To set this post, I have purposefully asked a complex question with a complex answer. Despite its seemingly simple base form, Chardonnay does not reveal itself with simple explanations. Chardonnay is famously the only neutral noble grape. It lends itself to both climate and cellar work unlike other grapes. It is stylistically protean.
However, good Chardonnay does share certain characteristics. They are: high acidity, energy, intensity of flavour, and tonal balance. These conditions are necessary to diversity. The diversity of good Chardonnay comes not in these characteristics, but rather in weight and in fruit and lactone profile.
High ripeness, high alcohol, low acid, and heavy toasting on the barrels, undercut rather than uplift the grape’s inherent greatness. Good Chardonnay is never a ‘cocktail’ wine. The naturally low-acid white grapes such as Marsanne and Roussanne fair much better in this role.
Within these basic parameters, Chardonnay is stylistically capable. Razor-sharp blanc de blancs and some Chablis are at one liminal side (a side I do not think is actually the best expression of the grape, but that has its legitimate fans). Contrasting these wines are Chardonnays from the likes of Santa Cruz Mountains, The Cote d’Or grand crus, and the top Maconnais whites. The tonal shifts between these two posts do everything from briny seafood to middle-eastern stewed chicken dishes.
Recently I had a tasting lunch at which we sampled a robust range of styles of Chardonnay that guided us through a scenic food pairing route.
Gusbourne blanc de blancs 2013: Surprisingly great and my first English sparking. Made from 100% Chard – fresh, zingy and delightful. Very Good+.
Billaud-Simon Chablis Tete D’Or 2016: Green and very light – a good appetizer wine with the right pairing. Do not expect the depth of premier cru and above. Good+
Domaine du Pellican Arbois Chardonnay 2015: Starting to move into a more complete range of flavours. I have not been that impressed with the Marquis D’Angerville project in the Jura so far – the wines seem to lack personality. I expect this will change with time and age. Very Good.
Passopisciaro Passobianco 2015: A Sicilian Chardonnay from a great producer that is a truly wonderful wine that shows not all great things come from indigenous grapes. Excellent.
Domaine Ramonet Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Canet Premier Cru 2011: Reductive style, not showing the same generosity these wines often have, which is likely due to vintage. It was a sophisticated pairing with a cured salmon dish, but not the peak of what Ramonet has to offer. Very Good+.
Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay 2009: One of Australia’s icon whites that has yet seen little inflation over the years. It’s brilliant stuff. It ages tremendously well. There is no shortage of tension, but it has real weight and breadth. Highly recommended. Excellent.
Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Blanc 2014: Little needs to be said. It lives up to its name. A greater wine than most producers’ premier crus. Excellent+.
Lingua Franca Avini Chardonnay 2016: The Lafon project in Oregon. Avini is the entry-level wine and shows the style and potential. These are unlike any other Chardonnays in Oregon today – more attenuated and mineral-driven. I understand the single vineyards are where the real excitement is. I quite enjoyed this though think it is a tad overpriced. Very Good+.