Chardonnay still a table favorite

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-11 09:17
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This is one grape that commands a lot of acreage in vineyards in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It is such an easy grape that a rather disparaging grower in Australia once told me the Chardonnay was sprouting like "weeds" all over.

It has been described as a blank canvas that a creative vintner can make his mark with. Chardonnay is very sensitive to terroir - the set of conditions that dictate the flavor of the wine that comes from the grape - and it responds remarkably well to all the techniques of winemaking that distinguish one vintage from another.

The sensitivity is also the reason why Chardonnay can taste so different from region to region, ranging from a distinctive buttery nose to a citrus scent to the aroma of stone fruits like peaches. Throw in some bottles with the bouquet of apples and tropical fruits and you get a thoroughly confused consumer gazing at the wide range of Chards on the shelves in bewilderment.

This wine is so delicate that blending can take away its original berry characteristics or even wipe them out completely.

Ironically, this is why in France, it is such a popular grape. It is the vehicle upon which a vast variety of vintages are built upon.

The Chardonnay's sensitivity is a double-edged sword. This makes it an ideal wine to experiment with in both the vinification process and barreling in oak casks. But it also easily loses its personality.

When you are quaffing French champagne or enjoying good Chablis, 10 to one you are sipping mouthfuls of what started off as Chardonnay.

As with other grapes, it took growers in the New World to give it the space it needed to come into its own, although the Europeans were catching up pretty quickly.

California Chardonnay has established an excellent reputation. Here the grape has been allowed to develop its great character, with full body and a smooth but bright nose that has made it one of the most popular wines on American tables.

In Australia, Chardonnay also enjoyed a renaissance from the 1970s onwards, with brave, bold vintners experimenting with terroir, barrel fermentation, the prevention of malolactic fermentation (which gives the wine its buttery characteristic) and the proportion of new to old cooperage.

It was in Australia that I first tasted an unoaked Chardonnay and it was a bottle that swayed my opinion of what I thought was an overly appreciated grape. But that is another story for another week.

Experts say the Chardonnay, like the carnation of the floral world, tends to mutate in response to soil and climate. What this means is that the grape is often a work-in-progress, which may affect the consistency of the wine year-on-year, even if it all comes from the same vineyard.

At local wine cellars and supermarkets now, the standard questions they are trained to ask are: "Do you prefer a dry white or dry red?" and "Are you going to drink it yourself, or give it as a gift?"

If your answer is a "dry white", you will, very likely, be pointed to the row of Chardonnays sitting in the middle shelf at eye level. And if you indicate it's for a gift, you will probably be guided to the more expensive bottles at the end row.

Avoid the obligatory quiz by asking for a deliberately obscure vintage, and while the sales person conscientiously hunts for it, you can relax and examine the shelf at your own leisure.

For traditional (read "oaked") Chardonnay, good estates to look out for are The Hess Collection from Napa-Sonoma and the very reliable Kim Crawford Chardonnay from New Zealand. A good bottle averages 200 to 300 yuan ($30-45). I buy mine online, which allows me to browse the individual pedigrees.

Chardonnay is very good with food - and pairs well with chicken, seafood and pork. Read the tasting notes for a hint of what's to come.