Why Chardonnay belongs in your wine vocab.
Demand for Chardonnay is back. Whether the big oaky numbers of the past, or the lighter, fresher, more refreshing Chardonnays that has buyers clambering from their roast chicken dinner. Thankfully the ABC club (Anything But Chardonnay), have moved on but what people most likely mean when they say they dislike Chardonnay, is that they had too much of the Chardonnay on offer throughout the 80s and 90s. (i.e the wines were as big as the shoulder pads fighting for space on the nation’s nightclub dance floors.) Over time winemakers have realised that allowing complete malo reduces the wine’s ability to age and smashing the juice with lots of new oak considerably masked the true varietal characters. Now.. times have changed and the wines some people grew up with have faded away. As such, it is about time we again explore and explain the wines and the true romance behind one of the world’s most fashionable varieties – Chardonnay.
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Chardonnay belongs in your wine vocab. It was at a time when wine slowly started to become the alcoholic drink of choice for initially women and then men. Consumers have come back and are becoming more knowledgeable and they are happy to try these new punchy, flavoursome wines with colourful wine labels and broad spectrum varietal appeal. These styles from the new world are now standing up and standing out on shelves and wine lists against the tried, tested yet often misunderstood wines of France, Chablis and co.
Yes it originated in France, the Burgundy region in particular, and has spread throughout the world. The chardonnay grape is small, round, with a limey-yellow colour. It enjoys humid, moist growing conditions in a mineral rich, limestone or chalky soil. It doesn’t mind some oak treatment during winemaking and has a diverse flavour profile depending on where it is grown. It is a vigorously growing vine, and winemakers sometimes refer to it as it the “winemakers white”, as it can be a blank canvas on which they have the freedom to paint whatever they wish. It can also age well in the medium term, and is a sommeliers’ dream – when pairing it with New England Lobster rolls or Roast Chicken this variety simply sings.
Chardonnay, whether elegant and lean or broad and buttery, has spread to almost every top wine growing country in the world. It first moved from Burgundy to Champagne, and now has a home in Australia, The States (specifically California and Oregon), Italy, New Zealand, and even South Africa. Chablis of course is a specific site; the district is the most northerly vineyard area of France’s Burgundy region. It is a place where heavy clay and chalk soils produce a flinty, refined Chardonnay that is much prized for its intense minerality. To focus on this fruit flavour most wines in Chablis are unwooded. I honestly consider this area to be one of the most under-estimated wine regions in France. Reserved for still white wines, made with 100% chardonnay grapes, there are 20+ communes (Villages) with designations of origin. These include quality demarcations such as Petit Chablis, Chablis and the Chablis Grand Cru – of which there are seven sites. As the White Burgundies from the southern counter-part (Cotes de Beaune) are becoming increasingly expensive, Chablis represents great value drinking and excellent for the cellar if you like your Chardonnay with age and a fuller mouthfeel.
Young wines in the Chablis/unwooded vein can be lean and flinty, with some green-apple and citrus characters in the mouth, along with floral and saline aromas alongside fine acids and real palate drive. The richer style of Chardonnay is made in warmer climates and can be bold, big fruited, and with the right oak there are overtones of nuts and cream. This is the Australian classic style of Chardonnay, which is itself reflective of some of the communes south of Chablis – Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault, as they show ripe flavour profiles hinting at tropical fruits like pineapple, guava and mango. Some oak is used during winemaking and this offers those hints of cashew nut, almond and sometimes a thick chicken skin like flavour profile. Acidity is just as important in this style as it is in Chablis, as acidity will hold these wines together and help the wine mature. The mouthfeel in Blanc de Blanc Champagne for example can be almost custard like yet still with good acid. The aromatics of vanilla, butter, and coconut all come directly from the oak usage, whether it is matured and/or fermented in oak. Malolactic fermentation and lees work also both play a part in these wines. If these are your styles try a Chardonnay from Shaw and Smith, Voyager Estate, Toolangi, Tyrrells or Giaconda in Australia, and look for Oliver Lefliave, Domaine Vincent Giradin, and Domain Paul Pillot from Burgundy’s Cote d’or.
Essentially the biggest difference between Chablis and Chardonnay from the rest of the world is; Chablis are 95% unwooded. As such; Chardonnay belongs BACK in your wine vocab.