Chardonnay Comeback: The grape that dared not speak its name has plenty to shout about these days, says Christine Austin.
Do you remember when rosé wine was naff? Often medium sweet and lacking any real character it was just a halfway house between red and white wine. But things changed when winemakers started to make rosés with up-front fruit and drier, crisper flavours. Now rosé is the darling of the wine shelves, reinvented in most wine regions of the world and enjoyed by all, especially on a warm sunny day when its flavours seem to go perfectly with summer foods.
The same transformation is happening to another style of wine, but you will have to guess which one, because any attempt to mention it by name (it begins with a C) invokes howls of derision from those who have jumped on the ABC bandwagon. ABC stands for Anything But C, a gathering of taste police who have declared that C is socially unacceptable. This is not just misguided; it is totally unfair to a grape that, to me and many other drinkers, provides a range of wines from crisp and appetizing to food-friendly dinner-party styles.
Chardonnay, there, I’ve said it – Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay – is not some kind of secret shame which might see you left out of the next round of drinks with the neighbours. Drinking it doesn’t imply you have faulty tastebuds. It is a grape that has been making some of the finest white wines in the world for centuries. It glows with quality and style and the fact that a few years ago a TV series used it as the name of a fairly dubious character should not rub off on the wine.
Chardonnay is the grape of Meursault, Chablis and Puligny Montrachet, glorious fabulous expensive wines, but because they don’t use the word Chardonnay on the label, they have avoided the stigma of ABC. The real problem came a few years ago when the Australians and some other regions of the world decided to make their Chardonnay wines in a heavy, oily style and keep them in oak for far too long. The result was the yellow, hefty, splinter-ridden wines that appealed to many tastebuds for a short period, but then we all became tired of them, shifting to the zippier flavours of Sauvignon Blanc or the softer, blander taste of Pinot Grigio.
In the same way that rosé wine has been re-invented, so has Chardonnay. The winemakers of the world have changed their ways. They are making crisp, unoaked or barely oaked Chardonnays and they are extremely good, but unless we taste them their work will go unnoticed.
So here are my suggestions for some wines to wean you off the ABC bandwagon. If it helps, you don’t have to use the word Chardonnay, try calling it Shh, so no-one knows what it is, or go out on a limb and refer to a possible parent of this grape in Lebanon called Obaideh. The connection is weak but no-one will want to argue with you and they certainly won’t make the link to Chardonnay.
Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay 2012, Adelaide Hills, South Australia, Halifax Wine Co, £23.95.
Strangely enough it is Australia which is leading the way in making these new wave Chardonnays, and the Adelaide Hills is just the place to do it. Cool weather keeps flavours fresh and Shaw and Smith are the key producers who use just a hint of oak to add texture and balance. There are no splinters in this wine, just crisp lemony, citrus fruit and a long balanced style.
Red Claw Mornington Peninsular Chardonnay 2011, Victoria, Australia, Marks and Spencer, £17.99.
The Mornington peninsular is where Melbourne residents head for their long weekends by the sea where the climate is naturally cool and breezy. Land is also very expensive so no-one is going to make anything but top-notch wine. Try this Chardonnay made by top winemaker Tom Carson at Yabby Lake. Oak fermented but without malolactic fermentation, it keeps its vibrant, lively, citrus style yet has elegance and balance from long lees aging.
Leuwin Prelude Chardonnay 2009, Margaret River, Western Australia, The Wine Society, £23.
Western Australia is the definitive region for cool-climate grapes. The vineyards are so close to the sea you can almost taste the salt on the breeze and Chardonnays here don’t have time to over-ripen and become flabby. This wine is quintessentially elegant – perfectly balanced with clear melon and citrus flavours, a hint of ripe pear and a merest mention of peach. There is some oak but it is so well hidden behind the fruit that you don’t notice it.
Greywacke Chardonnay 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand, Field and Fawcett, £23.95.
From Kevin Judd, formerly of Cloudy Bay, now making some of New Zealand’s most outstanding wines. Grapes for this wine were picked at night to preserve all the fresh flavours then wild yeast fermented slowly in old oak to give complexity without splinters. The result is a mineral-fresh, citrus-led Chardonnay with notes of nashi pears and mandarin.
Chablis 2012, Jean Bourguignon, £11.99 Majestic, down to £9.99 on multibuy until July 22.
If you still can’t bring yourself to buy a wine labelled Chardonnay then try a Chablis. Made from Chardonnay it demonstrates just what you have been missing all this time – acacia blossom on the nose then crisp, crunchy, minerally fruit with a zesty, balanced finish.
Domaine Begude Terroir 11300, Chardonnay 2012, Waitrose, £9.45.
What do you do when the local legislation requires you to keep your wine in oak longer than you want to? The answer is that you don’t use the local appellation, you just use the postcode.
Made by James and Catherine Kinglake at their delightful almost-organic property in Limoux, this is full of tree blossom aromas, bright, crunchy citrus flavours with a long, food-friendly texture.