Wine Talk

Snooth User: Stephen Harvey

Chardonnay - The Much Maligned Grape

Posted by Stephen Harvey, Feb 8, 2011.

It seems to me that no grape or wine creates as much heated debate as the humble chardonnay.

We read about the great white burgundies and their legendary status, ageing capacity and amazing flavour profile, yet we the wine consumer seem to want to find an ever increasing number of reasons to dislike it.

We even have the ABC Club [Anything But Chardonnay]

Personally I find this somewhat frustrating as many of the best white wines I have drank in my life have been chardonnay.

My wife suggested to me at dinner the other night that one of the problems she has with chardonnay is that it is a brilliant food wine but she struggles with it as a stand alone wine.

I found this intersting as her favourite non-sparkling white wine is Giaconda Chardonnay from Beechworth in Victoria Australia and she has really enjoyed many of the white burgundies we have tried.  But admittedly they have been served with a meal.

We both agreed that Riesling is a more enjoyable stand alone drink but when it comes to the crunch a great Chardonnay served with food is the clearly the our favourite white wine overall

I decided to do a rating table for white wine.  Ignoring region and concentrating only on variety for the sake of simplicity this is how I rated based on giving my favourite 20 and then working down

Chardonnay                                            20.0

Riesling - All styles                                 19.0

Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc - Dry                18.0

Semillon                                                 17.5

Rhone Blends                                          17.5

Viognier                                                  17.0

Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc - Sweet            17.0   [excluding Chateau d'Yquem]

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio                              16.0

Chenin Blanc                                           16.0

Verdehlo                                                  15.0

Sauvignon Blanc                                      12.0

This is based with my overall experience with wine of this variety.  I have excluded wines that are from large volume commercial brands in the sub any currency 10/750ml bottle range.

I have rated Riesling high because it is very consistent in quality from country to country and region to region and SB low because its best is very good [ie Sancere style] and its worst overcropped NZSB is very poor and in large quantities.

I know this is very subjective but it reflects my overall preference based on what I have tried.

I am interested to hear everyones random views on Chardonnay.




Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Feb 8, 2011.

Interesting.  My experience with Chard is the complete opposite.  I find it to be a fairly awful food wine and much better alone, unless we're talking Burg-style.  I also find Riesling to be a much, much better food wine.

That said, I'm not talking about AUS wines, as I don't often drink them and am not as familiar with them.  They could certainly be grown in the complete opposite styles as they traditionally are in the rest of the world.

Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2011.

I think Chardonnay is still the most popular white grape by a wide margin, at least in the US. In a different version, it's also used in many sparkling wines around the world.  The people who are down on it tend to be wine snobs in the US who have decided that they can't drink Kendall Jackson because of the RS and overt wood, and who consequently hate any version of Chardonnay that has some barrel time. 

There's something to be said for that position, but to me, it's just another way to make Chardonnay, which on its own is a fairly insipid grape.  That same quality however, makes it a wonderful grape for producing very different types of wine.  Do you stir the lees or not, do you put in barrels or not, do you leave some RS or not, do you go thru malolactic or not, do you age or not, etc. There's a huge difference between the Domaine Bongran and the white Beaujolais made very near by.

Therefore, whether or not it's a "food" wine would depend on what you like to drink with your food.  Of course, for me, every single wine is a food wine as long as it's drinkable.

W/out the wood, lees, malo, Chardonnay can be much like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Melon, and grapes that make rather lean wines.  Sauv Blanc has too much of its own personality, for better or worse, to be as chameleon-like, as of course does Riesling.

So in terms of interest, I'd put Chardonnay at the top, just like you did, with Riesling tied for first but for entirely different reasons.  Then I'd put Furmint, which isn't as well-known as some of the others but which can make wonderful lean, crisp wines, bigger oak-fermented and aged wines, and stupendous sweet wines.  

After that, it's almost random for me, although in order, I probably drink more Melon, Godello, Albarino, and Verdejo (which as far as I know is not Verdehlo) than anything else.  More recently I've been drinking more Vermentino from Italy and south France, and I'm enjoying that too.

Reply by dmcker, Feb 8, 2011.

I'm with both you, Stephen, and Greg, on chardonnay at the top. Without a doubt the greatest non-dessert white epiphanies have been with it. Riesling would be second for me, too. Would pull sauvignon blanc way up the list, based both on the Loire and Graves (albeit mixed there with semillon), though if we're talking NZ SBs then it doesn't even deserve a place at the bottom. Also would pull chenin blanc higher, based on the Loire I drink. And melon, as Greg mentions. Nos. of others from the Alto Adige through Savoie, not just pinot blanc and gris. Unfortunately for me viognier comes across as an easy grape for poor winemakers to get away with. Leaving aside one maker in the Rhone, I've enjoyed the mass of it about as much as those NZ SBs.

