Reassessing a misunderstood wine
Chardonnay is perhaps one of the most mis-understood of all wines, which is somewhat ironic as it is produced in virtually every wine-making region of the world.
The latter is, of course, also made from pure Chardonnay, but it may not say so on the label. The Chardonnay grape variety is very adaptable as wine grapes go, hence its widespread use around the globe. Since World Chardonnay Day falls this week on Thursday May 24, time for a little probe into the ins and outs of wines made from it. There are a host of different styles of wine made from Chardonnay and a great deal of variation in quality.
Virtually always made dry, the flavours can vary from austere, mineral wines with high acidity, to full, fruity, opulent wines with soft tropical notes. A great deal of this variation is due to climatic influences, with a wide spectrum of flavours and aromas developing dependant on where the grapes are grown, from cool climates to warm. Soil type has another big influence. combine both of these with the fact that Chardonnay is a very ‘oak friendly’ grape variety and you have an almost infinite number of wine styles.
By oak friendly, I mean that the wines can react very well to both fermentation in oak barrels and maturation in oak once fermentation has finished. Flavours are lifted and enhanced by oak treatment, together with an increase in structure and complexity.
However, this is not always the case, and the use of oak needs to be carefully controlled by a good winemaker. Not so long ago, there was a lot of Chardonnay coming from mainly New World countries, such as Australia, where you may as well have been licking the inside of a barrel. Over-oaked, over flavoured and over here. Often oak chips were used (it still happens, unfortunately), which are far cheaper than a proper oak barrel, but the effect on the wine was to dominate the grape flavours and produce an unbalanced, unappealing wine.
This put a lot of people off Chardonnay, but things have changed and these types of wines have largely disappeared. The art of good winemaking is to achieve balance above all, and with high quality fruit, varietal flavours and complexity can also be achieved. Oak is thus not always used, but when it is, the effect should be subtle and integrated. There are some very good, straightforward un-oaked Chardonnays at entry level prices which can be great value for money. And then there are top quality Burgundies or Californian Chardonnays which are extraordinarily rich, deep flavoured and complex, commanding high prices.
For mid-range unoaked Chardonnay, a Domaine-bottled Chablis is always a good bet, though prices may be rising due to last year’s frosts. For a classic white Burgundy and a little more money, a Pouilly Fuissé is excellent value, such as Domaine Ferret 2016 at £33.40 per bottle from North and South Wines. Now owned by top Burgundy producer Louis Jadot, the wine is a very pure expression of Chardonnay, with a hint of oak to add complexity and length on the finish.
Moving away from France, the home country for Chardonnay, an Australian Chardonnay which is a far cry from the over-oaked styles, is the Robert Oatley Margaret River Chardonnay 2015. Gently oaked, it has hints of white peach and tropical fruits, with good balancing acidity and delicious, fruit finish. Perhaps one of the best regions of Australia for Chardonnay. Great value at only £13.80 from the Co-op. For a couple of pounds a bottle more, try the Chilean Max Reserva Chardonnay 2016 from the top producer Errazuriz. Made in the cool climate region of the Aconcagua Valley on schist soils, the wine has a combination of mineral flavours with intense tropical fruit. Barrel ageing for 10 months has produced a mellow, elegant wine of great sophistication. £15.10 from Sainsbury’s and Costco.
So, rekindle your love for Chardonnay this week with a wine which will satisfy the most demanding of tastebuds.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Follow him on Twitter @richardwje or visit www.winewyse.com.