“I drink anything but Chardonnay,” she said defiantly. This is not the first time I have encountered this kind of proud hatred for one of the world’s most noble grapes, but it reminded me of how polarised wine trends can be. Not so long ago drinkers from all corners of the globe could not get enough Chardonnay, yet now you are deemed a pariah for drinking it. How did this happen? I, for one, love Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is the white grape variety of the Burgundy region in France (with one or two exceptions). The greatest, most expensive white wines in the world from Burgundian sub-regions such as Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet and Corton are made from it. With the exception of perhaps Riesling and Semillon, it produces wines that can age longer than any other white variety. It is relatively easy to grow and thus is found growing in vineyards all around the world.
A Malleable Grape
The fact that Chardonnay is an easy grape to grow is ultimately what has led to legions of ABC devotees. Chardonnay vines have been cultivated in Burgundy for more than 1,000 years, but they are fairly recent in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the US. In fact, the first commercial bottling of ‘chardy’ in Australia was only released in 1971 by Tyrrell’s. Many other wineries soon followed suit and the race to emulate the great wines of France was on.
Chardonnay is classified as a non-aromatic variety which means it is very neutral with basic fruit flavours like peach, apple, pear, grapefruit, nuts and figs. Although it is neutral, it is malleable and often requires quite intensive winemaking, such as time in oak barrels to add structure and tannin, barrel fermentation to add complexity, and malolactic fermentation to add a creamy or buttery element.
As Chardonnay started to take off in the new world, winemakers sought inspiration from the great wines of Burgundy. They saw that there they used a little oak, malolactic and barrel fermentation to make very interesting and complex wines. Struggling to achieve this, they followed the notion that if you use a little, then a lot would surely reap a wine of great character. They were right; it did. The problem was that they had too much flavour and character, so that nobody could finish a bottle.
By the mid-1990s Chardonnay had become big, fat, oaky, buttery, rich and round. Not surprisingly people soon got sick of buying bottles that they could not finish and Chardonnay suffered a massive backlash. This was compounded by the arrival on the world stage of the tropical fruit bombs that were Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.
Things however have changed. New World winemakers have learnt from their mistakes and toned down their styles. They have learnt to harness the fruit and subtle complexity that Chardonnay can offer, without heavy-handed manipulation in the winery. Now it is much more common to see descriptors like elegant, restrained, subtle and fine used to describe Chardonnay wines.
Chardonnay is well and truly on the comeback trail. The wines are food-friendly, cellar worthy and very interesting to drink. The members of the ABC club should be getting worried because I feel that soon the ABS (Anything But Sauvignon Blanc) club may soon have more members as wine trends constantly evolve. But it is all a bit silly. If you like it, drink it and don’t worry about what other people think.
Louis Jadot ‘Couvent Des Jacobins’ Chardonnay 2013
This is a fantastic entry-level offering from one of the world’s great white winemakers. Sourced from vineyards across the region, it bursts with bright, fresh peaches ‘n cream flavours. Very judicious use of oak adds a little complexity and length to the palate. A beautiful wine for a roast chicken at home with good friends.
Jim Cawood is a trained sommelier and is presently man-at-the-helm at District 2 restaurant, Lubu