'ABC' I always viewed as both a necessary wrong-direction-correction tool and a blogger's/writer's conceit. I've always thought anyone who said wood shouldn't come near chard as misplacing his or her head somewhere else in their anatomy. It's just how the wood is used. Been at table in sainted Chablis (for those of that school, anyway) when some very interesting debates were going on about how much wood of what quality when. Of course, having to drink too many overblown CA fernbar fruitbomb chards on a trip or two to the Bay Area a couple decades ago did alert me to some wrongful tangents in local chard styling, there still have been other wellmade versions all the while.

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 8, 2011.

Have to agree with a lot said by Greg and dmcker.

Australia suffered the same overblown overwooded over extracted styles of chardonnays which tasted more like melted cheap butter infused with toothpicks.

We have seen a genuine change in Chardonnay direction in this country with a genuine attempt by many winemakers to produce wines based on the Burgundian benchmarks, but utilising the the fruit and terrior charateristics of their local grapes.'

We have seen a slight trend to the more austere Chablis style as well but our climate seems to favour the bigger styles due to our generally warmer temperatures.

D - On SB I seperate SB from the Sem/SB blend beause I think they tend to be stylistically very different.  White Bordeaux and some of our makers from Margaret River and Yarra Valley are making very good wines using this blend and I firmly believe the addition of Semillon to SB takes away or tones down the SB charateristics of NZSB that annoy me [eg too much capsicum and cats pee {how cats pee can be a positive descriptor is beyond my logical boundaries!!}]  I agree that lightly oaked SB eg from Sancere is very good and some of our Adelaide Hills winemakers are trying to develop this style - Early stages yet but certainly some positive signs.

I agree that that in the beginning the ABC concept was a wake up call for winemakers but now it has become the call sign for many NZSB lovers who are unwilling to step ourt of their safe little capsicum and cat pee world

Greg - sadly we do not see a lot of the varieties you mention, although again we have a number of winemakers experimenting with them.  I try to look at some but at the moment many are still in "project status" as the winemakers learn how to handle them [not to mention working out whether we have planted them in the right spot]

GDD - I think my wifes comments were definitely aimed at the Burgundy style of Chardonnay and we would both agree Riesling is a great food wine, but we also love to drink it without a meal, more so than chardonnay.  It is hard to charaterise Aus chardonnay as it comes from so many diverse regions over here.  And even within region we have different winemakers taking different approaches.  A number of our top end chardonnays have been rated the equal of some of the good premier cru's in international tastings.  But I think we would all concede the best comes from Burgundy.  I have tried a couple of Cali Chardonnays from Sonoma and Napa and have found most of them to be wines I would happily share with friends as have some italian ones I have tried.

Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2011.

D - fernbars!  Wasn't Chardonnay made expressly for them?  Or they for Chardonnay?  That was just so symbiotic!

But speaking of dessert wines - Chardonnay can make a great one.  The Bongran is of course sweet, but Kracher made TBAs from Chardonnay.  It's that versatility that makes it seem  so strange when people dismiss it.

Stephen - there are wine makers in Australia working with those grapes!  I think Woop Woop makes a Verdejo and there's also Albarino, although it turns out that most of it is actually Savagnin, which is even cooler because nobody knows what the hell that grape is but here they are growing it in Australia!!  Awesome move IMO.

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 8, 2011.

Greg - Yes interesting issue the Albarino v Savagnin debate, appears that whoever brought the cuttings from overseas got it wrong.

Yes it is great to see the experimentation and hopefully we will find the right places to produce the varieties.

This is what makes wine fascinating

And I have tried a couple of Krachers and did not realise they were chardonnay based - great alternative to Sauterne - just goes to prove you can learn something new everyday in this wine world of ours

Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2011.

Not ALL Krachers!!  But he was awesome - he did Zweigelt, Riesling, Chardonnay, etc. 

As I've said many times, I think the Australian winemakers are in some ways the best in the world.  They don't have constraints, they're willing to experiment with any aspect of winemaking that they feel needs some exploration, and they're fearless in their willingness to try anything.  No doubt if anyone can figure out what to do wiht Savignin, they will.

And the wines from Jura can be really interesting too.  Not sure if they're "great" but they're different enough to merit some attention!

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 8, 2011.

Greg - now you have me intrigued - will have to go and get a Kracher and note the grape - thanks for the insight.

The grape that has got a bit impetus recently is Viognier, both as a straight white varietal wine and for the Shiraz Viognier blend

Yalumba do three viogniers - intersted if you can find some and let me know your thoughts

Reply by napagirl68, Feb 9, 2011.

my, my.  No more talk of cat pee, PLEASE!  That is just wrong... which of you have tasted cat pee as a calibration?  I'd really like to know.. or maybe not...  How does one even get that nuance?  Ok, don't answer!

