Grapeism and Getting Past the ABC of Wine

Tables are fast arriving. The chef and his team have prepared their features. I have prepped the staff on the new wines to feature. We are ready for service and I approach my first table.

“May I help you with a wine selection?”

Someone at the table speaks up and says, “ABC. Anything but Chardonnay.”

I smile. These are my favourite tables to work with.

Chardonnay is everywhere. While it originates from Burgundy in France, New World styles are also found in Australia and California, New Zealand and Chile, Canada and South Africa (and plenty more).

Grapeism. It exists. Chardonnay gets a bad rap and I am but its humble crusader.

Stylistically? It is the Little Black Dress you can wear to most occasions. Dress it up with too many accessories or shorten the length it was intended to be worn and you can understand how some people have been turned off with the wrong wine.

It is a varietal that can show biting green apple and pear as well as wet stone characteristics in cooler climates; citrus, melon and fresh peach characteristics in warmer climates; tropical fruit like mango, pineapple and banana in very warm climates.

The Chardonnays from Burgundy are stylish and subtle. They have a soft nutty richness with a strong dry backbone. Find a bottle of un-oaked Chablis and you will savour a wine that is fresh, crisp and elegant. Move to Meursault and you will find their expression richly oaked and full of finesse where the texture of silk and butter coats your palate. The Chardonnays from Pouilly-Fuisse can have beautiful notes of white peach, shaved ginger, lemon peel and dried apricots. Like the legs under that little black dress, these wines can move slowly and gracefully over your palate and then snap back to wink at you with crisp citrus and mineral notes.

My favourite thing about these classic expressions of such a misunderstood varietal? We have many of the same climate, soils and growing conditions here in Ontario that they do in France. In my line of work “ABC” not only translates to “anything but Chardonnay” but “anything but Canadian” which closes a person off from not only a varietal that is grown all over the world, but now an entire country who produces some incredible wines.

The New World style of Chardonnay owes its origins to Australia and California. They are upfront and oaky with notes of vanilla bean, buttered toast and butterscotch. With their peach, pineapple and tropical fruit salad notes they are also instantly loveable.

Most Chardonnays are ready to drink the moment that you buy them but top quality wines from France, Australia and California can and will improve for a good five years.

With food, this varietal will probably go well with just about anything. All fish, whether lightly grilled or swimming in a rich buttery sauce, will benefit from the right Chardonnay. The richer the sauce, the oakier the wine can be.

I return to my table with 4 small tastings each very different from the other and leave them to taste and talk amongst themselves. I never tell the table what I have poured as it is the easiest way to let the palate decide which wine will work best for them. Pre-conceived notions of a grape or a country can shut down the decision right away and where is the fun in that?

Wine #1 and 4 are Old World wines while the New World wines are #2 and 3. Wine #2’s style is classic Burgundy while wine #3 shows Chardonnay’s fruitier characteristics. The fourth wine is the Pinot Grigio that one of the guests at the table was asking about.

They have their selection. Three of the four guests emphatically vote yes to wine number two but choose wine number three as their close second. The fourth guest says that, while she enjoyed number three, she prefers wine number four.

While this is not always the outcome, it is by far my favourite one. I do this not to embarrass or call out a table but to show the experience with wines that they have been missing. It is my job to help guide a table towards a wine they will enjoy and that will showcase the best elements of the chef’s food that they have ordered. I make sure to offer a variety of prices so that they can be guided into their comfort zone, not mine.

Turns out that guest number four who said she enjoys Pinot Grigio, picked out the Pinot Grigio. When you know what you like, you should drink what you like.

“The second wine is one of my new favourites and one that we are currently featuring. It’s a Chardonnay.”

I lean in to the guest who made a point that nothing drinkable comes out of Canada and say with a wink…”and it’s from Ontario.”

They order a bottle and immediately ask where they can purchase it. I happily hand them Nicholas Pearce’s (the winemaker) card and write down the label information. This is the best way to start my night.