Few wines are as polarizing as Chardonnay. In any group of casual wine drinkers, you’ll find a few who love it and a few who hate it. Why does it get such a strong reaction?
Chardonnay has a complicated history. It’s the most common white grape in the world. The most famous Chardonnays are white Burgundies, hailing from the Burgundy region of central France. Chardonnay is pretty much the only grape that growers plant here. For centuries, it’s thrived in the cool continental climate.
Collectors cherish many of these white Burgundies, with some going for thousands of dollars per bottle. My love of this wine started here, in a dusty and dark wine cellar in Beaune. That taste left a strong impression, and was one of the reasons why I entered the wine business.
But you don’t have to spend all your money on the Chardonnays of Burgundy. Many of the village (or regional) appellation whites offer great everyday drinking value and are available in Halifax. The labels are confusing and usually don’t say Chardonnay; get help in the store.
Moving north of Burgundy we find the eponymous home of Chablis. Both the region and the wine are names that apply almost exclusively to Chardonnay. Vintners around the world used the label Chablis to describe any light-bodied white wine until it became illegal to do so. Chablis is almost always made in steel tanks with little or no use of oak. This light touch gives Chablis its flinty, acidic character.
France’s Champagne region is another Chardonnay heartland. In this cool northern region, Chardonnay is expressed as the best sparkling wine in the world, especially when combined with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These are the only three grapes allowed in traditional Champagne, making expressive and long-lived wines at premium prices.
Chardonnay vines grow prolifically, and if left unchecked can be vigorous in grape production. Chardonnay is also good at expressing the terroir of the place where it’s planted. In limestone soils, you’ll taste a chalky quality. In rocky soils, you will taste mineral characteristics.
Chardonnay also grows well in many different climates and soil types, planted from southern New Zealand to Canada. So it has become a go-to grape for those regions where its late blooming avoids spring frosts and its characteristic flavours will peak with a long warm fall. In cooler climates these characters tend to be more restrained with stone fruit and bright flavours. It can also be an earlier ripening variety in hotter climates, where it tends to have more tropical flavours and a richer, fatter palate.
So why do people hate Chardonnay? Blame it on the 1990s. During that decade, many growers tore out their old vineyards and replanted with Chardonnay, because of its growing popularity and high production. So instead of focusing on quality, many producers just went for quantity, and tried to hide any flaws by adding more oak. When Australia and the U.S. started ramping up production from their warmest regions, alcohol levels rose and quality diminished. That created an entire generation of ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) drinkers.
But we’ve almost come full circle. Vineyard management techniques allow growers to plant grapes like Chardonnay in cooler climates where they belong, with lower production, and properly timed picking to get the grapes in before the all-important acidity diminishes. With more restrained use of oak, and older barrels instead of new, the quality has risen dramatically.
Some of the best new world Chardonnays now come from California, Chile, New Zealand, and Canada. I recently had an amazing Nova Scotian Chardonnay from Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards. You can also find one of the best sparkling wines available in Canada, made with Chardonnay from Benjamin Bridge, here in Nova Scotia.
So don’t turn up your nose up when someone opens a Chardonnay. It’s a true wine-explorer’s grape. You can have a lot of fun tasting versions from different countries and regions. Get some friends together to share a few Chardonnays, while noting the differences. These wines pair great with a turkey dinner or a summer lobster feast.
Alvi’s Drift Viognier 2015
South Africa, $13.99, NSLC
South Africa has amazing potential but sells a lot of plonk. That’s changing, though. Viognier is known as the white wine for red wine drinkers. It has more weight and aromatic characteristics than most whites. I loved the honeysuckle aroma. More melon and grapefruit flavours than the tropical notes I expected. Tastes like the grapes were picked a touch early to preserve the acids at the expense of luscious richness. If you like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, it’s a good value. If you want a true Viognier, look elsewhere. Pair with a watermelon salad. 86/100
Gerard Bertrand Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre, Corbieres
France, $20.29, NSLC
Corbieres is an important appellation of Southern France. This blend offers interesting flavours of stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, and wild strawberries. Lighter in style than you’d expect from such a warm region, it is a style for those who are fans of Pinot Noir or Chianti. Pair with a homemade spaghetti sauce. 88/100