, burnt sugar and toast, with a slightly floral undertone. All the aromas were cohesive and integrated, with nothing overpowering. On the palate, the Painted Rock had a pure full body and a lush, creamy mouthfeel, but after an initial moment of softness it also featured an amazingly powerful streak of acidity unlike anything I’ve previously seen in a Chardonnay. This is likely due to the fact that this Chard, unlike most of its contemporaries made from the same grape, did not go through malolactic fermentation, a bacterial process that converts harsh, crisp malic acids in wine (like the acids in tart Granny Smith apples) to softer, rounder lactic acids (like the much quieter acids found in milk). All red wines undergo this malolactic process, but certain white wines (especially varietals prized for their lightness and crispness like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling) generally don’t. Since roundness and richness are often sought after in Chardonnays, the Chards that I’ve come across have usually had malolactic treatment — and now I can tell you firsthand that avoiding this acid-smoothing process has a clear impact on the resulting wine. In this case, the sharpness of the acid played out perfectly against the Chardonnay’s rich texture and oak-enhanced body, building to a crescendo as each sip went on so that the wine was softer up front but piercing, precise and clean at the finish. A myriad of flavours played out along this shifting palate, with notes of red apple, rubber, honey, butterscotch and char melding into lemon, honeydew melon, cucumber and an incredible minerality that lingered long after I swallowed.
This is a fabulous and exciting wine; I didn’t know that a local producer was capable of creating such a subtle, nuanced, haunting Chardonnay. It’s a Chard that you have to try if you think you hate Chard, because the high acid levels keep it from ever seeming heavy and keep the oak from ever dominating the rest of the wine. It guarantees that I will be back to the little shack on top of the hill near Penticton in the near future. Oh, and did I mention that it was $30? Though a fraction of the price of high-end Chardonnays from better-known regions in California, France and around the world, this bottle of Painted Rock clearly has its sights on that kind of company.
$30 to $35 CDN