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Malcolm Jolley: Everyday Chardonnay

Commentary

I induced a look of bemused pity from a colleague of mine once when in the course of a friendly conversation I gave what was clearly the wrong answer to his question. At a walk-around tasting, as we swirled around glasses of $100 a bottle Pinot Noir, he asked me what my favourite grape was. Judging by his reaction, the answer was clearly not supposed to be “Chardonnay”.

To be fair, to all involved, Chardonnay was not my favourite grape then, nor is it particularly now. To paraphrase Tim Atkin MW, my favourite grape variety is the one (or ones) that got crushed to make whatever wine that I am enjoying at the moment. Wine is contextual, and the perfect depends on earthly and temporal conditions as much as any Platonic ideal.

Still, Chardonnay was my answer, because I find it one of the more interesting grapes. It has been simultaneously at the height and bottom of fashion for a quarter of a century. On the one hand, most of the most expensive white wines in the world are Chardonnay made from Burgundy or Champagne. On the other hand, some of the most boring, plonky wines from anywhere can very well be Chardonnay. Even if the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement moved on, Chardonnay is not cool no matter how much a bottle of Bâtard-Montrachet might cost.

Chardonnay is also interesting because it’s found just about everywhere wine grapes are grown. Part of this is for the very good reason that it can be grown just about anywhere between the 30th and 50th latitudes, more or less the climatic range of Vitis vinifera. It’s hardy, versatile and adaptable to all kinds of soil types and climates.

Chardonnay was also once the height of wine fashion. Not the ones from Burgundy, but the ones from the New World that sought to take their place. The top white wine from the famous Judgement of Paris blind tasting, organized by the late Steven Spurrier in May of 1976, was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, made from grapes grown from the Napa and Alexander Valleys of Northern California.

For the next 25 years, Californian and then Australian Chardonnay were the queens of white wines. They were popular at high and low price points, and the success of the New World Chardonnays inspired winegrowers in all corners of the wine world to plant Chardonnay in the last two decades of the 20th century.

One of my favourite Chardonnays is the one made from vines planted by the late Diego Planeta in Western Sicily in the mid-1980s. Planeta’s Chardonnay would get his eponymous winery noticed, as critics were curious as to what a Scilian Chardonnay might taste like. This translated into trade and consumer interest as buyers were more open to taking a chance on a wine made from a grape they knew than an indigenous one they hadn’t heard of, like Catarrato or Inzolia.

As it happened, Signor Planeta was a champion of the native grapes of Sicily, and the Planeta wineries that are run by his descendants are renowned for making wines all over the island with the grapes that were traditionally grown on each of their six sites. But in the 1980s and ’90s, so-called “international” grapes like Chardonnay (and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) were the way to success.

The ’80s and ’90s boom in Chardonnay planting, and the subsequent pivot to indigenous grapes, means that in Europe the odds that a non-Burgundy Chardonnay has been made from vines that are 30 or 40 years old are high. These older vines are coming into their peak maturity, producing less yield, but with fruit of higher intensity and concentration.

On trips abroad, I have seen colleagues dismiss the lone bottle of Chardonnay on the tasting table in favour of the Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pecorino or whatever was considered authentically local. They would wonder why I honed in on it, but those brave enough to take my suggestion that it might be worth trying were more often than not pleasantly surprised.

In Wine Grapes (2012) Harding, Robinson, and Vouillamoz write: “Chardonnay, loved or reviled, is arguably the most versatile white wine grape. Without a dominant flavour of its own, it can take on a wide array of aromas depending on where it is grown and, particularly, how it is made.”

Earlier this year I wrote about Thomas Bachelder’s Toussaint project and the 11 Chardonnays he made from the 2020 vintage, each from a particular site (lieu-dit) in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Bachelder did his best to treat each wine the same, so that the different sites, and different parts of the region, from Lake Ontario to higher lands on the Escarpment, showed, much like the famous vineyards of Burgundy.

