IT HAS BEEN SAID OF CHARDONNAY that if it were a celebrity it would be Marilyn Monroe – golden, voluptuous and easy for everyone to appreciate.
The original ‘international’ grape, grown just about everywhere where wine is made, Chardonnay is popular with growers as it’s easy to grow and sell, high yielding, disease resistant and stylistically malleable. Crucially, it blends happily with cheaper ‘stretching’ varieties like Semillon and Chenin. Consumers love it because it’s plump, not too assertive in terms of acidity or flavour and has a name that’s easy to say.
But not everyone adores it, it has to be said: the ABC (‘Anything but Chardonnay’) Club comprises a small but vocal minority who still remember the sickly-sweet, oak-monster blockbusters of the 1990s. These blowsy, overworked styles have been much reined in and had manners put on them in the past decade, thankfully. In fact, the current trend is for ‘virgin’ or ‘naked’ Chardonnays: lightly oaked (if at all), with lower alcohol, brighter acidity and less obvious tropical fruit flavours.
Chardonnay reaches its apogee in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, where it makes plush, mouthfilling and reassuringly expensive wines like Puligny-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. Other premium regions include Australia’s Margaret River and Mornington Peninsula, California’s Sonoma, New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay and Gisbourne, and Chile’s Casablanca Valley. A key ingredient in most sparkling wines, too, it makes up a third of plantings in Champagne.
Chardonnay, more so than most other grapes, doesn’t reflect its terroir or origin as much as it does the hand of the winemaker. Key techniques these vignerons like to employ include: barrel fermentation (as opposed to stainless steel or concrete); malolactic fermentation (which reduces acidity); and battonage (or lees stirring – mixing the developing wine with its nourishing yeasts). All of these methods serve to produce a weighty, creamy, supple wine with a strikingly luxurious personality.
If you do find yourself in Burgundy a good photo op exists at the sign for the village of Chardonnay, supposed birthplace of the grape. They would say that!
Five to try
Santa Alicia Reserva Chardonnay 2012 Maipo
€11.49 €9.99 Save €1.50
Warm-climate Chardonnay from lush vineyards that fan out from Chile’s bustling capital Santiago. Alluring nose of papaya and mango, with a palate of plump stone fruit and subtle French oak. Delicious!
30 Mile Chardonnay 2012 Riverina Intro Price €9.99 (RRP €12.49)
Easy drinking, juicy example from Riverina, one of Australia’s powerhouse, inland regions. Shows just why New World Chardonnay has become the global phenomenon it has.
Bleasdale Chardonnay 2012 Adelaide Hills €14.99 NEW!
From grapes grown in the Mount Lofty Ranges, just east of Adelaide, this Chardonnay is fermented using only wild yeasts and is aged for 9 months in premium French oak. Very elegant.
La Colombe Chablis 2012 Burgundy €19.99
Chablis is always 100% Chardonnay but it couldn’t be more different from the big, oaky renditions. La Colombe is lean and minerally, with racy notes of lemon and crushed seashells. Super.
The King’s Bastard Chardonnay 2011 Marlborough €19.99
A vibrant, seductive Chardonnay that compares well with the great whites of Burgundy’s Côte-d’Or. ‘Commended’ in this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, it offers tremendous pleasure with its vibrant pineapple, peach and buttered toast schtick. A memorable name and an unforgettable wine.