5. Chardonnay, in opposition to Sauvignon Blanc, seems to be disliked by many people. So how come some of the most expensive and most renowned white wines in the world are produced with this grape variety?
As a general rule, chardonnay is a grape that is relatively low in acidity and relatively high in alcohol. If you add to this some ripe tropical flavours when grown in a warm climate and some overpowering notes of oak bringing a sweetness sensation, then you get a wine lacking of drinkability, rich and heavy, that very few people find easy to enjoy.
Unfortunately, for many years, the market has been flooded with this type of wine in a effort to emulate the power and richness of the finest wines of Burgundy, the homeland of Chardonnay. In response to this, the popularity of the grape decreased and a school of thought called the “ABC movement” was born. (Anything But Chardonnay).
Chardonnay is however a high quality grape variety able to produce a broad range of wines and is not only confined to the poor style described above. When it comes to mentioning the usage of oak in a wine, I always like to compare it with the notion of seasoning in a dish : too much of it and it becomes dominant and is unpleasant, just the right amount and it enhances the flavours and brings another dimension to the dish.
Depending on the climate, the soil and the techniques of vinification used, Chardonnay does give some very versatile results.
One of the most unique styles of wine made from Chardonnay comes from the region of Chablis. Funny enough, many people do not consider themselves as Chardonnay drinkers but do really enjoy a glass of Chablis for its crisp, citrucy characters.
Chablis is produced in the northernmost part of Burgundy, in the Yonne department, in France. Its continental(cool) climate and its unique soil make it an ideal area to produce Chardonnay. The wine are rarely oaked. They are bone dry, mineral, sometimes with a touch of saltiness or iodine flavours. Some of the wines are meant to be consumed within a couple of years but some of them can age for a decade or longer. Within the region, the wines are classified into a 4 layers scale in ascending order of quality, based on where the vines are growing. Only 3 of these layers are commonly found on the Irish market :
– Chablis = wines can be produced pretty much anywhere in the region of Chablis
– Chablis 1er cru = in theory, better quality vineyards
– Chablis Grand Cru = produced only in 3 villages = highest rank in the classification
Many wines call themselves Chablis on the market but unfortunately not all of them are worth the reputation. Realistically, it is quite difficult to find a good example for less than €18-€20 but watch out for promotions, especially around Christmas time, that is when bargains are appearing !
Chardonnay is also produced in the rest of Burgundy and some of the best examples are found in the Cote de Beaune region where famous appellations like Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault are situated. The wines have generally seen some oak and have a little more texture and body on the palate than wines from Chablis. Aromas of white flowers, stone fruits, marzipan and dried nuts are very common. For many of us, they would be considered as “wines for special occasion” as their prices easily reach the €35+ mark. Once again, not all of the examples found on the market are worth the money and asking for a recommendation might be as important as ever.
Be aware that Burgundy is full of big negociants. They are buying wines already made and bottle them with their own labels or they buy grapes from all around Burgundy and make wines in high volume. Now, not all the negociants are making bad wines and not all the small independent producers are bottling top class burgundy but as a general rule, I would advise the consumer to be a little cautious. As with many other of the worlds most famous wine regions, you have a relatively small number of producers confirming the potential quality reputation of the region. However, there are many many more “piggy-backing” on that reputation and of course the prices that go with it.
Fortunately, for the budget conscious consumers, Burgundy still has to offer some very good Chardonnay for more reasonable prices. Cote Chalonnaise, situated just south of Cote de Beaune, offers some fantastic value for money. White wines from Rully can rival some of the best Puligny Montrachet and this for half the price.
Maconnais is another region to keep in mind when drinking Burgundy wines. Some of the Pouilly Fuisse, Saint Veran and Macon wines can be absolutely beautiful. From a warmer area, they tend to be a little bit creamier and rounder in texture. Don’t hesitate to serve them with white meat, they have the depth to cope with it. Their price on the shelves starts at around €16-€18.
However, Chardonnay is not only produced in France. For example, it is the most planted white grape variety in California and in Australia ! Despite the fact that Australia had a big role to play in spreading the bad word for Chardonnay, it does nowadays produce some beautiful example of the grape. Many versions are found on the market : from clean, unoaked wines with flavours of melon and stone fruits to round, creamy, oaky/spicy ones.
Many winemakers are conscious of the damage made in the past and are working hard at re-building a good reputation for their wines. I remember last year organizing a wine tasting for some friends and one of the stars of the night ended up being an oaked chardonnay from Adelaide hills in South Australia. Most of the people at the table however admitted that they were previously quite anti-chardonnay.
If you are willing to give Australian Chardonnay a second chance, then ask your local wine shop for a recommendation. You might want to start with an unoaked version. The price range varies quite greatly depending of the producer and region but you should be able to taste a decent one from €14.
Another country which really impressed me in recent years for the quality of their Chardonnay is South Africa. I was at a tasting a couple of weeks ago and I was simply blown away by the quality of a producer called Glen Carlou who is based in the Paarl region. I did visit the vineyard a few years ago and thought at the time that the wines were good but the last tasting made me realize that they have improved even more. Their first Chardonnay retails approximately at €14-€15 and is absolutely gorgeous with some very subtle notes of vanilla coming from oak fermentation. If you have some friends who like Burgundy wines, I suggest that you let them taste this wine without showing them the label :-).
Of course, Chile and Argentina do also produce some Chardonnay. Be aware that many of them tend to use some oak and be quite ripe aromatically. It might not be the first style you want to taste when you are trying to reconcile yourself with this grape varietal. However, you can find some very good value for money, especially in Chile where you could find some decent examples from €9.99. Once again, ask for recommendations if you are not familiar with the range offered in the shop.
On a separate note, just a little tip to make your quest for taste a little easier, don’t hesitate to use your phone to take pictures of the wines you happen to like or dislike. When asking for your next recommendation, you will then be able to give more details about your personal taste to the wine waiter or the sales assistant.
As mentioned in my previous post, Sauvignon Blanc is the star grape of New Zealand. However, some very good Chardonnay wines are produced there, especially in the North Island. Watch out for some Auckland region or Hawkes Bay region wines, they can be pretty delicious. Unfortunately, the prices are rarely under the €25 mark.
Chardonnay doesn’t stop here, California, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even Belgium are producing this grape. Without forgetting that it is the base of many sparkling wines around the world.
As a conclusion, I truly believe that everybody should be able to find one style of Chardonnay that they like. Unfortunately, as demonstrated above, a good Chardonnay is rarely cheap and it could be one of the explanation why so many people still have some unpleasant experiences with this grape. Maybe, the answer to this is to stick to what you like and only start tasting Chardonnay again time to time as a treat with only good examples of it.