Categories: Expert guidance

Jane Parkinson on chardonnay’s rollercoaster popularity

Jane ParkinsonIn the last 30 years, no wine grape has experienced a popularity rollercoaster like chardonnay. Back in the eighties and early nineties, it was the Big Mac equivalent of the wine world. Bigger was seen as better—we just couldn’t get enough of these blockbuster chardonnays that were buttery, ripe and over-oaked from the sunny southern hemisphere and most famously, from Australia.

As chardonnay basked in this popularity, a large swathe of wine drinkers understandably started to forget that this was a respected and high-quality wine grape capable of producing some of the most elegant, complex and long-lived white wines in the world. And so, instead of being respected for its many virtues, chardonnay became incorrectly pigeon-holed as some overblown oakbomb.

Inevitably, the backlash then happened. Through the late nineties and the noughties, a movement of wine drinkers labelled as the ABC—‘anything but chardonnay’—crowd started to champion less blowsy wines, and chardonnay was their prime target. It became distinctly fashionable to dislike chardonnay, so producers started making leaner, fresher versions to answer public demand.

A blank canvas
Chardonnay is a malleable grape, so it wasn’t difficult to tweak the style to suit this change in fashion, but its malleability is both a blessing and a curse. Chardonnay can be fat or lean or somewhere in between, and without any inherently strong perfume or characteristic flavour in the way that say, sauvignon blanc or riesling have, it’s a blank canvas for winemakers, albeit a top quality one.

There are many ways in which chardonnay’s flavour can be enhanced, although two methods are especially famous for making an impact. Firstly, oak. Chardonnay loves oak, happily soaking up the flavour that barrels impart into it (which can’t be said for all white wines).

The amount of oak you can taste in a glass of chardonnay will depend on many factors, including whether the wine has been fermented and/or aged in oak as well as how long it has been in contact with it.

Toasting level
The age of the oak (older barrels = less flavour) and the barrel toasting level (winemakers specify their level of toasting when ordering barrels) and the origin of the oak all have an impact on the oaky flavour, too. The general consensus is that American oak has more of a vanilla flavour, whereas French oak is thought to be subtler.

The second common enhancer is lees ageing. Lees is a yeast deposit by-product of fermentation and by letting chardonnay age (macerate) on these lees, its flavour is enhanced in a malty, bready way. But lees also make an important contribution to texture in the mouth, giving chardonnay greater presence or weight, which helps both in terms of giving it the wherewithal to stand up to more robust food, or to age for longer.

While its spiritual home is in France—that’s to say Burgundy, including Chablis—chardonnay is ubiquitous because it isn’t fussy about where it is grown, so although the origin of the grapes and the conditions under which they’ve been grown is vastly important in determining chardonnay’s final flavour, so too are contact with oak and lees ageing.

By using either, both or neither of these techniques, every chardonnay interpretation is different, and while there will always be room for big and oaky versions, it would be a shame to think that is all there is to it. Today’s chardonnay is about so much more.

Five of Borough Market’s best chardonnays
2014 Chateau de Lavernette Beaujolais-Blanc, France

Borough Wines, £14.50

Only three per cent of the production in Beaujolais is white wine, but it’s worth seeking out. This biodynamic chardonnay has a crisp, lemon flavour with a fleshier ripe apricot lushness to it. Fantastic with chicken tagine.

2010 Chapel Down Blanc de Blancs, England
Wine Pantry, £29

Blanc de blancs usually means a sparkling wine made purely from chardonnay, which is a key grape for fizz. Dry, creamy, toasty, with grapefruit zing and energetic bubbles, this English fizz makes a perky aperitif and is a winner with oysters.

2013 Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay, England
Wine Pantry, £22

This Kent producer is most famous for its fizz, but also makes England’s most impressive still, dry chardonnay. Gentle buttered toast flavours with a green apple freshness to give it attitude and bite. The perfect bottle to pep up a Welsh rarebit dinner.

2014 Trivento Reserve Chardonnay, Argentina
Cartwright Bros, £14

This Argentine chardonnay is for those who like a bit of oakiness in their wine. Although it has toasty, smoked-bacon flavours, they are tempered nicely by a melon crispness. Drink with creamy, cheesy, lardon-adorned pasta.

2012 Thistledown The Great Escape Chardonnay, Australia
Bedales, £19

Australian chardonnay, but not as some might know it. Grown on a cooler site in the higher altitude of the Eden Valley, it has a lovely golden delicious crunch to start but it finishes sleek and smooth. Delicious with roast chicken.