Burgundy slide

Chardonnay, the noble grape.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of pre-history there was a primal vine. It had a simple strategy for survival; to put its seeds into succulent thin-skinned fruits and then let every bird, reptile and mammal eat those fruits and scatter those seeds. Like first man, first vine hasn't yet been identified, but the common stock of Europe is the vitis vinifera, and in the Americas the vitis riparia.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of pre-history there was a primal vine. It had a simple strategy for survival; to put its seeds into succulent thin-skinned fruits and then let every bird, reptile and mammal eat those fruits and scatter those seeds. Like first man, first vine hasn't yet been identified, but the common stock of Europe is the vitis vinifera, and in the Americas the vitis riparia. 

In its wild state the vitis vinifera doesn't produce grapes suitable for wine making. Wine-Drinking Man, of course, had no intention of leaving nature alone and set about modifying and improving yields and flavours through genetic manipulation - by careful selective breeding. From these aboriginal vines, wine-makers have now evolved a bewildering variety of vines to choose from, each suited to particular circumstances, and each imparting a different flavour and style to the wines that derive from their fruits. There are vines designed to produce big, sweet grapes for the table, and vines that interest wine-drinkers; ones that are designed to make wonderful wines. 

These 'noble' grape varieties differ from others in a couple of crucial ways. If you start with a piece of virgin hillside and decide to plant a vineyard you could pick a non-noble grape variety and in three years you could harvest enough grapes from one acre to make 6,000 litres of wine - enough for a year of serious partying. It won't be good wine, but you'll have plenty of it. If you choose to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll wait seven years before you can harvest anything of any consequence, and even then the yield is tiny. After fifteen years of waiting you might just get 800 litres of wine from your acre. Apart from low yields on the vine, 100 kilos of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes when pressed will yield about 35 litres of must. Other varieties can give you as much as 90 litres. There seems to be a basic rule underpinning these calculations: the smaller the yield the more intense and complex the flavour.

Even a well-established and well-tested variety changes as it moves around the globe. The Chardonnay grape, the stalwart of white Burgundy, can now be found in every wine-producing country in the world, but the wines it produces are as varied as the climate and conditions it finds itself in. Wines made from hot climate Chardonnay, like the Australian wines, are very different from the cool climate Chardonnay wines like Burgundy. The emphasis in its taste seems to move forward to a more intense first blast on the palate, while the cool climate version has less initial power and retains some flavour for aftertaste. It's partly a difference in style, and partly a difference in terroir.

Chardonnay can make wines as wondrous and as expensive as Corton Charlemagne, and it can make good, workaday wines that don't come with the same price tag as fine Burgundies. But whatever end of the price spectrum, the Chardonnay grape is a triumph of man's improvement on nature's basic building block.