An Ode to Chardonnay
One trend in wine that has always completely confused me, is the uprising of the “ABCs” – consumers who ask for “Anything but Chardonnay”. How is it that one of the most versatile, potentially highest quality grapes has become snubbed by the masses?
Bulk-made, inexpensive bottles I feel have a lot to answer for here. Chardonnay is not a picky grape; most people could grow a vine if they wanted to, relatively cheaply and easily, depending on the methods of production that they use. As a result, the market can – and often does – become flooded with wines made from the grape that has been produced with quality being the least important piece of the winemaker’s chosen puzzle, far behind yields, recognisability and profits. However, when in the hands of a winemaker who is dedicated to nurturing Chardonnay, from the growing to the production methods, it is a grape that displays supreme class. And, most importantly, Chardonnay can be anything that you want it to be.
If you are a self-identified ABC, then please don’t feel attacked. You have probably tasted some bulk-made, flabby Chardonnay in your time and for that introduction, I apologise. But I implore you – do not give up here! Below I have written a guide that will take you through some expressions of the grape which I recommend you try. Not bad homework, I know. I truly believe it is unfeasible that someone could find all of these a disappointment. Unless you don’t like wine… in which case, feel free to leave now.
1. White Burgundy
The classic and home to all Chardonnay. If you want to understand the grape and the heights that it can achieve, then there is no better place to begin. There is a huge range of price-points from Burgundy, with a steady upward trend, as wine lovers devour the high calibre stuff by the case. I would suggest that some excellent value can be found in the regional appellation “Bourgogne AOC”, although you will not experience as much finesse as further up the scale. If you have a plumper budget, one of my personal favourite village appellations is Meursault AOC. Generally, Burgundian winemakers are impeccably quality-conscious, with styles that are rounded on the palate, with subtle hints of cream and smoke from oak influence. The epitome of layered balance.
Yes, Chablis is Chardonnay. And yes, for those geographers reading this, Chablis is technically still in Burgundy. But I do feel that it deserves its own name-check as the style is often far removed from the other areas of the region. The classic pet peeve of a wine professional is someone explaining their tastes with a throwaway “I hate Chardonnay, but I love dry wines, like Chablis”, when they are one and the same. Chablis is in the northernmost part of Burgundy, meaning that it has a cooler climate than the other appellations. This heavily influences the style, revealing leaner characters with refreshing, zingy acidity with notes of lemon and green apple. Fortunately for Chablis, it is these more taught white wines that are currently on trend and suit modern palates, which accounts for the apparent dissociation that Chablis has experienced from the more southern white Burgundy. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, certainly give Chablis a try.
3. Californian Chardonnay
If it is sickly rich, bold oaky flavours that you do not enjoy in Chardonnay, then these bottles should be approached with caution. However, numerous wineries are making more restrained styles of Chardonnay, that beautifully display the Californian terroir. These winemakers are amongst some of the most innovative of the industry and create incredibly interesting bottles. Unfortunately, Californian wine is often at a premium price in the UK market.
If all else fails, I am confident that a glass of Champagne is the indisputable cure for any remaining ABC. There are three main grape varieties used for Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. Bottles labelled as ‘Blanc de Blancs’ can only be made from white grapes, more often than not 100% Chardonnay. These can be dry or have some residual sugar and are often very clean-cut in style, with aromas of apple and lemon, as well as some autolytic notes (bread dough, biscuit, brioche) from ageing on lees. They are known to sometimes be austere when they are young, but often age better than ‘Blanc de Noirs’.
I hope that this desperate appeal inspires at least one ABC to give Chardonnay another chance. It has been sadly misunderstood by the general public, despite wine geeks having never turned their backs on it. As you can tell, it is one of my personal favourite grapes and I would be delighted to see it welcomed back to popular culture with open arms. Then again, I guess that would mean I’d have less for myself…