Chardonnay: the king of whites

This month we begin a new series of articles concentrating on one particular variety of grape. Each month we will dissect the characteristics of the world’s most popular grapes, exploring how these characteristics differ, region by region, terroir by terroir. Business Editor, Lindsey Turnbull reports.

 We start with the most noble of all white grapes, Chardonnay, a phenomenally successful varietal that appears to thrive all over the world, from New Zealand to California, yet it was in the Eastern part of France, in Chablis and Burgundy, where the grape first rose to prominence.  In France’s Champagne region, Chardonnay is blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to produce the world’s most highly prized wine.

Chardonnay’s location and whether it has been aged in oak (and for how long) has a tremendous influence on the wine’s final nose and flavour. The warmth of the southern hemisphere produces nuances of pears and peaches through to bananas and other tropical fruits such as pineapple. In the north, the cooler climate produces a whole range of characteristics, from citrussy light and delicate wines to the more intense honey and nuts. Oak aging transforms the grape, helping it to take on a richer, fuller form and often a greater complexity.

Unfortunately, having ridden an incredibly successful wave of popularity in the last few decades, Chardonnay began to fall out of favour with wine drinkers in recent years. Indeed, some wine snobs talk of the ABC of wine (Anything But Chardonnay), perhaps due to its ubiquity and a tendency in the New World at least to oak the grape out of existence. Hopefully this article will help to dispel the myth that all Chardonnays have to be full on oak, to the detriment of the grape’s beautiful fruits and natural affinity with a whole range of foods.

Jacques Scott (Lee Royle, retail wine professional and Paul McLaughlin, retail wine manager) and The Journal (this author) teamed up to blind taste five top Chardonnays, to help eradicate (or maybe reinforce!) the tasters’ own preconceptions of the Chardonnay grape. A fantastic array of wine-friendly dishes was supplied to the tasters by Bacchus, to assist in assessing the wines’ ability to pair with food and bring out the full flavour of the grape.

So, armed with a list of five individual Chardonnays from all over the world, it was up to the team to sort out which wine they were drinking without peaking at the wine bottle’s label. First up was a lovely unoaked Chardonnay (Babich Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, 2007 CI$14.95), which the team noted for its sweet and fruity nose and refreshing yet fruity and complex flavour. All three tasters guessed that the wine displayed no oak, so lively were the fruity overtones, with Lee and Paul guessing the wine correctly. Bacchus PEI mussels were the perfect dish to munch through while sipping the wine.

The heavy weight oak-aged wine that followed (Montes Alpha Chardonnay, Chile, 2005 CI$19.95) was in marked contrast to the first wine, yet never-the-less still displayed excellent typical Chardonnay characteristics of banana, pineapple and tropical fruits on the nose. These nuances were only enhanced as the wine came up to room temperature. All tasters guessed this wine correctly, probably because it displayed such typical smoky oaky notes and full on exotic flavours. A great pairing was the coconut crusted Mahi Mahi, which had a slight spiciness to it, matching the wine’s strength of flavour, level for level.

Tasters got a bit of a rude awakening with the next wine (Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches, Sonoma Coast, California, 2007 CI$26.95), with Lee and myself in the firm belief that we were drinking the most expensive wine of the day which turned out not to be the case.

The Sonoma-Cutrer was a fantastic example of gentle oak aging, allowing the fresh and intense aromas of pear, peach and apple to still sing out, while there was just a hint of lemon and vanilla on the palate. The finish confused us into believing we were drinking the big guns Burgundy, with its length and distinctive persistence. If you think all California Chardonnays are top-heavy on the oak, think again. 

Bacchus does a super creamy chicken fettuccini, which went beautifully with this wine.

The second unoaked Chardonnay then graced our glasses (Louis Latour Mâcon-Lugny, 2007, Burgundy, France CI$17.95), another wine that allowed the full splendour of the Chardonnay grape to hold court, with lemony hints on the nose and nutty apple and honey flavours on the palate and a pleasing richness. As with the Babich, this wine made a great pairing with the PEI mussels.

Saving the big guns for last, (Vincent Girardin, Puligny-Montrechat Les Folatières 2004 CI$67.95) a 90-pointer with Wine Spectator, again managed to bamboozle the tasters. Perhaps our pre-conceived ideas meant we expected such a wine to display too measured a dose of oak, so we associated this wine’s smoky and spicy notes with the California Sonoma-Cutrer, rather than a great Burgundy. The Girardin is aged in oak barrels for 15 to 18 months and the end result is a beautifully balanced wine with a long and persistent finish. It is recommended that that the wine be drunk now until 2014, so cellaring ought to only enhance the already fine characteristics of the wine.

All in all, the blind tasting was an interesting exercise in getting to know one varietal and all the incredibly diverse characteristics that the individual grape can take on, depending where it was grown and how the wine was created.  Definitely a worthwhile exercise if you really want to get to know your grapes.


Bacchus owner and chef Keith Griffin and Paul McLaughlin