I’m not sure if there’s still this wine backlash going on; ABC or “Anything But Chardonnay” or
this rejection of Chardonnay by up and coming wine enthusiasts. It may have started when the
trend was to produce massive, palate coating, maximum extracted and concentrated
Chardonnays that you needed a spoon to “eat’ more than sip. Wines so big that even lardo
couldn’t match their intensity and concentration. And never mind the pallets of new oak that
seemed to be also concentrated in each bottle. Is this an exaggeration? Well, maybe a wee bit
but there did seem a point where Chardonnay seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and
pushing the 15 to 16% abv (alcohol by volume) limit. So concentrated that even lobster in
vanilla sauce or roasted pork with grilled stone fruit seemed to wilt with these large wines.
Thankfully, New World producers seem to be exercising restraint with their vinification
procedures (Old World producers are limited by climactic conditions). So there’s a Chardonnay
for every palate.
Probably the greatest expression of Chardonnay comes from Burgundy, France. In the Cote-d’
Or or “golden slopes”, specifically in the southern end or the Cote-d’Beaune. The seven
Chardonnay based Grand Cru or top level wines are grown within the villages of Puligny-
Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Aloxe Corton. Just below these seven top wine
(Charlemagne, Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Batard-
Montrachet, Criots-Batard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet) are the Premier Cru (often
listed as 1er Cru) and these are the wines that may make their way into my personal wine cellar
(I would love to fill my cellar with Grand Cru Burgundy but would have to sell off all of my
other possessions). Then below the Premier Cru wines you have the Village designated wines
which for the most part, are affordable.
While white Burgundy can have a richness rivaling even the biggest New World Chardonnays,
they also possess a great minerality to them (terroir) and most have that unmistakable “funk”
on the nose just after uncorking the bottle. It’s almost like walking into a clean barn or poultry
coup if it has “good” funk or may be as fragrant as a true working farm for that “bad’ funk. In
most cases, that initial fragrant hit blows off if the wine is decanted or let to sit for a while.
What most good Burgundies also possess is a seamless flow over the palate where one flavor
sensation flows into the next without interruption so that it gives the taste buds a “seamless”
quality. Because these wines aren’t extracted to the hilt, they also usually finish very pleasantly
without any bitter edges. Their main drawback is that most Premier and Grand Cru wines need
to sit and rest before uncorking. Quietly and coolly. For a while. Okay make that years. Many
years. If you uncork a bottle just after its release, unless you decant it and let it sit for a couple
of hours, you won’t be rewarded with the complexity that fine Burgundy is known for. While
most New World Chardonnays can be thoroughly enjoyed upon release, modifying a statement
from that distinguished Frenchman Paul Masson; you should not open a white burgundy
“before its time”.
Slightly higher northwest of the Cote d’Or sits Chablis. Real Chablis. Not the stuff you find in
Mylar bags within wine boxes on supermarket shelves. This is real Chablis. No, make that real
good Chablis. And it too is made with Chardonnay grapes. Except the expression here is totally
different than what you find in the Cote d’Beaune. Partly due to the Kimmeridgian clay soil,
partly due to the paucity of oak during vinification, partly due to the cooler growing climate.
Therefore Chablis has a crisper quality due to the higher acid levels and less pronounced ripe
fruit flavors compared to wines from the Cote d’Beaune. Due to the marine clay soils, the earthy
qualities are more chalk and limestone in nature than the pebbly qualities found in southern
Burgundy. And some feel it has a distinct lamb’s wool quality. There are also seven Grand Cru
wines (Vaudesir, Valmur, Le Clos, Blanchot, Grenouilles, Les Preuses and Bougros) and many
Premier Cru designated wines just below the Grand Cru with the generic Chablis designation just
below that. Once again, the downside is that the acids in the wine take time to soften, on the
order of years so like Paul Masson would have said…
New World Wines
I won’t dwell on Chardonnays from the Golden State since I’m sure everyone has tried a glass
and even has their favorite Napa, Sonoma or Santa Barbara version. I’ll simply say that growers
are finding distinct qualities of finished wines depending on the region where the grapes are
grown. The Central Coast in the Santa Maria Valley has an abundance of limestone soils and this
translates to that same terroir ending up in the finished wine. I find many of these wines to have
distinct aromas of seashells and chalkier earth aroma than the pebbly minerality found in wines
from the Sonoma Coast and if the wine is big but without any distinct earthy qualities then I
assume it’s from Napa Valley.
Chardonnay is also grown in New Zealand and Australia. In fact Chardonnay was New Zealand’s
most widely planted wine grape until they found out that Sauvignon Blanc made exceptional
wines in the land of the kiwi. Due to its cooler climate, kiwi Chardonnay usually has crisper
acidity, almost like Chablis though they do employ new oak so their Chards are like cross
between Chablis and the Golden State. The Land Down Under does have the ability to make
very memorable wines though unfortunately a lot of what is exported was as much lab created
and vineyard created. Taking a quote from George Hendry of Hendry Winery in Napa Valley, “I
don’t make wine, I grow wine”. If you sift through the masses of wine, there are excellent
renditions from Down Under as evidenced by a recent blind Chardonnay tasting I attended. One
of my faves was the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay.
Other Worldly Chardonnays
Given its propensity for growth, it’s no wonder that Chardonnay is also propagated in Old and
New World regions alike other than the US and Burgundy. Italy has had a long tradition of
Chardonnay growth though part of its lack of notoriety stems from the grape itself. It
commonly was confused with Pinot Blanc and vineyards still have both varietals interspersed
amongst each other. In fact, yours truly brought a bottle to the blind tasting from the famed
house of Querciabella which was primarily Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Blanc – I’m not
sure if the blend was intentional or unplanned but in any case, my bottle was sadly corked. In
southern Italy, the Sicilian house of Planeta makes a pure Chardonnay that’s a blend of Old
World terroir and New World fruit.
Argentina and Chile are also increasing their acreage of Chardonnay every year and they’ll soon
be at the same point that the Golden State was about a decade or two ago. Of course the key is
to let the earth speak and let the fruit speak and not let new oak get in the way of the two.
Paired with white meats or hearty seafood, they’re a shoo-in for dancing with the stars…
culinary speaking of course.
At the blind Chardonnay tasting I mentioned, here’s my faves with my own 5 point rating for
2007 Domaine LeFlaive Macon-Verze (4.5)
With the unmistakable “good’ funk on the nose with a perfect balance of mineral, fruit and acid
with a seamless flow over the palate and a very long finish
2004 Bouchard Meursault 1er Cru Genevrieres (4.5)
Loads of minerality with lemon curd and a pleasing balance of fruit, earth and acid with a
seamless flow over the palate and a long finish
1992 Francois Jobard Meursault 1er Cru Genevrieres (4)
With a dark golden hue and a nose with baked stone fruit and citrus curd then a balancing
underlying minerality, this almost 20yr old had a rich but not cloying finish
2004 Leeuwin Estate Margaret River Art Series Chardonnay (4)
With ripe mango-pear on the nose with soft buttery oak on the palate and a seamless flow over
the palate and a very long finish
The two Chardonnays I brought:
2004 Aubert The Quarry Chardonnay (3.5)
A lot more oak on the nose than I remember from other Aubert Chardonnays. Nice stone fruit
and mineral also there but overshadowed by the oak and with a slightly bitter finish.
2003 Querciabella Batar (corked)
Primarily Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Blanc named after the famed village of Batard
Montrachet… unfortunately this bottle was corked.
A White Wine for all Palates