Aside from Chablis, Meursault or Montrachet, which of the world’s leading Chardonnay regions would you turn to, and what are the top wines from each? In a landmark tasting, Stephen Brook heads up an expert panel to find out – and the results may surprise you

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See the wines and read about Decanter’s landmark tasting on the best Chardonnay wines outside Burgundy

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Chardonnay, most wine lovers agree, is the noblest white grape variety (we’ll allow Riesling enthusiasts a dissenting voice). But at least four decades have gone by since it was a monopoly of the Burgundy region and Champagne. Today it is widely planted throughout the world, and with mature vineyards and experienced winemakers working with the variety, it was irresistibly tempting to test how Chardonnay outside Burgundy is faring,especially since concerns about premature oxidation and ever soaring prices increasingly persuade wine drinkers to look outside that region.

Unlike its stablemate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay has never been particularly difficult to grow. While it tends to thrive in a relatively cool climate and site, it can succeed in a number of styles, from unoaked Chablis to richly oaked versions. In short, it’s malleable, a variety that winemakers love to play with, as they can easily exercise their skills on it, dabbling in all kinds of variables, such as yields, barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation (or its suppression), lees-stirring, and more.

Given Chardonnay’s popularity, the field for any tasting of top Chardonnays needed to be narrowed down, a task undertaken by Decanter experts who nominated what they considered the finest Chardonnays from their regions. From these lists, the editorial team made a final selection of 80 wines. The tasters (myself, Jasper Morris MW and Steven Spurrier) were given minimal information: just the vaguest indications about oak-ageing and alcohol. Thus the wines were required to speak for themselves. Spurrier and I broadly agreed with Morris’ assertion that ‘about half the wines couldn’t have been Burgundy, but half quite easily could have’.

Power vs finesse

The wines fell, approximately into two camps: those with 13.5% alcohol or less, and those with 14% or more. The less powerful wines tended to be aged, or so it seemed as they were tasted, in a moderate proportion of new oak. The emphasis was on freshness, acidity and finesse.

Those in the second camp tended to be richer, toastier, with more evident use of oak. There were excellent wines in both camps, although the panel (perhaps because of our demure European tastes) tended to favour the fresher styles, which showed precision, restraint and, often, minerality.

The 2013s showed beautifully, and there was less tension and more overt sucrosity in the 2012s. Rather to our surprise, the handful of 2010s were mostly stunning, with very little evolution.

Moving to the more powerful and oaky bottles was quite a gear change, but there was no shortage of impressive wines in that category, although the tasters often questioned their sucrosity, and the fact that some valued power over finesse.

Morris was keen to distinguish sweetness from sucrosity, pointing out that the latter referred to the impression of sweetness. Actual sweetness could easily be derived from a dollop of residual sugar in the wine – a common feature of much popular Californian and Australian Chardonnay – whereas sucrosity could just as easily be a side-effect of high alcohol. It wasn’t always easy to distinguish between the two, though it seemed there were few wines that had alarming amounts of residual sugar.

A fine white Burgundy should offer complexity, nuance, finesse and ageability. How many of these qualities were echoed in the non-Burgundian Chardonnays? Morris willingly conceded that for at least 20 years other regions have produced wines of a quality that rivalled good Burgundy. Indeed, he noted of this line-up, ‘If we had the same number of theoretically top Burgundies in a tasting, they would not have been as consistently good.’ Spurrier and I felt much the same, though Spurrier suspected he might have assessed more critically had the wine actually been from Burgundy.

Had this been a conventional Decanter panel tasting, just over half the wines would have fallen into the Outstanding or Highly Recommended categories – an impressive result. (Though given the wines had been pre-selected for their exceptional quality, this figure may not be quite as astounding as it at first appears. Nonetheless the panel was more than delighted by the quality overall.)

Analysing the results

Looking closely at the actual results, it’s hard to see any clear pattern. Among the wines with the highest average scores (which we’ve rated as Outstanding and above) four are from Australia, three are from South Africa, there are two each from the US and New Zealand, and one each from Canada and Italy. The only surprises here are the unexpectedly strong performances by wines from Lombardy and Niagara, and the presence in force of South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde region.

Among the next tier of high-scoring wines (Highly Recommended), seven come from the US – all Californian – six from Australia, five from New Zealand and four from Chile, with three from Italy and two each from South Africa and Argentina. Here the surprise is the strong showing by Californian wines from different regions. The perception of Californian Chardonnay is that it tends to be oaky and heavy, and while the wines nominated for this tasting tended to be in a fresher and more elegant style, it is still noteworthy that so many came through strongly. Australia and New Zealand also showed great regional diversity.

Of the least admired wines (those that didn’t make the top 42 from the 80 tasted) it is striking that so many came from South America and Italy. Even so, there were a number with high scores, although we tasters did not always agree. By contrast our scores for the top 42 wines listed here were far more uniform.

I’m not sure we can draw any firm conclusions from this tasting. German and Austrian Chardonnay were not represented, and Morris argued that Italy was overrepresented. It seems to be a case of great winemakers and wineries, rather than regions that clearly rival Burgundy. From New Zealand, wines from Martinborough, Bell Hill, Giesen and Neudorf all did splendidly, but that may be as much to do with the talents of Paul Mason, Marcel Giesen and Tim Finn rather than the greatness of any specific sub-region and its terroir. Similarly, the top Chardonnays from California included bottles produced by David Ramey, Ehren Jordan, Sashi Moorman and Ted Lemon, all widely acknowledged as masters of the variety.

The panel discussed ageability. Morris was reluctant to recommend long cellaring, but noted the best should ‘age without difficulty for 10-15 years’. Spurrier was more cautious, rarely going beyond 2020. My own view is closer to Morris’, although it is hardly essential to cellar any of these before they can be drunk with pleasure.

On the basis of this tasting, Burgundy need not look anxiously over its shoulder as hordes of great Chardonnay producers draw ever closer. It’s not news that other regions can dazzle with this variety. But it does seem to show that, given Chardonnay’s essential malleability, a great winemaker in a great spot can make outstanding wine. Moreover, many of the these wines are substantially cheaper than their role models from Burgundy.

Page updated on 11 January 2016

  1. 1. See the wines and read about Decanter's landmark tasting on the best Chardonnay wines outside Burgundy
  2. 2. The best Chardonnays: the nominees
  3. 3. The best Chardonnays: the judges
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