After ten weeks in isolation, the lockdowns are slowly being relaxed, and I have already shown my support for local businesses by visiting the brewery tap rooms here in Chestermere and nearby Strathmore for some socially distanced patio drinking.
This past weekend was delightfully sunny, a welcome respite after the May full of gloomy weather, so I took the opportunity to celebrate International Chardonnay Day, celebrated every year on the Thursday prior to the May long weekend.
The Chardonnay grape varietal has its origins in the Burgundy region of France, home to many of the noble wines of the old world.
Chardonnay experienced a slight consumer backlash near the turn of the millennium, thanks to consumer fatigue and fickle palates, and possibly its reputation as the stereotypical wine for the hip thirtysomething female. Thank you very much, Bridget Jones Diary!
The backlash reached its peak near the turn of the millennium, with the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, when consumer tastes shifted more towards either red wines, or the lighter flavored Pinot Gris white wines.
Fortunately, the silver lining of the ABC movement was that many of the marginal brands of Chardonnay disappeared from the market, which helped improve the quality of the average Chardonnay available at your local liquor merchant. Today, Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine, so if you are drinking the house white at a local restaurant, odds are pretty good that it is a Chardonnay.
One reason for its ongoing popularity is that the Chardonnay grape is decidedly low-maintenance. Chardonnay grows well in varied conditions, so it has flourished all over the world.
Unlike other grape varietals, there is not a well defined “typical” Chardonnay flavor, as the grape is very malleable, taking on the characteristics of the soil and weather patterns it is planted in.
The classic Chardonnays from France tend to be light and crisp, reflecting not only the terroir of the region, but the hesitance of the stodgy French winemakers to jazz up such a noble grape.
New world versions of Chardonnay, particularly in California, tend to be sexier and more heavily oaked, leading to wide variations in the flavor profiles between different vineyards.
Winemakers love Chardonnay vines for this very reason, as they can be considered a “blank canvas” that can be tweaked to make the local terroir and skill of the winemaker shine.
California Chardonnay is very popular the world over, and has over 100,000 acres of planted vines, accounting for 25% of worldwide Chardonnay production.
Back in the shoulder-pad-heavy decade of the 80s, the entire world seemed to jump on the oak bandwagon, aging Chardonnay in oak casks, instead of the stainless steel vats that had been more commonplace until then.
When Chardonnay is aged in stainless steel vats, it tends to bring out the fruity and astringent qualities of the wine, which makes it popular with novice drinkers and the young alco-pop crowd. If you ever see a book club of ladies of a certain age drinking from giant glasses of Chardonnay with an ice cube, this is the style they are drinking!
If a Chardonnay is aged in oak, the fruit flavors diminish from the forefront, and a buttery texture with hints of vanilla and caramel permeates the wine.
Perhaps the finest Chardonnay I ever tasted was in the village of Chablis, just a few hours outside of Paris, while I was on a European vacation a few years back. The Chablis region is the northernmost wine district in Burgundy, and its unique soils and terroir make it the perfect location for the Chardonnay grape, which has been cultivated in the region since the 12th century.
Fortunately, I will not need to make another trip to France to enjoy the wines of Chablis, as they are widely available at your friendly neighbourhood booze merchant in the $25-$40 range.
For those preferring to drink local, my favourite domestic Chardonnay is from Quail’s Gate in the Okanagan Valley, and widely available here in Alberta for under $24. This Chardonnay is a blend of 70% stainless steel vat aged, and 30% oak barrel aged, which makes for a less fruity, more rich and buttery wine.
Find out which style of Chardonnay you like best by taking a few bottles home today!