Well, my thoughts on chard are that I tend to agree with GDD that they are not the best food pairers.  That said, WHILE I am cooking, or sitting in the warm sun after a big day of gardening, a nice, minerally russian river Chard with low to no malo can be quite enjoyable!  I think it REALLY depends on what you are drinking the wine with, or if you are just sipping.  I absolutely LOVE white rhone varietals... I have SEVERAL california viogniers, blends (marsanne, roussane, viogniers), etc that I don't think drink well on their own, but pair them with the right food and WOW.  Last night I roasted a chicken stuffed with lemon, rosemary, onions, rubbed with olive oil and thyme/rosemary under the skin.  I drank a 2009 Lavendar Ridge Cotes du Calaveras (Murphys, CA) with it.  The flavors in the chicken just made the wine explode... was amazing for this inexpensive little drinker from the Sierra Foothills of California (blend of viognier, roussane, marsanne, and grenache blanc). 

So... I guess it depends on what you are looking for.  Many times, I want to sip wine and chat with friends.. maybe a bit of cheese.  These wines are not necessarily my first picks for food pairings, and my fav food wines may taste bland while drinking sans food.   

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 9, 2011.

The cats pee calibration bemuses me too, but some wine writers wax lyrical about NZSB having that as GOOD characteristic.

Now I am no expert on Cats pee but my faint memory of emptying the cats tray when still living with my parents does not provide me with any memories I want to associate with the enjoyment of wine.

I agree rhone blends are great food wines, the food we had with our Adelaide Hills Chardonnay was

Lee - Roast Beetroot with fetta

Me - Blue swimmer crab linguine, tomato base and very light touch of chilli and garlic

The chardonnay had enough acid to cope with the tomato and really matched the creamy texture of the minced crab meat and and pasta.

Reply by GregT, Feb 9, 2011.

The cat pee has only to do with the aroma.

I think.

And it's surely there in some SB, tho not all. I don't know, but I think it's the same compound that gives it a grapefruit aroma, except in higher concentrations.  Kind of gross really.

If someone starts talking about it as a flavor however, we're in a weird place where I really don't want to be.

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 9, 2011.

Greg not that I can vouch for taste but I think you are correct

Not sure about the compound - Maybe they add catfood to ferment?

I am sure Google can lead you to that weird place!

Reply by dmcker, Feb 14, 2011.

GDD and NG, all I can say is that you've likely been drinking far too many California butterbombs if you say chardonnay doesn't go with food.

From Chablis in the north all the way down to Meursault and even the Maconnais in the south there's so much excellent Burgundy white that is a perfect match to all sorts of dishes. Oysters and chablis. Scallops and Chablis. Smoked sea bass and any level of montrachet. Roast chicken and meursault. Plenty of cheese (and gratined potatoes and...) matches, too. I could go on for several paragraphs.

And I'm not even talking about the highest levels where the grape reaches degrees of sublime perfection (to my palate, anyway) that very few others do...

Reply by Girl Drink Drunk, Feb 14, 2011.

I said "other than Burg-style".  Duh.


Reply by dmcker, Feb 14, 2011.

How about something from CA halfway to Burgundy like this one?

Another bankruptcy sale in Sonoma

(and there are a number of other examples out of northern CA, too)

Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 14, 2011.

Sorry for long article, but this is an assessment of where Australian Chardonnay is by Decanter in a recent tasting.

The article is interesting, I have come to the conclusion that Jefford just hates us South Australians.  He also is obsessed about terroir to the point he often rants illogically and says things like I would rather a wine show its terroir even if it means a relatively poor wine in a poor vintage.  Bad wine is bad wine, I am glad my palate is not like his!!


The comments on Eden Valley and Barossa are fair but I have never thought of EV as a particularly strong chardonnay region.


I think the Adelaide Hills comment is valid given the history is short compared to Yarra Valley, Mornington and Margaret River, and in context is more about saying it is work in progress.  I have great faith in the Adelaide Hills and I expect that over the 5-10 years we will see a general improvement as most winemakers work out the secret to getting good chardonnay, including site and clone selection as well as level of Oak treatment.  I might add that Mornington chardonnay can be exceptionally variable.



Reply by Stephen Harvey, Feb 14, 2011.

GDD - I think you are in a very fortunate position where your profession requires you too look at wine across a very broad spectrum of variety, style, price and quality.  Therefore you get a very broad view of Chardonnay and can conclude that a lot of what you see does not go well with food.

People like myself who do not have that opportunity tend to react to a good or bad experience and that often sets our thinking in a certain direction.  I personally find a lot of chardonnay [certainly based on the chequered history of it here in Australia] not to my liking whether with or without food. But like dmcker I have found some outstanding examples of chardonnay which is great with food.

I must admit my experience with Californian Chardonnay is very limited and it seems to me from reading many different views on it that it is a wine drank with a high level of enthusiasm in the US market but whether it is a good food wne I can't offer a view.

Importantly you are required as a wine professional to make these types of judgements and for that reason your views certainly make all of us, well me in particular, stop and think about what you say and in many cases go away and investigate.

Anyway I hope your approaching delivery does not dampen your appetite for debate on the forums.

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