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Insiders guide to...Chardonnay

(menu)

The rise of cheap New World Chardonnay may have tarnished the image of this versatile varietal, but as Chris Losh says, you can’t keep a good grape down


Imagine you were drawing up the blueprint of a grape that could take over the world. You’d want something that could make good cheap wines and mind-blowing expensive ones; something that could grow where it’s hot and also where it’s cool; something that could do ‘lean, formal and food-friendly’ one minute and ‘soft, relaxed and gluggable’ the next. Oh, and the chance to make great fizz wouldn’t hurt either.

Well, you’ve just described Chardonnay.

Looked at harshly, you could accuse the grape of being a bit ‘all-things-to-all-men’, and certainly its ubiquity at the tail end of the last century made it an easy target for wine snobs. A decade ago, the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay) probably had more members than the PLO, though Pinot Grigio seems to be public enemy number one now.

You have to remember, though, that Chardonnay became popular for a reason: namely, its ability to make decent wine pretty much everywhere. From the chilly hills of Chablis to the baked plains of Australia’s Riverland, Chardonnay will give you something that’s just about always worth drinking. It’s the most laid-back and good-natured varietal in existence, and that’s why Australia and California were quick to latch on to it.

Because it’s been so heavily adopted by the New World, many wine drinkers forget that Chardonnay’s homeland is Europe. But it’s from places like Burgundy in France that the vine was first taken on its global conquest and for traditionalists the wines from here remain the grape’s best expression.

What Burgundy (and particularly Chablis) has is a cooler climate, which means the grape ripens more slowly and maintains its acidity. The best vineyard sites (ie Grand and Premier Cru Chablis and famous Burgundy villages like Puligny Montrachet or Meursault) also have limestone-rich soil. It might sound fanciful, but this makes a big difference to Chardonnay. While it will grow almost anywhere, give it lower temperatures and a bit of limestone and it suddenly metamorphoses from laid-back surfer dude into noble aristocrat. In great years, and from top sites, the results can be spectacular – a majestic combination of power, elegance, fruit, freshness and minerality. Wines, moreover, that can age for many years.

There’s a standard joke in the wine trade about customers who say they don’t like Chardonnay, then (ha ha) ask for a Chablis. But such a mistake is not as daft as it sounds. Traditional New World Chardonnay can be quite big, rich and soft, whereas Chablis is a lot fresher in style: lemons and apples rather than pineapples and melons. Stylistically, they’re miles apart – and there’s nothing on most bottles of Chablis (or Burgundy) to tell you what it’s made from, so how would anyone know?

In any case, the stylistic divergence is changing. Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on cool areas, and increasingly the rest of the world’s growers are finding places to make fresher, more balanced Chardonnays, with livelier acidity, lower alcohol and less oak.

The grape that launched a thousand dinner parties is back.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008

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