One of the unexpected pleasures that comes from broadening your personal wine palate is the confidence you gain to return to a more travelled path with a better perspective. Case in point: enjoying chardonnay.
Popularity can be a curse in any business because it usually means everyone wants your product. In the case of chardonnay, global demand saw many vines established in vineyards where they never should have been planted. The resulting, boring wine shaped the image of varietal chardonnay wine for decades, taking it a long way from its original Burgundian home where the winemaking rule of thumb is: less is more.
Whether it was too sweet, too oaky, too rich in alcohol, or all three, the old New World chardonnay that everyone reached for - as late as a decade ago - has undergone an extreme makeover. The results are exciting.
Once you have experienced the liveliness of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, the crisp clean vivacity of the Loire Valley's Sancerre offerings or the cool, lean, modern coastal labels of Chilean sauvignon, you will demand that same vivacity in your chardonnay.
Similarly, after tasting German riesling, Italian cortese (used in Gavi), South African chenin blanc and, closer to home in British Columbia, our super fresh rieslings and pinot gris offerings, your palate will demand similar dynamism in your chardonnay.
For those willing to change and mix modern thinking with ancient practices, we have a whole new spectrum of delicious tasting chardonnay to choose from.
This week we present a number of possibilities in time for summer's late arrival. All you need do is add the poultry (chicken, turkey or quail) or seafood. Halibut or swordfish, line caught of course, are an excellent pairing. Likewise, seafood pasta and risotto dishes work well with chardonnay, as does the creamy texture of polenta. Don't forget local Dungeness crab and a little drawn butter - it's a match made in heaven.
Australia may seem like an odd place to begin our modern chardonnays, considering some of the oak bombs of the past, but the Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 2010 ($16) fits the bill with its citrus, green apple skin, pear and honey aromas and its fresh, crisp, palate marked with baked pear, green apple skin, nectarine, butter and grapefruit flavours. A skinnier, cooler style chardonnay, Koonunga Hill is still sourced from multiple districts with significant contributions from South Australia's Clare and Padthaway sub-regions.
If unoaked and organically grown fruit are important you'll love the Cono Sur Organic Chardonnay 2010 ($14.50). Expect its trademark clean fruit with gooseberry and passion fruit aromas mixed with just off-dry fruit flavoured with citrus, guava and passion fruit notes and a swath of minerality. Talk about a wine that over-delivers.
At Rodney Strong, owner Tom Klein has championed sustainable growing techniques at his "winery within a winery" program, allowing everyone at Rodney Strong to contribute at a very high level.
The Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2009 ($21) is on auto drive after almost 40 years with winemaker Rick Sayre allowing the cool Pacific Ocean to govern its style: namely New Age Sonoma chardonnay. Cool nights and warm afternoons produce a vibrant chardonnay that's now a 40/60 blend of barrel and stainless steel fermented fruit grown in the Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Coast appellations. Look for a bright, citrus nose with hazelnuts and baked apple and peachy fruit flavours in the finish. Fantastic value.
Still in California, winemaker Randy Ullom hits all the right notes with his Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Vintner's Reserve 2009 ($22) with its honey, mango and floral aromas and ripe, fresh, juicy flavours flecked with pear, pineapple, orange and green apple all with good fruit, balance and intensity. Crab, anyone?
Closer to home, the Poplar Grove Reserve Chardonnay 2010 ($27) comes with an enticing butter, light lees, pineapple fruit nose. I love the baked apple entry and the long, buttery tarte tatin notes with nutty, oily, pineapple fruit and ripe red apples in the finish. This wine will improve in bottle for another three years but will work now with the likes of halibut and fresh fruit salsa, abalone or lobster. An excellent example of what can be achieved with restraint. Bravo.
Back to California, we find the style of the Mer Soleil Chardonnay 2008 ($39) to be a little more robust and ripe but in many ways it reflects the intensity of its Santa Lucia Highlands (Monterey County) fruit. The palate is round, soft, full and warm with a touch of oiliness and more butter, honey, nutty lees, spicy, baked pineapple, mango and citrus flavours. Still, there's enough freshness of fruit to keep you interested. Try this with grilled fish served with fresh, homemade fruit salsa.
From Chile, the Errazuriz Chardonnay Wild Ferment 2009 ($22) is the first "wild ferment" (natural yeast only) using grapes from the Aconcagua Costa region, home of the Errazuriz Manzanar Estate.
Manzanar's rolling hills sit 100 to 300-metres above sea level and are only 12 km from the super-cool Pacific Ocean. The 28.5-hectares planted in 2005 include clones 548 (structure), 95 (aromatics) and 76 (tropical notes). It's all hand-picked, early in the morning, and before a swift and gentle whole-cluster pressing.
The blend is aged on its lees for 12 months in French oak barrels (10 per cent new). The nose is complex mix of aromas including lively citrus, nutty notes with lees and mineral highlights. The style is fresh and clean with fine concentration of flavour. Lush, creamy and sophisticated, it's a very modern take on Chilean chardonnay.
In south Australia, chief Penfolds' winemaker, Peter Gago, and the white wine team continue to refine the Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 2008 ($110), a fittingly aboriginal name meaning little by little, or gradually.
The nose is a tour de force of freshness with subtle wisps of lemon, butter, lees, toasted cashews and baked apple. The attack is crisp but with delicacy and finesse and a creamy texture. More juicy flavours include honey, baked apple, oyster liquor and mineral flavours with a touch of seashore and chalk. Definitely Euro-style, it's 87 per cent Tasmanian fruit with the remainder picked at Adelaide Hills. This wine is now capable of a decade of ageing. Super quality here.
All in all, it's an impressive selection of modern chardonnay, any of which should finally jump-start your summer.
Anthony Gismondi is a West Vancouver-based freelance wine writer who travels the globe is search of terroir-based wine.