After decades of popularity, Chardonnay has now become the wine underdog: the grape that the U.K. has apparently fallen out of love with. The media-spin on fashionable grapes such as Viognier, Albarinio, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio would leave many thinking that there is no suitable place for Chardonnay on the dinner table. Is this really true?
Critics and commentators alike often write about searching for the “new” wine, the holy grail of grapes, the new toy to play with. The idea of finding an unknown wine bargain is an addictive thrill. But we must not forget the classics.
Maybe it’s a generational thing; obsessed with celebrity, new experiences and on the constant hunt; the expectation of “bigger and better” just round the corner: gap years are commonplace for the over-educated twentysomethings – they fly about the world, only to come running home craving fish and chips and their wooly sweater. What are we searching for? Is Chardonnay now seen as a guilty pleasure in the U.K.? Chardonnay Anonymous meetings may be being set up as we speak; who knows? because Chardonnay is still being drunk in huge quantities across the U.K., and yet to many the word ‘Chardonnay’ translates to a dull or oaky wine.
The oak story has unfortunately tainted the grape with a production method. So often the (anything-but-Chardonnay) generation surmise that they dislike Chardonnay because it “tastes too oaky”. Snippish comments aside, the oak tastes of oak and the Chardonnay tastes of Chardonnay, simple.
Thankfully nowadays oak is easier to spot. In direct result of the backlash, New World Chardonnays are often littered with “un-oaked” or “un-wooded” tags on their labels. If you decide to buy a White Burgundy in the U.K. then price could often indicate a un-oaked style. Between £7-£10 the wine maker simply cannot afford to use oak in their wines, hence the key difference between Europe and elsewhere: if a producer in France wants to oak their wine, by law a quality wooden barrel has to be used; and this is an expensive process.
Outside Europe, it’s a different story; oak chips and staves are allowed to impart an “oaky” flavour by being incorporated into the winemaking process: a literal seasoning effect. As such, brash woody flavours were often a feature of the swathe of New World Chardonnays that lined the supermarket shelves in the 90’s. Unfortunately this is where the reputation has stayed whilst tastes have moved on.
For me, Chardonnay is a deep-rooted passion. The complexity, history, smell, look, feel and – most importantly – the flavour, all wrapped up in one, can send me into a quiver of pleasure. Some may call me a cheap date but a bottle of good Chardonnay really gets me going.
It all started when I was a wee lad, camping in Meursault with Mum and Dad, long walks up Vergisson, hours and hours sat in the car park at various caves whilst the parental sipped quietly inside. “Not wine again!” we would shriek. What we wanted was Disney World and what we got was bloody Burgundy! Ungrateful little snits. If only I had known how my career would turn out, maybe I would have paid more attention.
On returning to the U.K. every summer, when we would see a bottle of Chardonnay in the supermarket aisles, my sisters and I would do a mock parody of our wine-soaked Mother (even at a young age Mother was firmly fixed as our comedy muse). We had no idea what Chardonnay meant, other than we had spent most of that summer trying to find a good one. Imagine the lovechild of Janet Street-Porter and Kenneth Williams screeching down the supermarket shopping aisles “Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay!!!!!” We were brats of the highest order. Mother used to laugh, with a glint in her eye, knowing that one day we would understand.
In the U.K. the following fifteen years for me were a Chardonnay desert, whilst the rest of the adult population were in a Chardonnay flood. I have little or no personal experience of the over-oaked Aussie stuff in the 90s; by the time I started getting my wine groove on, the Chardonnay demise had already begun.
I am of a generation where most people’s first drink was not a warm pint of mild or a sharp glass of wine in a Yates’s wine lodge. Dodgy clubs in Southport, Vodka and coke and alcopops are my earliest teenage alcohol memories. So it’s no surprise that many wine drinkers in their 20s and 30s prefer slightly sweeter and punchier wines. The fast-food 80s kids, have grown up on a diet of processed salty, fatty and flavour injected foods; it makes sense that wine tastes change too.
So here’s the problem: we have those who are fed up with the over-oaked 90s Chardonnays and those whose taste buds have been burned by kebabs, curry and alcopops on a Friday night. Chardonnay really has a fight on its hands and I am determined to champion it. My wine fists are well and truly out.
So Chardonnay is perceived as dull and I can appreciate where that view comes from. Generally Chardonnay has got less acidity than the Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios of this world, but I am fine with that. Chardonnay is a softer grape variety, a quieter, mellower grape variety: The Radio 4 of grapes to the Sauvignon Blanc’s Radio 1.
Imagine Chardonnay as a simple beauty: a Sunday morning with a clear head. Comfortable and safe pleasures are underrated by their nature of not being shocking. Sun on the back of your neck, a favourite video box set, the smell of freshly cut grass and a good night’s sleep are not just the wants of the middle-aged.
Chardonnay lends itself to being fruity, medium bodied with a soft centre. It tends not to have the Riesling or Sauvignon-like zap of acidity, nor the perfumed floral quality of Gewürztraminer or Viognier. Chardonnay is in the middle of white wine styles yet not middle of the road in terms of flavour. For a wine to set your heart on fire it does not have to taste of guava, kiwi, ugli fruit, or indeed scream from the glass.
We are a country of Sausage and Mash, Fish and Chips and Spaghetti Bolognaise; we thrive on comfort and classics. There are some things that will never be fashionable but will remain as institutions of British identity: milk chocolate, bacon sandwiches on sliced white bread, roses on Valentine’s Day, Bruce Forsyth and, in my opinion, Chardonnay. It may just take a little while for the U.K. to realise it
Everybody likes to discover and explore the new “up and coming” wine of the moment but I urge you to break with tradition and go for an old classic once in a while. You might be surprised with what you find. Traditional does not have to be boring; fashion should not dictate taste. I dare you: put Facebook on hold this weekend and give an old friend a ring. Much like Chardonnay, sometimes old friends are the best. So be brave, make a bacon butty, put on your comfy slippers, turn on some Saturday night T.V. and crack open a bottle of Chardonnay and let the waves of nostalgia and comfort flow through your veins.
My Top Tips for giving Chardonnay another try:
- Try a Chablis, 100% Chardonnay and 99% un-oaked.
- Macon-Villages and Vire-Clesse are more often than not un-oaked, if unsure, go for the cheaper one!
- Labels on New World Chardonnay will usually say if it is oaked: and it will be in English!
- Try some New Zealand Chardonnay, not guaranteed to be un-oaked but usually softer than Australian.
- Champagne Blanc de Blanc is 100% Chardonnay, bit of a cheat but why not!?
- If you are a fan of Pinot Grigio why not try an Italian Chardonnay, usually lighter than French.
1) Bourgogne Chardonnay ‘Les Chenaudières’ 2008/2009 Cave de Lugny, Majestic, £6.99 Buy 2 bottles save £1 = £6.49:
Crisp and elegant with citrus and apple fruit characters alongside a lovely streak of minerality. Refined and classy, this is a superb introduction to this famous region’s wines.
2) Wither Hills Chardonnay 2009 Marlborough, Majestic,£8.99:
This is a great quality wine with a real concentration of flavours. The palate is complex with a tightly knitted structure and succulent long length.
3) Château de Ligny Chablis, Tesco, £8.54:
This clean and fresh white has a bouquet of apple and citrus fruits and combines the appetizing minerality of Chablis with hints of richness beneath.
4) De Saint Gall, Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Brut Champagne, M&S, – Case of 6
Now: £116.85 Special Offer
Was: £140.40 (£19.48 per Bottle instead of £26)
An elegant and refined Champagne with a rich creamy character and a fine crisp mousse.