By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Regional Editor

What’s this area known for? What’s your specialty? Which white do you do best? These are all questions that I get asked when pouring local wine for newcomers to the Niagara region.

I don’t always have time to explain the diversity of soils or the huge difference in how Lake Ontario moderates one mile from the lakeshore to six miles inland to the Escarpment. Nonetheless, people seem to want an answer as to what our signature white grape variety is or will be. 

It's not an easy question to answer.

In the Finger Lakes, of course, it’s obvious. And even though I’ve tasted some amazing rieslings from the young vineyards on the bench of the Escarpment up here, I would never dare claim riesling to be ours. 

On the North Fork of Long Island, I believe that sauvignon blanc does best as a white varietal. Again, a few sauvignon blancs from the lakeshore appellations of Ontario have wowed me and I’m confident it can be as good across the river here, but I also admit that Long Island will consistently make more approachable versions year to year.

So what noble white grape does that leave us with? I hate to say it, but…chardonnay. Now I’m usually the last person who would get excited over chardonnay, but a few local wineries have opened my eyes to the grape that grows everywhere.

I’ve long been a fan of unoaked versions but only recently did I begin to believe that the Niagara region could produce distinctive mineral-driven wines similar to Chablis. The Freedom Run Winery 2008 Estate Chardonnay has chalky notes and a chiseled structure that I can only relate to the aforementioned French region. I’ve met many serious wine buyers in the area that have been wowed by this wine, of which only 45 cases were made.

Randy Biehl of Eveningside Vineyards has produced buzz-worthy chardonnays from his small estate vineyard for three years now, and I think his wines are only getting better. His 2008 unoaked Chardonnay is not as mineral-driven as the Freedom Run version, but it has a similar understated elegance. His newest 2008 Reserve Chardonnay shows power and grace with just enough spice to give you a finish worth pondering.

I can’t mention chardonnay and the Niagara region in the same sentence without mentioning Duncan Ross of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards in Lockport, NY. Working with Finger Lakes growers the last two years, he has made two exceptional Chardonnays. To be honest, it was his 2006 wine that finally motivated me to give other oaked chards a chance. His 2008 will be from estate-grown grapes, and I can say that if he replicates his success with his previous two efforts, I’ll be fully converted to clothed chardonnay.

Will there be many other white grape varieties worth drinking up here in the future? Definitely, but if you ask me today which white grape does best on the narrow band of shallow clay and limestone drawn up as the Niagara Escarpment AVA – and which will produce distinctive wines distinguishable from the other NY wine regions – as of today the answer is simple: chardonnay.