‘Chardonnay week’ was received by most of our WSET class with grimaces, as members turned their nose up in anticipation of this mass-produced wine. Chardonnay gets its poor reputation from the bulk-produced wines that became popular in its hay-day (circa Bridget Jones), when it seemed that all you could get was chardonnay. It’s a very tolerant grape that’s easy to grow in a wide range of soils and climates, so everyone jumped on the band wagon and chardonnay grapes were often blended to produce inexpensive wines that have an added oak flavour from cheaper oak staves (indeed, they still are, but there’s much more to it than that).
Moderate and cooler climates including Burgundy and California produce some of the best white wines in the world, predominantly using chardonnay, that are worlds away from the cheap oak flavours you might expect. After a two-hour session tasting the extreme variety of chardonnay expressions available, from the minerality of Chablis to the creamy, buttery flavours of Meursault, our doubts and prejudgement had completely dissipated. We left the building fully converted to the fruity, delicate, versatile grape that is so often misunderstood.
Here’s our round-up of regions and styles to look out for…
Côte d’Or – Burgundy, France
The moderate climate in the heart of Burgundy produces arguably the best and most elegant chardonnays in the world. Usually from the southern half of the region (Côte de Beaune), where conditions produce dry, rich wine with white stone fruit and citrus notes, along with hints of melon, chardonnays from the Côte d’Or are often full-bodied, creamy and complex. This is aided by the fermentation process in small oak barrels (lending nutty, vanilla flavours) and ageing in contact with the lees (dead yeast left at the end of fermentation), that adds a creamy texture and savoury flavours.
What to look out for on the label: All white Burgundy is chardonnay, though this rarely appears on the label. The village where the grapes are produced is what generally appears on the label – Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet are very high-quality wines, with the latter being one of the best wines we’ve tried (though the price tag reflects this!). More affordable options can be found from the Mâconnais and Pouilly-Fuissé (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fumé, which is sauvignon blanc).
Chablis – Burgundy, France
The cooler climate, a bit further north than the Cote d’Or, produces very dry wines with high acidity and a green fruit (apple and pear) and citrus flavour. There is very little oak presence in Chablis, which is why some ardent chardonnay ‘haters’ unknowingly enjoy wines from this region.
What to look out for on the label: Premier Cru or Grand Cru Chablis will have more pronounced smoky and mineral characteristics.
The cooler parts of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia produce pronounced fruit (fresh citrus and melon) and oaky characteristics.
What to look out for on the label: The Yarra Valley, the Adelaide Hills and the Margaret River are all premium quality Australian Chardonnay regions, so look out for these names.
The cool breeze and morning mists from the Pacific Ocean slows the ripening of grapes, which allows the flavours of the grape to intensify. California chardonnay varies significantly, but many are full-bodied with intense, rich citrus and ripe peach flavours with a strong oaky presence.
What to look out for on the label: If a label states ‘Sonoma County’ this allows the producer to blend wine form several different vineyards, so look out for labels that specify the vineyard to guarantee a higher quality wine.
Chile – South America
Cool sea breezes and morning fogs in Casablanca Valley (north-west of Santiago) slow down the ripening process of Chardonnay grapes, allowing time for flavours to build up and retain acid. Barrel fermentation and oak ageing intensifies the banana and melon flavours in these wines.
What to look out for on the label: Look for the altitude of the region on the label, as a high altitude has a significant cooling effect on the climate to produce higher-quality wines.
Learn more about Chardonnay and other grape varieties
In each WSET you taste and discuss at least six wines and we found a few unexpected new favourites along the way that we would never have thought of trying before. You can complete the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits as a weekly evening class, a series of Saturday classes, on a consecutive 3-day course, or even through distance learning. Prices start from £260. To book, click here.
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