Time to Embrace Chardonnay

The Caveman Speaks
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

One of my favourite stories from my days as a working sommelier was when I was serving a table of four, and recommended a chardonnay to accompany their meal. With a certain disdain, one member of the table loudly proclaimed that she hated chardonnay. So I suggested a Chablis.

“Oh I love Chablis,” she replied enthusiastically as the other members of her table nodded in agreement.

Of course, Chablis is made entirely with chardonnay. I wasn’t trying to be a pompous ass. I explained during that uncomfortable moment that followed that what I wanted to demonstrate was that “the place” where a grape is grown is as important as the grape variety.

Her disdain is not her’s alone. Many are chardonnays haters for two reasons, either they are old enough to remember a style of chardonnay, one which dominated around over 20 years ago, or have recently tasted some pretty boring wines. It’s not the grape itself.  Let me explain.

During the 1990’s, a style of chardonnay became a world-wide craze. They were big and buttery wines, full of oak barrel flavouring and smelled more of tanning lotion and pineapple juice than wine. They were over-ripe and over-oaked.

But the stuff sold by the bucket. In many ways, it was responsible for turning many people onto wine around the world. And with this new popularity, came massive new plantings. Back in the 70’s, chardonnay was only really found in France, specifically Burgundy and Champagne.

As examples, California went from 1,000ha in 1970 to 18,000ha in under 20 years. Australia had next to no chardonnay in the 1970’s, and within two decades it became the country’s #1 planted white grape. Today, after the Spanish grape Airén, which is used mostly for cheap table wine and making Brandy, chardonnay is the world’s most planted white grape variety.

The problem was that while the world’s wineries were going gonzo for chardonnay, they didn’t take into account that what made white Burgundy and a few choice examples from other parts of the world great, was the terroir – climate, soil and planting sites.

Chablis and Champagne are two of the most northern, and thus coolest, sites where chardonnay can ripen. Add to that the limestone and Kimmeridgean soils (fossilized oyster shells) and the result are unique wines. Further south in Burgundy, in the Côte de Beaune where one finds revered appellations such as Meursault, Montrachet and even further south, Pouilly-Fuissé, despite being a touch warmer, you still find a relatively cool climate. These wines, for many, remain the apogee of the grape’s expression.

Paul Pender, winemaker at Niagara’s Tawse, gave me a great a perspective on the grape. His take was that “chardonnay can be a pretty boring grape unless it is grown in the right spots. It doesn’t have as much personality on it’s own, like riesling for example. It’s subtle and it gets it’s character from the terroir, and if you don’t have that, it gets it from the wine making.”

Boring. While I still from time to time taste one of those anachronistic “cocktail” chards, if there is still lingering resentment against the grape, it’s that chardonnay can often be pretty inconsequential. Around 10 years ago, the trend worldwide seemed to be moving towards a Chablis model, with wineries picking earlier to preserve acidity, and using less oak. That’s fine, but in many warmer climates, this just means you get lots of acid, but not a whole lot of flavour due to a lack of phenolic, or flavour, ripeness.

But for all of you that had given up on the grape, and I was one of you, things have changed. Wineries all around the world are finding more appropriate growing sites for their chardonnay. There is less “winemaking” happening because the grapes on their own have something interesting to say. From Australia to California to Chile to Argentina, I am tasting amazing examples of “non-boring”chardonnay, wines that exhibit the subtlety, texture and depth that originally made chardonnay one of the world’s greatest white grapes.

To make things even more interesting, one of those places that is really taking the grape to the next level is Canada. British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and even Quebec are making top notch chardonnays in both still and sparkling wines. At the recent National Wine Awards of Canada, where I was a judge, it was the strongest category. Results from the competition will begin to be released next week, and it just so happens that the Chardonnay results will be among the first categories to be announced.

And if you are looking to really see what is going worldwide, I would suggest you attend the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (I4C), taking place in Ontario’s Niagara region from July 21-23. Wineries from Canada and around the world will be pouring their wines. Tasting is believing, so if you need convincing that chardonnay is back, then come have a taste.

So how good are the chards these days? Below are 8 wines worth trying that are currently available at the SAQ. For those of you in Ontario, you can use WineAlign’s Find Wine feature to discover great chardonnays currently available at the LCBO. Just filter on Chardonnay and All LCBO Stores (see image below). You can also read John Szabo’s latest VINTAGES Preview article in which he recommends some not to miss chardonnays being poured at I4C and a handful of top chards that were just released in VINTAGES on July 8th.

Starting with North America, the 2013 Estate from Niagara’s Hidden Bench is starting to really show how it can get even better with age. I would be remiss in not mentioning one of the better bubble producers in Canada, Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge. The 2011 Brut is simply a great sparkling wine. And from Sonoma, the 2014 Clos Du Bois will make any Burgundy fan rethink the focus and precision a Cali chard can attain.

Hidden Bench Beamsville Bench Chardonnay 'estate' 2013Benjamin Bridge Méthode Classique Brut 2011Clos Du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay 2014Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa Chardonnay 2015

From South America, I am always a fan of Errazuriz’s efforts on the cool Aconcagua coast. The 2015 vintage is once again, up to the quality of previous vintages. If you want to discover something new, how about the 2015 chardonnay from Brasil’s Miolo. Great balance in this wine and under $16.

From France, the 2015 Montmains from Brocard shows how even in warm vintages, the salinity and focus one gets from the Chablis terroir always shows through. While Premier cru Chablis will cost you well over $30, if you want a similar expression for a fraction of the price, the Loire’s Domaine de la Ragotieres 2016 chardonnay has everything you want – salinity, minerality and some punchy fruit- and all for under $14. And further south in one of the few remaining bargain appellations in Burgundy, the 2015 Montagny from Feuillat-Juillot, shows texture and richness without being at all heavy.

Chardonnay Miolo Family Vineyards Serra Gaucha 2015Jean Marc Brocard Montmains Chablis 1er Cru 2015Les Frères Couillaud Domaine De La Ragotière Chardonnay 2016Domaine Feuillat Juillot Cuvée Les Grappes D'or 2015

Enjoy your summer folks,


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images above. Premium subscribers see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!