Chardonnay is a grape of many faces. You want fat and buttery? Chardonnay's your buddy. Vanillin oak? It can display more lumber than a 1960s wood-panelled rec room. It can be lean and saline and everything in between. It all depends on where it's grown and, crucially, how it's handled in the winery, be it with stainless steel, oak or with a variety of fermentation techniques. Chardonnay is the quintessential winemaker's grape, as they call it in the industry, relatively ambiguous in flavour and more flexible than a contortionist at a yoga retreat. Let's just say the vintner, more than the vineyard, calls the shots.
By contrast, attempt to force riesling into an oak cask and the nearest sommelier will make a citizen's arrest for assault with a deadly weapon; oak is riesling's kryptonite. Riesling also takes none too kindly to malolactic fermentation – that natural reaction, which can be encouraged or suppressed, that softens acidity to impart buttery smoothness.
This is why the chardonnay backlash of years past made little sense, at least to consumers in retail markets not dominated by wines from California or Australia, where – no question – the buttered two-by-four style prevailed with often painfully cloying results.
What does chardonnay taste like? I was reminded of the diversity while sampling a bunch of new offerings over the past two weeks. Take your pick of styles or production techniques, from organic to wild-yeast fermented, from blazingly crisp to subtly oaked white Burgundy to the unapologetically rich and vaguely sweet, populist style of California. For me, cool-climate Chablis, with its tart-fruit character and minimal (or non-existent) oak influence, will always be near the top.
Domaine Billaud-Simon Mont de Milieu Chablis Premier Cru 2012, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Chablis, the northern Burgundy district, is synonymous with steely, nervy chardonnay. Yet as one moves up the vineyard hierarchy to premier cru and grand cru designations, things generally get richer (in the textural and financial sense) and rounder, often with subtle oak influence. This is ripe and plump, with pineapple-like fruit as well as a classically Burgundian nutty quality. The textbook acidity of Chablis is still here along with subtle mineral-like verve. Available (in small quantities) in Ontario at the above price, $48.99 in British Columbia.
Kim Crawford Wild Grace Small Parcels Chardonnay 2015, New Zealand
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
New Zealand's big sauvignon blanc exporter, Kim Crawford, also makes chardonnay, including this small-production beauty from fruit grown in Hawke's Bay on the North Island (not its main stomping ground of Marlborough on the South Island). The wine is fermented with wild yeast, likely one source of its impressive flavour depth. Full-bodied and fleshy with pineapple and grilled-peach fruit, it's buttery and toasty and lifted by bright acidity. By no means serve it fridge cold; let it warm up for as much as half an hour to bring out the flavours and balance, which will make all the difference. Available in Ontario at the above price, $24.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Upper Bench Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $26
Upper Bench specializes in two complete food groups: wine and cheese. So, it's billed as a "winery and creamery," one reason you might expect the chardonnay here to be ripe and buttery and a fine partner for cow's milk brie or the estate's signature "gold" cheese. The 2015, fermented partly with wild yeast, is medium bodied, with a silky texture and soft, tropical-fruit core supported by notes of vanilla, butter and subtle toasty oak. Deftly balanced. Just 400 cases were made. Available for direct shipping though www.upperbench.ca.
Blue Mountain Chardonnay 2015, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20.90
Blue Mountain's classically razor-sharp style is on full display in this oh-so-subtly-oaked white. Stylistically it's much more Chablis than Meursault and light years away from almost anything out of even the coolest enclaves in California. Vibrant citrus and green-apple characters mingle with whispers of vanilla and spice. Sophisticated and subtle – except for the fantastic high-voltage acidity. Available at independent retailers in western Canada or direct through www.bluemountainwinery.com.
Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay 2015, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Certified organic, this is soft, creamy and admirably ripe with a crisp edge, showing flavours of pineapple and orchard fruit and, in the distant background, notes of caramel and oak spice. Smartly oaked and balanced. Available direct for shipping across Canada through www.southbrook.com.
J.J. Vincent Marie-Antoinette Pouilly-Fuissé 2014, France
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
Note that last word in the name. It's "Fuissé," as in the white-Burgundy appellation, not "Fumé," as in the better-known Loire Valley sauvignon blanc district. So, yes, this is chardonnay, medium bodied and round, with a pronounced butterscotch flavour over the orchard fruit and toasted nuts. Well-integrated oak. Available in Ontario.
Watershed Shades Unoaked Chardonnay 2014, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $20.95
Crisp and juicy, with uncanny pineapple (the old-school kind with proper acidity, before industrial breeders turned pineapples into sugar grenades). Bright acidity and overtones of grapefruit and pear keep things lively in this blissfully unoaked chardonnay from cool-climate Western Australia. Available in Ontario.
Albert Bichot Chablis 2014, France
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
A fine example of the nervy, electric chardonnay style for which Chablis is famous – from a big producer, no less. Medium bodied and crisp, with bright apple, citrus and flinty-mineral qualities. What this entry-level Chablis may lack in complexity and depth, it makes up for in clean precision and value. Available in Ontario at the above price, $21.10 in Quebec, $29.36 in Newfoundland.
Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay 2015, California
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
Any vintner hoping to crack the U.S. premium market in a big way should study this remarkably successful product. It's the American fine-wine palate in a nutshell, worthy of an article in the Harvard Business Review. K-J Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay succeeds with remarkable consistency: boldly ripe and flavourful, vaguely sweet yet essentially dry – a mouthfilling white that drinks like a red (two wines in one!). The 2015 is rounder than a cueball, dense with suggestions of pineapple, syrupy peach, honey, toasted nuts and caramel. Well made, especially given the huge output, and impressively balanced for the style. If California's your go-to wine region, you are likely to love it, though one could argue it's more sugar-tuned for American palates than for most Canadians or Europeans. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $20.76 in Manitoba, $19.95 in Quebec.
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