Let us assume that chardonnay is at a nadir, a bottom from which it is attempting to ascend. I see signs of this, including chardonnay in the lounge at the airports. Those of us who follow the grape have gently stuck our toes into the glass and decided all is not lost.
Wine makers have certainly not forsaken the grape, though it is now hugely outnumbered on the shelves by pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. Chile is down to three listings. Australia still has about 20 but most of them are in the “nameless cheap white” category. There are another zillion chards bottled in Canada in this category as well. (If a “Canadian” wine is not labeled VQA it indicates the wine was merely bottled in Canada. The parameters are usually price point X price point X price point. The blending stock is from wherever the tanker could pick up a cheap load, usually California.)
I was curious how uniform the palate is these days, and therefore picked up several competent labels from a variety of countries, to ran a world-beat chardonnay tasting. In particular I was curious how price and country played out.
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I was expecting a much greater variation than I actually found. In general there was little difference between a chardonnay from Burgundy, Canada or Australia. Even more interesting was how tight the quality differences were. Once you’re at the $15 mark you’re typically getting a very well made traditional chardonnay and the improvement found in the $30 is not particularly marked. (I can hear every reader from Thunder Bay to Calgary cheering this last bit of news. “Ma! Let’s go buy some $15 wine! It’s as good as the stuff that snob in the paper drinks!”)
This kind of tight quality spread usually indicates the bottom of a market. It doesn’t mean popularity lurks around the corner – German Riesling has been in this situation for over two decades – but it IS the time for bargain hunters to run amok with a kris in their teeth. Or maybe a credit card, as the latter is less likely to provoke judicial censure.
For me the most disappointing wine was the Burgogne Reserve. It was a nice enough wine with a just a sniff of mineral in the bouquet, but the palate became a little cloying after a while, which I put down to the lactones from oak. On the other hand if you’re ’90s guy at heart who never quite got over Leeann Rimes growing up this is probably the best wine of the lot.
Torreon de Paredes is a wine that I drink and then forget about for a few months, and in this case this was a mistake. In many ways this was the best wine of the tasting regardless of price. A slightly zingier palate than the rest of them with an interesting finish on the back of the palate, just a hair of astringency. They’ve managed to strike a balance between what can be done to the grape and what is a more old world, restrained quality of vinification. I really liked this wine and at this price itís a deal.
Mt. Difficulty is a cool climate chard from the south of the south island of New Zealand. It is an excellent wine that shows off all of the ability of Kiwi wine makers. A floral slightly mineral bouquet leads you into a lovely smooth palate that lingers with a solid mid-palate finish. I drink this wine fairly regularly, because it hits all the right notes of what is currently a good chardonnay. However it is also twice the price of the Torreon de Paredes, which will keep it off the shopping list for a number of readers.
Mission Hill Five Vineyards will strike many people a bit of a step down the quality ladder. I wrote about the Mission Hill vineyard last fall, and I found myself quite enjoying their Chardonnay. I don’t often compare Canadian wines to foreign because there is a marked price difference that favours better climates, so this was the secret goal of the tasting. Does this wine compare favourably?
It does, but the first thing that strikes you when comparing is that the wine is slightly less intense than the others. This is not always a bad thing: If you are laying wines down to age, you need intensity because the wine will fine down and fade over time. But wines meant for aging that are drunk young can be exhausting to drink, and I am inclined these days to prefer less intense wines like Mission Hill.
For my money Mission Hill chardonnay stands up to the other wines but many readers may find it a bit bland. I found it beautifully balanced and a great food wine, which was part of why it struck me in the Okanagan – I was having it with my meal. (If you’re ever out that way and want a treat, check out the Mission Hill restaurant. It may well be the best food in Canada.)
Rosemount Diamond Chardonnay was once the Wine Sweepstakes winner, gushing money like a geyser. These days it is still a solid wine, with decent sales, but I doubt it is peoples’ go-to wine any more. Their Chard these days was the least intense of the lot, and the most temperature sensitive. I enjoyed it more at almost room temperature.
However it was kind of insipid with the various foods I tried it against. Itís not a bad wine, and if you like it carry on, but I think you may enjoy checking out the competition.
Mt. Difficulty Chardonnay, New Zealand, 2009. $29.99 *****
Torreon de Paredes Chardonnay Reserva, Chile, 2009. $15.99 ***** (Deal alert!)
Mission Hill Five Vineyards Chardonnay, BC, 2009. $15.99 ****
Rosemount Diamond Chardonnay, Australia, 2010. $16.49 ****
Bourgogne Chardonnay Reserve, Pierre Andre, France, 2010. $21.95 ****
James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze
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