“Ooh no,” they say, as the nose screws up and the corners of the mouth bend downwards like somebody recalling school dinners, “I don’t like Chardonnay.” It’s something we hear often. Very often. There is, even, an acronym for it – ABC, Anything But Chardonnay. You’d wonder why, sometimes, anybody bothers to grow or sell Chardonnay, except for the fact that it can be amazing and the dinner party gossip, maybe, has got it wrong.
Stick your nose into a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and you will be rewarded with scents of cut grass, gooseberries, maybe some currant leaves, maybe some cat’s pee if you must. This applies practically no matter where your chosen Sauvignon Blanc comes from – there are differences between regions, Continents and producers, of course there are, but Sauvignon Blanc is broadly Sauvignon Blanc wherever. The same applies to Viognier, Riesling, Shiraz, even the hyper noble Pinot Noir. But Chardonnay, the much maligned Chardonnay, can be all manner of things depending on the skill of the winemaker, the traditions of the region, the demands of the marketeers and the whims of fashion. Chardonnay first came to widespread attention with the rise of Aussie oaked Chardonnay. As we ditched our affection for sickly Liebfraumilch and frothy Lambrusco Bianco for more apparently sophisticated dry wines from Down Under, our penchant for a touch of sweetness was fed by the vanilla tones of new oak. Now, whilst the worst excesses of wines that felt more tree than vine have been left behind us now, it cannot be denied that Chardonnay takes rather well to the inside of an oak barrel.
“I don’t like Chardonnay.” It’s something we hear often. Very often.
Witness the majestic Talbott Estate Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay from California or the Dombeya Chardonnay from Haskell Vineyards in South Africa where, like a top chef toying with the salt pot, the oak is used to enhance, develop and illuminate what is already there in the grapes and is part of the package rather than the destination itself. Oaked Chardonnay, as well as being far more delicious than many would care to admit, is a fantastic match with Indian food, the creamy richness picking up the spices and tempering the heat with some style.
But Chardonnay is equally delicious without the intervention of genus Quercus. Take, for instance, our long time favourite Macon Vinzelles, an unwooded crisp white from the southern reaches of Burgundy which offers bright fruit with just a hint of food friendly richness. Or, at the other end of Burgundy, is Chablis offering perhaps the ultimate expression of oakless, or at least minimally oaked, Chardonnay. The Chablis Domaine Moreau-Naudet shows the subtle stony character of unadulterated Chardonnay grapes, fabulous aperitif or served with light foods, especially shell fish. Did you notice a dip into Burgundy, there? It’s a frequently experienced quandary for purveyors of fine wines, when loudly professed Chardonnay-phobes opt for white Burgundy, whether one should point out that the white Burgundy they prefer over nasty old Chardonnay is, in fact, the very same Chardonnay grape they are trying to avoid or whether to smile sweetly, wrap the purchase and drop the wonga into the till. From your humblest Macon Villages or Bourgogne Blanc right up to the grandest of grand Montrachets and Meursaults, it’s all Chardonnay*. So, Chardonnay can be wooded or unwooded or somewhere in between. Oh, but there’s more.
‘Chardonnay is one of the principle grape varieties in the Champagne blend and, by extension, that of sparkling wines around the globe.’
It is, of course, perfectly capable of producing outstanding fizz without the usual Pinot Noir/Meunier supporting cast with Blanc de Blancs sparklers offering a more lifted brighter take on the genre. Larmandier-Bernier’s organic Champagnes from the Côte des Blancs are all Blanc de Blancs and have the super dry crispness needed before a grand dinner, whilst R&L Legras from Chouilly is all from Grand Cru vineyards and has a ripe, frothy, textured mouthfeel that is a delight. Away from Champagne proper, Jean-Louis Denois Chardonnay Extra Brut from Limoux in the South of France is zippy and crisp and lovely, whilst even the English get in on the act with the bright assertive Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs from Appledore in Kent. And, as if all manner of dry white wines and sparkling wine wasn’t enough, Chardonnay can also be turned to the production of sweet wine too. From Austria’s Burgenland we have Hans Nittnaus’s glorious and intense T.B.A. which is a botrysised Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend. Or, for the luxuriously minded, we have Jean Thévenet’s mind-altering and unusual Domaine de la Bon Gran Cuvée Botrytis, one of the very few sweet wines made in Burgundy.
So, Chardonnay – a one trick pony it ain’t. One is minded to suggest that professing a general dislike of Chardonnay is akin to deciding that you don’t like potatoes on the basis of a bad experience with a packet of instant mash and, thereby, writing off for all time roasties, Jersey Royals, Dauphinoise, chips, jacket potatoes and all manner of croquettes. Just because you don’t like a particular style of Chardonnay, or had a bad experience with a particular bottle of Chardonnay, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a Chardonnay out there that is capable of bringing a smile to your face and a warm glow to your heart. Think of the fun you can have trying to find it. *OK, there are some non-Chardonnay white Burgundies, mostly Aligoté and a quirky patch of Sauvignon Blanc, but they are very much the exception.