In this way, I think Chardonnay makes an interesting blank canvas for a study of how one geographical area might taste different from another. As I write, in my fridge sit four bottles of Chardonnay, ranging in price from $30 to $17 a bottle. They are from Burgundy (André Goichot Mâcon Villages 2019), Niagara’s Beamsville Bench (Malivoire Small Lot Chardonnay 2021), Piedmont in Northwestern Italy (Fontanafredda Langhe Chardonnay 2021) and South Australia (Wakefield Estate Label Chardonnay 2021). It will be fun to see how they resemble or differ from each other.

Of course, terroir doesn’t actually make wine, people do. Chardonnay offers its winemakers the full complement of choices on how to shape the ultimate flavour of a wine. This includes what the wine is made in: is it new or old (neutral) oak barrels, stainless steel, or concrete? Or whether to allow a secondary malolactic fermentation that converts sharper, green apple-like acids into milky or buttery ones. There are more factors to be controlled, like using wild or cultured yeast, exposure to oxygen, or leaving the wine to rest on its lees.

I’ll never commit to a favourite grape, or a favourite wine. If you visited my small cellar, there’s no particular theme to what I have collected other than what’s in it looked interesting at the time. But, if I was presented with one of those campfire challenges, the kind that asked, if I had to choose one wine grape, and that wine grape was the only wine grape I could drink for the rest of my life, what would it be? Chardonnay, for the reasons above, would be an excellent cheat (and I didn’t even mention Champagne).

Mark Johnson: A nation—and a founder—to be proud of

Commentary

I never thought that I, as a Canadian and a former candidate for Parliament, would feel compelled to stand up and defend Sir John A. Macdonald—our first prime minister and one of our greatest political leaders. Such are the times. 

There’s a high school named after Sir John A. Macdonald in the neighbourhood where I grew up and that I sought to represent in Parliament. Over the decades it has played an important role in the Scarborough community and has educated tens of thousands of Canadians. Teenagers should be happy to attend a school so named. It’s named for a leader of whom we should be proud of and who bequeathed to us a nation to be proud of.  

Yet the Toronto school board is considering the renaming of that school as other governments have erased Sir John A. Macdonald from our public spaces because of his role in residential schools in the 1800s. Recently, the National Capital Commission announced plans to change the name of the Macdonald Parkway in Ottawa. This movement to erase Macdonald is an unfortunate and destructive development for our country.

It’s long past time for our leaders to take a courageous stand against this immature nonsense and defend our founder. What exactly are they afraid of?

The issue is not about turning away from the injustice of Canada’s residential schools, and we must meet the pressing need to improve the quality of life of Indigenous Canadians. All must be fully committed to that goal. This is about an altogether different subject—the rightful place in Canadian history of Sir John A. Macdonald.  

Enlightenment against the Four Horsemen

Historical events are never fully just or fully humane because events are made by humans, and humans are never fully just or fully humane. Man’s brutality to man and the countervailing march of progress mark the major streams in world history. For thousands of years, the two conflicting forces of humanity have been the forward pull of peace, wealth, enlightenment, and science straining against the backward drag of violence, poverty, ignorance, and disease. Pick up any history book, turn to any page, and you’ll be reading about a small battle in the larger war between light and darkness. One can argue that the former only started to prevail in the second half of the twentieth century, well within our living memory.  

The founding of countries was nasty business 

Almost all countries have been established by similar methods. A geographic area must be defined, acquired, and protected, which means war. Other cultures in that territory must be eliminated, separated, or dominated, which means genocide. Then a national founding myth, skewed to the heroic, must be created to unify the culture and provide social cohesion. This requires the editing of the truth to avoid just how unpleasant that business actually was.  

