With some interesting facts, tips and tricks for buying, gifting and sipping, Modern Mississauga’s resident wine expert demystifies the world’s most interesting beverage.
Chardonnay is probably the most divisive wine in North America: people either love it or hate it. But most people don’t realize how important Chardonnay is and how many world-class wines are made from this ubiquitous grape variety.
Did you know that Chablis is 100% Chardonnay? Or that Champagne can only be made from three different grapes and Chardonnay is one of them? How about white Burgundy? Also Chardonnay. So really, to say you hate Chardonnay is like saying you hate wine.
So why are we so confused? Well, in the New World (i.e. North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) we label the bottles and refer to a wine by the grape variety. In the Old World (i.e. Europe) it’s all about the place. That’s why most people have a hard time buying French and other European wines: it’s not the name of the grape on the label - it’s the name of the place. Bordeaux, Sancerre, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Rioja, Champagne. They’re all places, not grapes. And it takes a fair amount of knowledge to learn all of the grapes in these places. So, in North America especially, we tend to stick with wines that we can recognize the name of the grape on the label like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Shiraz.
Based on what we are used to here in Ontario, when someone says they love or hate Chardonnay, what they really mean is California Chardonnay – the wine we tend to associate with this grape. California Chardonnay tends to be a rich, buttery style of wine with lots of oak barrel aging which is what gives the wine notes of vanilla and caramel. Admittedly, Chardonnay from Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa often have a similar profile, so they get lumped into the same category. But remember, both climate and winemaking style have a huge impact on the final wine. In addition to Champagne, Chablis and white Burgundy (which are all unique and special) there are hundreds of unoaked Chardonnays made around the world (including Ontario) that are totally different from one another and distinctly un-Californian. Next time someone offers you a glass of Chardonnay, ask where it’s from before you reply. Or even better: “How oaky is it?”
And while we’re on the subject of misunderstood grape varieties, it’s worth saying: leave Merlot alone! If you ask the average person why they don’t like Merlot, they usually describe it as soft or boring. In fact, there is little evidence to support people’s dislike of this grape, except for the movie Sideways. Paul Giamatti’s character in this film (Miles, a wine connoisseur) goes on a rant about the mediocrity of Merlot and following the release of the film, consumption of Merlot in the English-speaking world plummeted. It’s not a joke. It was a pop-culture trend that ruined Merlot’s reputation. The irony is that the wine that Miles is most excited about at the end of the film, a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc is about half Merlot. Château Cheval Blanc is in Bordeaux, France where Merlot comprises some of the world’s most expensive and sought-after red wines. As you can see, the place where the grapes are grown is as important (if not more so) than the grape variety itself.
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Tim Reed Manessy [Sommelier CAPS, CMS] is a wine instructor at George Brown College, restaurant consultant, private & corporate event specialist and really annoying at a dinner party.