There are over 4,000 wine grapes in the world, and almost all of them have more than one name. Malbec, for example, has at least 34. Still, few are worth keeping track of, and even fewer are of world-class consequence. In fact, I put the number of superstars at six. I'm sure that some wine lovers will consider this number too small, while others may argue that a worthy grape got slighted (I'll bet Merlot drinkers will be leading this charge), or simply that far too many of the six are French. But these grapes have proven themselves in every part of the world. They've consistently produced great wines in their countries of origin as well as in many new regions--unlike near-great grapes like Sangiovese and Tempranillo, which have yet to truly shine in non-native soil. So, six it stays--at least for now.
Although it's known as the winemaker's grape because it adapts to so many different winemaking techniques, Chardonnay should really be called the politician's grape because its wide range of flavors and styles means it's fully capable of being all things to all people. It can be buttery, with notes of oak and vanilla, when it's aged in barrels; rich and tropically flavored when it's made in certain parts of California; or steely and austere, marked by mineral notes, when it comes from Chablis. Chardonnay is not only adaptable, it's easy to grow. It's also very easy to find, since Chardonnay is called Chardonnay all over the world. Except, of course, in the region that made it famous--Burgundy. There it's known by the place where it's grown. Hence, famous Burgundian Chardonnays are called Montrachet, Meursault and Chablis. Chardonnay is also an important grape in other parts of France--notably Champagne, where it's blended with Pinot Noir. But the character of Chardonnay is arguably clearest in Burgundy, where it produces wines of such breed and distinction that the whole world has spent decades in attempted duplication. The result is that many very good (and some superb) Chardonnays are made all over the world.
GREAT NAMES Burgundy Colin, Dauvissat, Drouhin, Leflaive, Ramonet, Verget. California Landmark, Marcassin, Peter Michael. Italy Jermann. Australia Petaluma. South Africa Thelema. GREAT BUYS California Estancia. Australia Lindemans. South Africa Cape Indaba.