Of the two great grapes of Burgundy, Chardonnay has become ubiquitous, whilst Pinot Noir remains much more elusive, challenging the world’s winemakers to produce great Pinot outside its Côte d’Or home. Pinot and Chardonnay could not be more different: one is a minor player on the world stage in terms of volumes planted, and is famously fickle; unhappy in most places outside of its central French homeland. The other is the ubiquitous grape, a promiscuous character that seems to thrive everywhere, and finds its way into mass-market bottlings across the globe. But as winemaker Neil Culley said to me on a recent visit to his beautiful New Zealand vineyard, “Yes anyone can make Chardonnay – it’s a very forgiving variety – but to make a really good one is as difficult as Pinot Noir.”
This is a guide to some of my favourite Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs priced under £15. It will concentrate on the latter grape, where the challenge to find really good examples is that much tougher.
Argento (Argentina) Chardonnay 2005
From the stable of Catena Zapata, this poised and succulent Chardonnay is a rare case when a cliché is proved totally true, in that it really “over-delivers for its price.” It has a toasty, butterscotch nose from three months in French and American barrels, and is loaded with tropical fruit, a touch of honey and a nice streak of citrus. 87/100. £4.99, Bibendum, Majestic, Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose
Bottega Vinai (Italy) Chardonnay 2004
From Trentino, high in the foothills of the Dolomites close to the Austrian border, this is cool-climate Chardonnay, aged partly in barriques for four months. It has a beautiful sense of limpid freshness on the nose, with a little oatmeally quality, and a palate that combines lush, nectarine fruit with a dry, pithy citrus fruit acidity. 87/100. £6.70 – £7.50, www.everywine.co.uk, D. Byrne of Clitheroe
Domaine Cordier (France) Mâcon ‘Terroir de Charnay’ 2004
Proper white Burgundy from the Mâconnais, a real Chardonnay stronghold in the south of the region. Typical hazelnut and oatmeal notes, with honeysuckle and nutty Cox’s Pippin fruit. On the palate this has a delightful balance of elegant white fruit flavours and a steely core of food-friendly, clean acidity. Classic stuff. 88/100. £8.99, Majestic.
Errazuriz (Chile) Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2002
A brilliant wine I’ve been following since the 1996 vintage. Fermented only with indigenous yeasts, this has a nicely vegetal, rich, buttery nose with lots of character and a nutty quality along with a suggestion of really sweet fruit to come. On the palate it is textured and creamy, with tropical fruit sweetness and mineral acidity. 90/100. £9.99, Sainsbury’s, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Vicki’s, Fareham Wine Cellars, D. Byrne, Luvians
Ile la Forge (France) Pinot Noir 2004
About as cheap as Pinot gets, and whilst it doesn’t compete with some other wines in this list it is good value, with its stalky, slightly briary nose that also has some decent Pinot character, and a fruity palate where autumnal berry flavours are joined by a cherry skin acidity and a little nip of tannin to keep it fresh. 86/100. £4.99, Aldi
Cono Sur (Chile) Pinot Noir 2005
Cono Sur’s reliable, raspberry fruited expression of the Pinot Noir grape has delicate notes of cinnamon woven through lush red berry scents. On the palate, punchy cherry and raspberry fruit powers through. 87/100. Also consider trading up to the Reserve bottling in Somerfield and Tesco at £6.99, which is smokier with more weight. 88/100. £4.99 – £5.49, widely available including Asda, Majestic, Morrisons, Oddbins, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose.
Madfish (Australia) Pinot Noir 2004
Western Australia is home to some fine Pinot Noir, including this, a subsidiary label of the excellent Howard Park winery. It has a delicate fruity richness on the nose, with hints of mushrooms and a little vanillin note. Good fruit on the palate here, with a liquorice edge and plenty of spice and depth into the finish. 88/100. £6.99, Bibendum,
Huia (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2004
Another Marlborough wine, there is a definite schisty quality here and black cherry fruit, with a suggestion of weight and richness that is rounded and generous. Plums and ripe red fruits dominate the palate, with a nice bite of cherry skin acidity and fine tannins before a spicy, lightly cedary oak fills in on the finish. 90/100. £11.49, Bibendum, Grand Cru Classé, Heart Buchanan, House of Menzies
Calera (California) Pinot Noir 2002
Josh Jenson of Calera was a pioneer in growing Pinot Noir in California’s Central Coast back in the 70s. This is just a delightful wine, filled with velvety, plush fruits and licked with warming, coffeeish oak. The palate has lovely richness and a juicy, savoury. Spicy finish. Superb stuff. 92/100. £11.99, Bibendum, Christopher Piper, Winebuythecase.com
E&J Gallo (California) Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2001
This doesn’t have the class of the Calera, but given Thresher’s permanent ‘buy two get one free’ offer on all wines, the price drops to just £7.99. Gallo make excellent wines in Sonoma, and this gives and indication of that with its fragrant cherry, violet and earthy nose and palate of soft berry fruit wrapped in spicy oak. 88/100. £11.99, Thresher, buy two, get one free.
Domaine Bertagna (France) Hautes Côtes de Nuits 2003
Englishman Mark Siddle and his German wife Eva have poured love and money into this estate since taking over in 1982, and have certainly been producing some terrific wines. This is the epitome of fresh, appetising, succulent fruit-filled Pinot Noir with smoky depths and beautiful structure. Excellent. 91/100. £12.95, Berry Bros & Rudd (£11.65 by the case)
Michel Sarrazin (France) Givry Premier Cru Vieilles Vignes 2003
From a notoriously hot year in Burgundy, where red wines have fared much better than white, this Premier Cru has an extra element of ripe, plush, mulberry fruit, but still exhibits some real Burgundy character with truffle and damp woodland notes, and a generous espresso-rich silkiness into a long, creamy finish. 91/100. £12.99, Majestic.
Cable Bay (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2004
Just off the coast from Auckland, Waiheke Island is home to Cable Bay, but Neil Culley makes his Pinot from fruit he grows in Marlborough. This has a light ruby colour, with a very attractive spice and cherry fruited nose. There’s a silkiness about this wine, and refined elegance on the palate. 90/100. £12.99, Stratford’s Wine Agencies
Wither Hills (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2004
A definite note of minerality comes through on this Marlborough Pinot, with plenty of charry, smoky oak, and then fine cherry fruit. There is cream and vivid plum pie fruitiness on the palate, which is quite generous and broad, with a satin texture. Acidity gives plenty of bite, and there is spice and espresso in the finish. 90/100. £14.99 – £15.99, Bibendum, Majestic, Oddbins, Waitrose, Wine Society