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Chardonnay has the distinction of being the most popular white wine on the planet. That’s partially because of consumer tastes – but also because of winemakers’ tastes as well.
For example: According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, California had a whopping 93,148 acres of chardonnay vineyards in 2018 – neck and neck with the most popular red wine grape, cabernet sauvignon. (The next most common white wine grape, French colombard, took up just 20 per cent of that space.)
Why do winemakers love growing chardonnay so much? Firstly, it’s easy to grow: It happily thrives in regions around the world, ripens early, and provides a reliable, profitable yield.
But more important – and more interesting – is the adaptability of the chardonnay grape.
Where a Riesling or sauvignon blanc might only bend so much to a winemaker’s will, chardonnay tends to take much bigger cues from the terroir it’s planted in, and from the winemaking process itself.
In short, it’s a perfectly-primed blank canvas for a number of winemakers – and if you’ve been ignoring it, now’s the time to revisit this classic varietal.
Chardonnay is classified as a dry white wine – but as we’ve stated above, the variety can change dramatically from one producer or one bottle to the next.
Cooler-climate chardonnays, like other wines, tend to be crisper and more acidic, since lower temps tend to preserve acidity in the fruit. You might find apple, citrus and orchard fruit flavours in a cool-climate chardonnay.
Meanwhile, a warmer-climate chardonnay will trend more toward tropical fruit like mango, pineapple or papaya – and they’ll tend to have more natural sweetness.
A word of warning: Lower-quality chardonnay producers might also add tons of extra sugar to the finished product (one reason why many drinkers have – somewhat unfairly – sworn off chardonnay).
Another reason why some might find chardonnay off-putting: Their tendency to showcase super-rich, “buttery” flavours (which aren’t every wine drinker’s cup of, uh, wine).
The reason for this is a process called malolactic fermentation, which converts grapes’ natural malic acid (a substance that gives off a more tart, apple-like flavour) to lactic acid, which lends a more dairy-like flavour.
Additionally, heavily oaking chardonnays – a style that was all the rage in the 80s and 90s – can infuse the wine with even more of that rich dairy character. These days, winemakers tend to use a far more judicious hand in terms of oaking, allowing for a more balanced, approachable finished product.
With so much variety in texture and flavour available, you’ll want to pick the right chardonnay for the occasion.
A crisper, unoaked chardonnay plays nice with more delicate flavours like oysters and shellfish, lighter seafood and goat cheese. cheeses like goat cheese, as well as oysters, shellfish or delicate fish.
Something a little more medium-bodied is an ideal match for white meats like pork and chicken, richer fish, or aged cheeses. And ultra-rich chardonnay styles can stand up to creamy dishes or even red meats.
WineOnline has no shortage of chardonnays available for delivery in Ontario, but when it comes to value, WineOnline sommelier Sam Fritz Tate heads right for the Chardonnay Estate VQA by Cave Spring Vineyard, which he calls “one of Ontario’s best chardonnays”.
Located in the Beamsville Bench appellation of the Niagara region, Cave Spring is overwhelmingly dedicated to white wines, at 78 per cent of total production; among those, they’re particularly known for their cool-climate chardonnays.
The Estate is made from a blend of grapes from three different parcels of land that, with the vines ranging from 32 to 38 years of age. In the cellar, the wine is split evenly between tank and barrel fermentation, with 20 per cent new French oak and an 80-20 blend of selected yeast blends and indigenous strains.
Tasting notes from Sam Fritz Tate, WineOnline: “Spectacular value on this double 90 point, back vintage Niagara wine. Properly treated, high quality fruit leads this elegant, light style of Chardonnay. Aromas of baked apple and honeyed melon finish with slight spice and toasty oak.”
Here’s what some other Canadian wine experts have said about Cave Spring Cellars’ chardonnay:
Natalie McLean, nataliemclean.com: “Masterfully made: great value too. A well-rounded, balanced Niagara Chardonnay: not heavy or wimpy, just right. Toasted almond and golden apple aromas.”
Chris Waters, watersandwine.com: “This is a ripe yet dialed-in expression of Chardonnay, which shows the warmth of the vintage but doesn’t lose its brightness or purity. … It calls to mind some of the more showy Cave Spring vintages from the past – 2003, 2007 and 2010 – but with more harmony and lengths. Drink now to 2024.”
$19.95 per bottle. Buy now at WineOnline.ca.