Chardonnay’s New Clothes

As Chardonnay producers world-wide eschew the big, buttery, overly-oaked excesses of yesteryear for leaner, more elegant styles, it’s time to reassess the Queen of Whites, says Andrew Catchpole

Chardonnay is back, and it’s better than ever. If the grape’s often buttery, oak excesses have put you off in the past, propelling you into the Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) movement, then rejoice! The noble variety has moved on, making it a good time to take a fresh look. Fast shedding its ‘all fur coat and
no knickers’ image that peaked along with its namesake character in the TV show Footballers’ Wives, it stands poised to reassert itself in a world awash with two-dimensional Sauvignon Blancs and insipid Pinot Grigios.

chardonnay - 0023.jpgMaster of complexity
Of course, great Chardonnay never went away. ‘There are still many people that perhaps don’t really realise that it is Burgundy’s white variety and also blended in Champagne,’ says Xavier Rousset, sommelier-owner of London’s Michelin-starred Texture and its more casual sibling, 28˚-50˚. But, as Burgundy alone shows, with its steely-taut Chablis alongside the sublime complexity of a fine Puligny-Montrachet, Chardonnay produces many of the greatest white wines in the world.
Chardonnay has always been something of a chameleon, capable of expressing its terroir but also malleable in the hands of the winemaker. Styles range from light and citrusy by way of tropical fruit-infused wines, to taut, minerally numbers showing great intensity, along with richer specimens capable of revealing great distinction with age. It was the New World, and particularly California and Australia, which elevated the grape to a household name, before dashing its reputation with over-egged styles that could almost be spread like butter on toast. 

Cool to be cool
Today, it’s all different. Restraint, finesse, minerality and cool-climate character are the buzzwords on the lips of winemakers from Australia to Argentina by way of Andalucia as they continue to evolve their styles of Chardonnay.
A combination of earlier harvesting, migration to cooler sites and even factors like greater vine age have brought in grapes with more acidity and substance. This coupled with a more sympathetic and subtle use of oak – if at all – have all conspired to produce a new wave of more elegant and enjoyable Chardonnays from
around the world.
‘We now look for elegance, finesse and restraint in our Chardonnays,’ says Giant Steps winemaker Steve ‘Flammo’ Flamsteed in Australia’s Yarra Valley. ‘It’s a style we’ve only really come around to in Australia over the past 10 years as we realised we wanted to make wines that we ourselves like to
drink and that go well with food.’

palominograpes.jpgReach for the heights
This view is echoed not just across Australia’s cooler-climate regions, but also, increasingly, around both the New and Old World.
Never short of an opinion, globetrotting Argentine vigneron José Manuel Ortega agrees that Chardonnay is being resurrected and that quality (and value) has never been higher. ‘Because Chardonnay was so popular it was planted everywhere,’ says Ortega, whose futuristic O Fournier winery in Mendoza anchors a high-end winemaking operation with bodegas spanning Argentina, Spain and Chile.
‘But while this led to a lot of unmemorable Chardonnay that began to turn people away, it also means that we now have a much better understanding of where Chardonnay does well, including some of our higher-altitude vineyards. So, while the world is running away from bad Chardonnay, it will come back for good and great Chardonnay because it remains the queen of wines.’
Today, the list of great Chardonnays runs and runs. While many Old World countries are making cracking examples, this renaissance is being driven first and foremost by the New World where Chardonnay fever once began.

Cracking Chardonnays

Catena Alta Chardonnay 2008 Bodega Catena Zapata, Mendoza, Argentina (£18.50, Bibendum)
High altitude and skilful winemaking deliver a sublime, layered wine of great intensity and minerally length.

Red Claw, Yabby Lake Chardonnay 2008 Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia (£14.95, Swig)
This may be Yabby Lake’s entry-level Chard, nonetheless it reveals all the elegance and rounded charm of this maritime-cooled pocket of Aussie excellence.

Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2008 Victoria, Australia (£18.50, Clark Foyster Wines)
Seductive, piercingly fresh yet complex Yarra offering from one of the hottest young talents in the Valley.

Pirie Estate Chardonnay 2007 Tasmania, Australia (£17.87,
Citrus fresh, with hints of richer, nuttier underlying character and a lovely creamy mouthfeel making this a finely focused wine.

Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains, California, USA (£39.99, Berry Bros & Rudd, The Wine Society, Slurp)
Intense pear, apple and citrus flavours overlaid on richer, fuller, fig and creamy notes, with a zest of mineral acidity.

Ataraxia Chardonnay 2008 Hemel-en-Aarde, Walker Bay, South Africa (£14.95, Jeroboams)
Citrus, stone fruits and hint of tropical ripeness wrapped in a fresh and creamy body with great length.

Springfield Estate Chardonnay Methode Ancienne 2006 Robertson, South Africa (£17, Bibendum)
Wild yeast edginess and rocky terroir run like a thread through this exhilarating, fresh and food-friendly wine.

Maycas Reserva Chardonnay 2007 Limarí Valley, Chile (£10.99, Oddbins)
Soft, peach and melon fruit meet minerally intensity on this long, fresh, vibrant example of cooler-climate Chile.

As Chardonnay producers world-wide eschew the big, buttery, overly-oaked excesses of yesteryear for leaner, more elegant styles, it’s time to reassess the Queen of Whites, says Andrew Catchpole