Sorry to brag, but I was sitting in one of Vancouver’s top fish restaurants last week, overlooking the superyacht-crammed harbour and the person in charge of the wine list (not me for a change) ordered two British Columbian Chardonnays – Burrowing Owl and Quail’s Gate, both 2013.
Vancouver is one of the world’s best places to eat fish and had I been the one with the wine list in hand I might have gone for a Sauvignon Blanc but I smiled and said the choice was ideal and, in fact, it was. The assembled company ordered a range of dishes, from grilled scallops in a creamy, herby sauce to a powerful prawn and chorizo jambalaya. There was a sesame crusted Ahi tuna steak on one plate and a simple salmon salad on another. Faced with this myriad of flavours, the Chardonnays coped well.
Chardonnay has gone so far out of fashion that its time is surely right for a return. It coped with a meteoric rise in popularity a couple of decades ago, as vineyards around the world planted it, almost as a rite of passage, to show that they could grow this venerated grape of white Burgundy. Everyone wanted to produce a Meursault, a Puligny or even a Mâcon but in their enthusiasm they went a bit too far, overdosing with oak and making oily, oak-chipped, hefty wines. It is hardly surprising that the fashion moved on to lighter, cleaner fresher styles.
But Chardonnay has not been standing still. In the last few years there has been an appreciation of balance, acidity and the moderate use of oak. Vines are being planted in cooler places to retain the grape’s natural freshness and winemaking has been toned down to keep the flavours light and clean. The real plus factor for Chardonnay is that it has a broad spectrum of flavours that can fit around the olives, cream, mushrooms, herbs or chilli that many fish dishes come with.
I constantly hear people say that they “don’t like Chardonnay” but that just shows that they haven’t tasted one for a while. Here is a selection of good Chardys – for when you have a tableful of people with all different kinds of fish.
• Marqués de Casa Concha Chardonnay 2012, Chile, Tesco, £7.99: Recently judged to be among the best Chardonnays in the world, this is a wine packed with white stone fruit flavours, layered with spice, but it isn’t heavy. It comes from the Limarí valley where Pacific breezes keep the flavours fresh. A light touch of hazelnut means that this is a great wine to team with fish where there are toasted nuts, or just a grilled butter sauce on the plate.
• Cascara Chardonnay 2013, Limarí Valley, Chile, Marks & Spencer, £8.50: The Limarí valley is so far north in Chile that it should be hot and sultry but it is desert and so the temperature drops like a stone at night while daytimes are refreshed by breezes from the Pacific. That’s how this Chardonnay stays so bright and fresh. There is no oak clouding the clean, lime and lemon flavours and it has a long, lean, refreshing finish. Good as an aperitif with a few tzatziki-dipped prawns.
• Dark Horse Chardonnay 2013, California, Waitrose, £8.99: There is a splash of Gewürztraminer in this Chardonnay which might make purists shake with rage, but it works. The Gewürz adds a touch of spice, while the crisp Chardonnay flavours sail across the palate, bright, citrus-charged and long. As you might expect from a Californian wine there is a fair helping of oak, but even this has been held in balance. If you have a spiced fish dish, such as a dill, mustard or even Cajun-spiced salmon then this will cope magnificently.
• L’Etoile de Begude Chardonnay 2013, Limoux, France, Majestic, normally £17.99, down to £13.49 on multi-buy until August 31: This comes from an organic property run by James and Catherine Kinglake who left the London rat-race and bought a vineyard in the cool hills of Limoux. They have finessed their winemaking and use 600 litre demi-muids for aging the wine instead of small, toasty, oaky barrels. The result is a wine with pear and apple notes, with crunchy freshness and a round elegant style.
• Chablis 2014, Domaine Servin, France, Majestic, normally £14.99 down to £11.24 on multi-buy until August 31: Almost everyone knows that Chablis is made from 100 per cent Chardonnay, but it doesn’t have to declare the grape on the label so hasn’t suffered from that grape’s fall from favour. This northerly vineyard naturally retains fresh, lively, crisp acidity and the wine has the aromas of white flowers backed by flinty, minerally notes and a long, lively finish. Good with plain grilled sea bass.
• Rustenberg Chardonnay 2014, Stellenbosch, South Africa, Waitrose, £13.99: Cool breezes blow through this vineyard, 450 metres above sea level in the beautiful Helderberg mountains and so freshness is retained in the grapes. Add in the influence of granite soils giving a streak of minerals and complete the picture with wild yeast fermentation and old oak barrels and you have a refined, fresh-tasting Chardonnay, layered with complex flavours that can cope with grilled tuna or roasted cod.
• Greywacke Chardonnay 2011, Marlborough, New Zealand, Martinez Wines, Ilkley, £29.99: This is just about as far away from a “New World” Chardonnay as you can get without moving to France. Cool vineyards, wild yeast fermentation, not too much new oak and the supreme skills of winemaker Kevin Judd get the balance right. The result is a wine charged with citrus, minerals and floral notes balanced by a savoury mealiness that sits alongside food perfectly. This is a wine to bring out on a summer evening when you have a baked wild salmon on the table and some good friends to share it with.