For many white wine drinkers, Chardonnay is the ultimate rich white wine. From a steely Chablis to a powerfully oaked Aussie example, Chardonnay is one of the world’s favourite white wines. Winemakers love it too as the grape is easy to work with and produces a white wine easy to mould to their own personal style. So if you enjoy a glass or two of Chardonnay which wines should you look out for and what other styles of white wine should you try?
Chardonnay is probably best known for the great white wines from the Burgundy region of France and the heavyweight whites from Australia and California. Whilst these wine producing regions certainly show the Chardonnay grape at its best and most varied, Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world are also worth exploring.
If you buy a Burgundy white wine it will almost always be a Chardonnay. The region is renowned for the quality of its Chardonnay wines, although if you want to taste the best you should choose a white wine from either the Chablis or Cote d’Or areas. The Cote d’Or Chardonnays are concentrated and well-balanced and taste fresh with hints of oak and honey. The Chablis white wines tend to be a little lighter and crisper, almost steely in quality, due largely to the cooler climate and the chalk and clay qualities of the soil.
Chardonnay grapes are grown elsewhere in France and produce some very enjoyable white wines, especially in the south. Look out for Vins de Pays d’Oc made with Chardonnay – the warmer conditions produce a rich and fruity white wine full of hints of buttered toast reminiscent of New World Chardonnays. The Chardonnay wines here tend to be more reliable than those from Burgundy, unless you are prepared to pay the premium prices for the best Burgundy white wines, but they are less complex.
Australia’s warm climate Chardonnays are known for being heavyweight white wines. They can be extremely rich and luscious, heavily oaked and full of flavours of tropical fruit, vanilla and buttered toast. However, in recent years many winemakers have tried to tone down these huge white wines and there are many more elegant Chardonnays available now. If you like the big, oaked Chardonnays choose ones from hot regions such as South Australia’s Barossa Valley or the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. If you prefer them leaner go for the cooler climate regions such as the Adelaide Hills in South Australia or Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Perhaps the best Australian Chardonnays come from Margaret River in Western Australia where they are somewhere in between.
The story is similar in California where the huge Chardonnays of the past are becoming more subtle and fresh. The cheapest examples can be somewhat bland but mid-priced Californian Chardonnays are generally reliably good whilst the premium Chardonnays are as good as anything you can get in Australia or France.
Elsewhere, look out for Chardonnays from the Western Cape region in South Africa and from some regions in New Zealand. Richer Chardonnays are produced in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne whilst Marlborough produces leaner, crisper examples. Chile and Argentina have some good value Chardonnays, as do Bulgaria and Hungary.
If you want to try some less well-known grapes that produce wonderful, rich white wines then look no further than Semillon and Viognier.
Semillon is often blended with Chardonnay, particularly in Australia, but it deserves to be drunk in its own right. It is a white wine full of honey and lemon and lime characteristics and is often better when it has been allowed to mature. Young Semillons can taste a little lean and grassy but once the white wine has been allowed to mature it offers a rich mouthful of lime and honey. The hot climate of Australia produces some enormous Semillons which offer a great alternative to New World Chardonnays – look out for white wines from the Barossa and Clare Valleys in South Australia and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.
Semillon is used also in white wines from Bordeaux in France. As with most French wines the label will not tell you whether the white wine is primarily made from Semillon grapes or whether Semillon has been blended with Sauvignon Blanc, as often happens. Whatever the combination, the best bottles of white wine from the region can be excellent but be prepared to pay for them and to allow them to age. For the best examples look out for white wine from Graves and Pessac-Leognan.
It may be more floral and perfumed than Chardonnay or Semillon but Viognier is another option for lovers of full-bodied white wines. Currently fashionable, the best examples come from France’s Rhone Valley, particularly the Condrieu area.
Viognier should be full of characteristics of dried apricots and peaches with a flowery, honeysuckle aroma. However, cheaper Viogniers which have been made with high yielding vines can be disappointing so it is worth seeking out the better examples. New World wine-producing regions are catching on quickly to Viognier’s popularity and some good examples are being made in California as well as in Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
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