Once upon a time, it seemed that chardonnay was practically shorthand for white wine. Served everywhere, from the smartest of restaurants to the grottiest of pubs, it was the go-to choice for many drinkers.
Much of it came from Australia, whose sunny climate was particularly suited to high yields and reliable harvests. The Aussies made their chardonnays big and blousy, often with ABVs of 14% or more, and usually heavily tinged with oak. It seemed we Brits couldn’t get enough of it.
Then along came Bridget Jones in the smashhit movie of 2001, knocking back buckets of the stuff to drown her many romantic sorrows. Around this time, we began to fall out of love with it (though whether the blame can be put at Bridget’s door is questionable), and ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) became our battle cry as we switched our allegiance to lighter, fresher pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.
I was one of those who shunned the grape for years but recently my affection for it has returned. Chardonnay can be so much more than those harsh oak-bombs we drank back then – it is one of the world’s most widely planted grapes, grown in pretty much every wine-making region, and made into so many styles. In France, chardonnay’s historical home, it ranges from beautifully lean and steely chablis to big and buttery burgundies such as top-notch (and top-dollar) montrachets and meursaults. It is also one of the major grapes of champagne and as such finds itself in much of the world’s finest fizz, including our own English sparkling wine and franciacorta from Italy.
While some of the most prestigious chardonnays are fermented and/or aged in oak barrels to give their characteristic creamy texture and toasty notes of vanilla and gentle spice, oak is often used to mask low-quality base wine, often using highly toasted oak chips or staves to keep the cost of production down, along with artificial acidifiers and/or sweeteners. Happily, these clunky, over-processed chards are becoming superseded by fresher, more elegant styles to suit the modern drinker.
Chardonnays from the cooler parts of California, along with those from Chile, Argentina and South Africa, are all worth looking out for, though the latter three will generally give you more bang for your buck. Australia’s offerings have also come a long way in terms of quality, especially those from the Margaret River region, but for my money it is New Zealand that takes the top spot of producers in the southern hemisphere, both in terms of quality and of price. For so many of us, chardonnay just used to be about ‘tasting the timber’, as the Kiwis say. Now winemakers around the world are treating it with the respect it deserves and are making chardonnays that demand our attention once again.
The best chardonnay wines to try…
Aldi Exquisite Collection Limestone Coast (£5.79, Aldi)
A bargain for a modern Australian chard, nicely ripe but spared the lash of head-banging oak. Great with our clams in garlic butter with parsley soda bread.
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Côtes du Jura (£11, Sainsbury’s)
From this tiny region in eastern France, this has distinctive stony minerality, with peachy fruit and herbaceous crunch. Try it with our pappardelle with caramelised onions, dolcelatte and walnuts.
Errazuriz Wild Ferment 2016 (£13.99 or £11.99 in mixed 6 deal, majestic.co.uk)
From the Casablanca Valley in Chile, this is gorgeously opulent, with tropical fruit and a lovely citrus finish. One of my favourite new chardonnays, it would be great with our roasted cauliflower steaks with romesco and fried eggs.
Kumeu River Estate 2016 (£18.50, Wine Society)
A brilliant example of New Zealand chardonnay that holds its own against the best from Burgundy. Fresh and vibrant, with subtle oak ageing that would sing with our new potato tartiflette with cornichon salad.