Do you have a favourite white grape? I’d love to declare that mine is one of those hipster-friendly oddities rescued from the brink of extinction. Something obscure and hard to pronounce from, say, the Canary Islands, Croatia or Moldova. (Feteasca regala, anyone?) Alas, it’s not. It’s chardonnay, the world’s most popular white, the Taylor Swift of wine.
But not just any chardonnay. Like most self-respecting devotees of that grape, I consider the benchmark to be white Burgundy. As in the tightly wound, briny beauties of Chablis and the broader-shouldered but still kinetic luxuries of Puligny-Montrachet, even a more affordable Pouilly-Fuissé or Rully.
Care to guess my least-favourite white grape?
Chardonnay. In the wrong hands, chardonnay is the best argument I can think of to drink beer. Many examples represent most of what’s wrong with wine today: flabby, overoaked and overmanipulated or underripe and confected. Worst of all, they can be stunningly overpriced.
You could level similar grievances against many other varieties, but I’d argue chardonnay is uniquely vulnerable to such crimes. Flavour-wise, it’s pretty neutral, taking much of its shape in the winery with varying degrees of oak contact (hello, vanilla) and the optional softening process of malolactic fermentation (butter, anyone?).
Riesling and sauvignon blanc, by contrast, come with much less playbook latitude; once you’ve harvested good grapes, it’s largely a matter of crush, ferment and bottle.
Yes, there are white varieties with less to recommend them, per se, than chardonnay. Trebbiano, for example? But they generally come with an all-important virtue: the humility of affordability. Clumsy, cloying, badly made chardonnays from California, meanwhile, can drain a bank account faster than a Nigerian e-mail scam. It’s nuts.
Increasingly, I’ve been enthused by the fountain of delectable chardonnays pouring out of British Columbia. Producers there seem to be finding their stride in applying oak judiciously, more so than too many of their lumber-loving counterparts in California. Take that as a gross generalization, if you will, as well as the opinion of someone raised on a broader stylistic range of chardonnay than the average drinker in the United States, where California wine still represents almost three out of every four bottles sold. Not that I don’t appreciate great California chardonnay, of which there is plenty.
Besides British Columbia, Ontario shares a cool-climate profile that keeps chardonnay’s acids high and permits the early-ripening grape to hang longer on the vine to develop deep and complex flavours. When you’re graced with juice like that, you see it as your job to try hard not to mask it with cloying oak.
I’ve sipped a lot of chardonnay lately that reminded me of why it’s my least-favourite white grape. The ones below, though, from my recent tastings (some to be released not until next week, as noted), helped remind me why I still like it a lot.
Castello della Sala Cervaro della Sala 2016, Italy
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $68.95
Go, Umbria! Antinori crafts this gem next door to its home region of Tuscany. First made in 1985 by famed consultant Renzo Cotarella, it’s mostly chardonnay, but they blend in a little local grechetto for bitterness and verve. Medium-bodied, it comes across with mellow tropical fruit, smooth butter and a light dusting of baking spices. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Laughing Stock Chardonnay 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.99
Silkiness defined. This is plump and soft, with precision-ripened fruit suggesting pear, peach and candied lemon, joined by hints of vanilla and spice from a smart oak-aging program that included just 15-per-cent new barrels. Perfect-weight chardonnay. Available direct through laughingstock.ca.
Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Here’s a study in balance. The fruit and acidity and savoury characters come together as a whole. Fruit-wise, it’s pitch-perfect and could be mistaken for a real apple, though there’s much else to recommend it, such as aromatic spices and a sturdy spine of acidity. Available in Ontario at the above price.
Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé 2016, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
It’s not cheap, but for the money it vividly displays the essence of chardonnay from southern Burgundy. Medium-full-bodied and glossy, it comes across with comforting but uncloying fruit, butter and a smoky-salty tingle. Almost Meursault-like in volume as well as oak treatment. Admirable depth and brightness. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Bachelder Niagara Chardonnay 2016, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
From Thomas Bachelder, a Niagara producer who also makes fine chardonnays and pinot noirs under his name in Burgundy as well as Oregon. This is fleshy and soft-textured, with ripe, generous fruit greeted by light touches of butter, vanilla and caramel. Meaty depth without excessive weight. Available Nov. 10 at Ontario Vintages stores.
Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, California
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
Solid effort by a pioneer in the Russian River Valley. This is creamy and toasty, with flavours of grilled pineapple, roasted nuts and brown butter lifted by zippy acidity. Available in Ontario.
Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2016, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $24.95
Rich yet lively, with a smooth texture carrying notes of pear, citrus marmalade, butter and lemon. Not your typical California chardonnay. Available in Ontario at the above price, $26.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $29.01 in Saskatchewan, $24.99 in Manitoba, $31.77 in Prince Edward Island, $28 in Newfoundland.
Township 7 Chardonnay 2017, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.97
Medium-bodied and glossy. Deftly oaked, as though you can’t taste it directly but can feel it in the soft texture and ample body, a smoking gun. Fleshy apple with notes of pear and citrus. So drinkable and harmonious. Available direct through township7.com.
Stoller Family Chardonnay 2016, Oregon
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27.95
Pale in colour, unoaked and zesty almost to the point of effervescent. Lean and lemony and slightly herbal, with a salty-bitter bite on the finish. Offbeat in a good way. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Sidewood Chardonnay 2016, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
What’s this? A 12.5-per-cent-alcohol chardonnay from Australia? How refreshing in more ways than one. Displaying all the coolness that can be found in the Adelaide Hills, this is medium-bodied and crisp, with a touch of struck match along with melon, musky spices, herbs and grapefruit. Available in Ontario.
Cathedral Cellar Chardonnay 2015, South Africa
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Big and bouncy, with butterscotch in the foreground joined by poached peach, tropical fruit and toasty oak. Opulent in the middle but with cleansing acidity for a zippy finish. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Good Kharma Chardonnay 2016, Ontario
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
It’s made by Flat Rock Cellars, known for good value in Niagara fine wine. The “good kharma” part means a portion of sales goes to the Ontario Association of Food Banks. A well-composed mélange of pineapple-peach-apple fruit, fleshy-smooth texture and notes of caramel, vanilla and toasty oak. Available in Ontario and direct through flatrockcellars.com.