The charms of Chardonnay
Posted on September 18 2014
Once the loose woman of wine grapes, wont to rush into the embrace of an oak barrel without a thought, apt to overdo the make-up, prone to blowsiness and excess and blessed with all the backbone of a damp sponge, Chardonnay’s charms had worn a little thin – thin enough to spawn the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) phrase. How times change! Chardonnay has been to rehab and emerged a model of decorum and good taste – everything in moderation as they say, most of all oak…
The problem – and the point of Chardonnay – is that it’s a pretty neutral kind of grape. One sniff of Sauvignon Blanc and you know what to expect, so assertive is its personality; while the word Chardonnay conjures up endless possibilities. That is both its strength and weakness. It’s also one of the reasons winemakers adore it, because it will, obligingly, reflect both the hand of the maker and its home turf in the glass. It’s responsible for a whole gamut of styles from crisp, pristine Chablis to the opulence of a fine, oaked example from Meursault. And of course the label is unlikely to be much of a guide to just how much, if any of it, will have seen the inside of a barrel .
These days most New World Chardonnays are well-mannered, gentle and grown up wines with subtle, well-judged oak, freshness and fine fruit that really work with food – all qualities that would be taken for granted in their European counterparts. Anyone weaned on Rosemount Show Reserve circa 1995 wouldn’t recognize modern examples as the same grape.
Back in Burgundy, Chardonnay’s great old world home, the new generation of winemakers now aim to get better ripeness and they too are reducing the amount of new oak they use. As vineyards are better managed the quality of fruit improves, so why swamp that with an overdose of very expensive wood?
Here’s our guide to what to expect from Chardonnay now and some recommendations from our shelves:
- Don’t assume all New World Chardonnay will be oaked – most is, but these days seldom aggressively.
- A 50/50 approach is very common – half the juice gets fermented in stainless steel to keep the freshness of the fruit, the other half is fermented in barrel to add weight, texture and complexity – try Pulenta Estate Chardonnay
- Chardonnay from the coolest spots of the New World will be very elegant – think Western Australia, New Zealand, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula , Adelaide Hills, Walker Bay – try La Vierge Jezebelle Chardonnay, or Stella Bella Chardonnay
- Big, buttery fiends should find Californian Chardonnay or some Chilean examples right up their street- try Ridge Estate Chardonnay or Vina Leyda Lot 5
- For the crispest, leanest Chardonnays look for Chablis or Petit Chablis. Try Chablis 1er Cru Montmains, Domaine George
- For fruity un-oaked Chardonnays the Languedoc and Luberon offer great value. Try Pesquie Chardonnay or Casse-Noix Chardonnay
- Blanc de blanc Champagnes are made from all Chardonnay grapes. They are often fresh and elegant when young but can age beautifully. Try Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, Cuis 1er Cru, Champagne Brut NV
To encourage customers to give this grape variety another chance, we’re opening six very different Chardonnays at the Kew shop over the weekend of 27 & 28 September. There’s no need to book. Just drop in to (re) discover the charms of Chardonnay.