There's more than one side to the story of this popular drink, says Anthony Rose

Anything but chardonnay?

I suppose the world could perhaps survive without it, just as it could soldier on without Porsche or Puccini, or even Big Brother and Budweiser. Char-donnay is a likeable chameleon that can be all things to all people – bland, soft and buttery at its most basic, or the greatest drink on earth if it really puts its mind to it. A recent blind tasting of 32 chardonnays from £3.89 to £39.99 showed just how much the c-word encompasses.

Is it really the most popular grape in the world?

This is an impression the many producers who've jumped on its bandwagon like to convey, but it's far from being the most widespread grape. According to James Herrick, the man who put chardonnay on the southern French map, it accounts for less than 2 per cent of the sev-en million hectares of grapes planted worldwide.

Even so, isn't chardonnay awfully old hat?

From a producer's, a retailer's and a consumer's point of view, no other variety matches chardonnay when it comes to the grape's ability to come up with an enjoyably laid-back wine style. That said, the under £5 chardonnays in the tasting were aptly bland, with only the 2001 Argento (£4.99, Sainsbury's, Asda, Tesco), an Argen-tinian chardonnay with peachy, well-crafted fruit, standing out. The cinnamon-spicy Aussie 2000 Jacobs Creek Chardonnay, (£4.99, widely available), was my runner-up.

Would sir prefer a chablis?

Er, chablis is, of course, made from chardonnay, whose popularity the world over springs from the success of white Burgundy, from Pouilly Fuissé to Puligny Montrachet. But while the New World has milked the word chardonnay as a brand, Burgundy doesn't and never has needed to parade the c-word on its label, preferring brand name and appellation to get its point across.

What's all this about unwooded chardonnay?

Chardonnay is often fermented in oak barrels for extra flavour and complexity. Unoaked chardonnay caught on first in Australia as a reaction against the overblown, over-oaked styles, which do well in competitions but soon pall when you actually need a drink. Unwooded chardonnay is trendy, but there are few really good examples. Among the best is the 2000 Plantagenet Omrah Unoaked Chardonnay from Western Australia (£6.99, Somerfield). Like most chablis, the creamy-textured, crisp white Maconnais Burgundy 2000 Domaine des Deux Roches, Saint-Véran (£7.95-£7.99, Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1, 020-7396 9600, Unwins) is also unoaked but doesn't advertise the fact.

Is there a difference between £10 and £5 chardonnay?

The better examples do stand out and show that it pays to spend a bit more for quality. Which? Three from the tasting: the 2000 Jordan Stellenbosch Chardonnay (£7.99, Waitrose), a full-flavoured white with vanilla oak and fudge. From New Zealand, the 1999 Montana Reserve Barrique-Fermented Chardonnay (£7.99, widely available) blends oak, vanilla and butterscotch flavours. My star under-£10 white was Chile's 1999 Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley (£9.99, Oddbins, Sainsbury's), a complex, aromatic white combining flavour and subtlety.

What's the New World order?

At a certain level, it's not so much the grape as the grower and vineyard (or terroir, as the French would have it) that count. Witness three world-class New World chardonnays: 1997 Saintsbury Reserve Carneros Chardonnay (£16.50, Adnams, Suffolk, 01502 727220), a full-flavoured Californian white with textured fruit and integrated oak spice; 1999 Shaw & Smith Reserve Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills (£14.95-£16.95, Booths, Preston; Australian Wine Club 0800 8562004), all creamy-textured, vanilla oak and nuanced fruit flavours; and from South Africa, the 1998 Meerlust Chardonnay (around £12.99, Laithwaites 0118 903 0903, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges), beautifully crafted and complex in the Burgundian style.

What about France?

Burgundy can still hold its own against the New World. My favourite under-£20 chardonnay was a Burgundy, the 1999 Puligny Montrachet Les Enseignères, Vincent Girardin (£19.99, Montrachet, London SE1 020-7928 1990), a glorious, modern style with complex, toasty oak and leesy characters and mineral undertones. Louis Jadot, too, turned in an elegant white in the 1998 Pernand Vergelesses, Louis Jadot (£14.99, Wimbledon Wine Cellars,,, with the typical sourdough yeast and appley minerality of traditional Côte de Beaune white. And even from Piedmont in Italy, Angelo Gaja's 1999 Rossj-Bass (£16.77, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester 01206 764446), proved a classy, minerally example with fine concentration and a slightly smoky quality.

But for £20-plus, surely Burgundy's best?

Actually, no. It may not have found its Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne yet, but the New World is starting to discover its own great sites, particularly in cooler locations, for great char-donnay. My wine of the tasting turned out to be Penfolds 1998 Yattarna Chardonnay (£39.99, widely available), a great, complex thoroughbred, every bit the equal of premier cru Puligny Montrachet. I even thought I could hear Pierre-Henry Gagey from Louis Jadot murmuring "fine Burgundy" approvingly under his Gallic breath.