Canada’s founding followed the same path, but by any measure it was far more peaceful and balanced than any peer country. Most countries are based on race or language. Very few share our core characteristics—a transcontinental settler society whose membership is granted not based on race, creed, or language, but on common values, forward-looking ideals, and a shared commitment to a shared future. We owe much of this to the wisdom and peaceful ways of the Fathers of Confederation led by Sir John A. Macdonald.  

Sir John A. and the leaders of that era did their best in the world of the late 1800s as it then existed with all of its limits, knowledge, and strictures. As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. They were men of their times, limited by the contemporary confines of class, religion, mores, science, and politics. Yet they still pressed forward and pushed those limits. Despite being men of their time, they were very much ahead of it. They should be judged on the entirety of their achievements. 

It wasn’t just him  

It is human nature to yearn for a single cause of a problem, for one man to blame, and to look for a single salutary act to wipe it all clean. It may satisfy our desire for a simple explanation, a singular cause of a complex problem that still bedevils us today but it wrongfully acquits so many others of the charge. 

All leaders bequeath good and bad legacies to their heirs.  The mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians will always stain our history books, yet we must not pin the accumulated failures of all governments across 150 years on Macdonald. Not only would it be historically inaccurate but it lazily excuses the many others who were equally culpable if not more so.  

Who deserves our shame? The ones who established the residential schools or the ones who kept them going after the harm so obviously manifested itself across the decades? The erasure of Canada’s founder is not only the wrongful conviction of Sir John A. Macdonald but it’s also the wrongful acquittal of his many successors.  

Bereft of heroes. Devoid of pride. 

Wilfred Laurier, D’Arcy McGee, Joseph Brant, Brébeuf, Stephen Leacock, Sam Steele, Agnes Macphail, Norman Bethune, Oliver Mowat, Frederick Banting, Grey Owl, Henry Kelsey, William Osler, Winston Churchill, and Pope John Paul II all have schools in Toronto named after them. All great but imperfect. Must they too be erased? And who’s next?   

Erasing Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from our public space is nothing more than tokenism and childishness, with barely a passing glance at history, that will have no meaningful impact on the very people it professes to help. It only alienates the broad swath of Canadians whose support is needed to drive at real change. And the application of an increasingly strict, unforgiving purity test applied retroactively to great Canadians who lived and died long ago in a different world will inescapably lead to a nation bereft of heroes, devoid of pride, with no spirit or unifying beliefs, and filled with anger and resentment fueled by historical grievances.

We’re a great country. The world is getting better.

Canada is a blessed country to which many millions of immigrants came for a better life. From before our official founding, they braved perilous journeys, financial hardship, great distances from family and familiarity, and sailed and flew into an unknown future because of their faith in Canada. They placed their future and their children at the mercy of Canada. Why Canada?  

Contrary to what some pessimists argue, Canada was and continues to be more peaceful, more just, and more enlightened than any other country. We owe much of this collective achievement to our political culture—the Canadian political culture—and our political culture is very much the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald. Tolerance, generosity, the peaceful and pragmatic bridging of political differences, the spirit of compromise, measured responses to problems, and the never-ending journey to a better Canada for all. These were his politics and the values that he championed.  

Canadians are proud of their history and rightfully so. The life of Canada led by the decisions of its leaders, like our own lives and those of our forebears, remains imperfect, for a national life is solely composed of human acts; but humans can never be perfect, free from error that only time and hindsight reveal.

Different opinions are not unpatriotic or invalid. New knowledge emerges through historical study. New perspectives are shared. There’s nothing wrong with offering a fuller picture of our historical figures. We live in a free country where reasoned disagreement should be noble and is the mark of a mature society.   

The world is moving to a better place—the rule of law, respect for the dignity of all humans, the advancement of science, and the conquest of disease. No one would prefer that their children were born in 1923 over 2023. Yet problems and failures persist.   

Vandalizing monuments is easy. Pulling down names is easy. Improving lives is hard. Changing the future is hard. Sir John A. Macdonald knew this. He dedicated his life to the hard work of building Canada. Honouring him is right.