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 Happily, these clunky, over-processed chards are becoming superseded by fresher, more elegant styles to suit the modern drinker.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…
Crémants are sparkling wines made the same way as champagne but come from other parts of France. These brilliant bubbles from the tiny Jura region come with crisp green apples and a zesty, dry finish.
From Argentina’s Mendoza valley high up on the Andes, a delightful chardonnay that stands up well against good white burgundies. Notes of pineapples, lemons and vanilla with a silky, buttery finish.
Lots going on in this great English chard; white peaches, pink grapefruit and honeysuckle with a lovely silky texture.
Modern Australian chardonnay that’s a world away from the harsh oak bombs of the past. Full-bodied and generous but with clean and lemony fruit, and just a little warming spice.
Oak-forward but very well-made chardonnay from the Languedoc. This is rich and creamy with scents of baked apples and toasted almonds underpinned with a sleek minerality.