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“I don’t like Chardonnay” Sounds familiar? What is it about this noblest of grape that people just don’t like? As a varietal it still ranks amongst one of the biggest sellers in the UK, next to Sauvignon Blanc and now Pinot Grigio/Gris.
People who I talk to immediately say the reason for not liking Chardonnay is due to one thing, they’re all too oaky. Now that’s fine. People are entitled to their opinions. I’m not here to say what people should or shouldn’t like. To say they’re all too oaky though is a slander this grape has had to endure for quite a while now. Let me throw some names at you. Chablis, Montrachet, Saint Veran, Macon, Blanc de Blanc Champagne. What links these? Well with the exception of Champagne they are all Burgundian villages and…. they’re all Chardonnay. Just a quickie, to avoid confusion Blanc de Blanc Champagne is 100% Chardonnay.
I’ll draw your attention to the first name on my list, Chablis. This is the one wine where people who claim not to like Chardonnay will pick up a bottle. Why? It’s fresh, crisp. The chalky soil gives the wine some minerality, most are steel fermented, no oak. It’s a classic. What’s more important though is most people aren’t aware that it’s Chardonnay, can’t be anything else. Varietals tend not to be put on Appellation Controlee wine labels, so a lot wine drinkers don’t know what they’re actually glugging. The only grape varieties put on labels from Burgundy are Aligote and Sauvignon Blanc. Production of these two wines is tiny in comparison to Chardonnay with all commercial Sauvignon Blanc coming from the village of Saint Bris.
When we shop for wine, or any product for that fact, we recognise by branding or style. Our minds will flick back through our own personal memory banks for other items we’ve had from that style. If it’s good then we associate all as good. When it’s bad then they’ll all be bad. Australia has, unfortunately, been the catalyst for causing this misrepresentation of Chardonnay. Not their fault I might add. As Aussie wines became more popular during the 1990’s it was commonplace to have big, fat woody wines sent for UK consumption. It was new and different. This style is not such a bad thing, I actually like it. On the other hand if you’re sitting on a porch in the full heat of an Australian summer it’s a bit different. Consumers prefer their white wines chilled. So in Australia, to offset the forty degree plus summers, a significant amount of oak was used to give the wines something the locals could taste after refrigeration. Alas this doesn’t translate to most UK palates. Light, soft and fresh would be how I’d describe it.
For a number of years now this heavily wooden style from our antipodean cousins has slowly been removed from their wines. Cool climate regions like Mornington Peninsula and Adelaide Hills are producing wines with such fresh elegance they could match Macon or Chablis quite easily. Those that do maintain some oak characters do so subtly. People still shun these wines though. If we were to remove the grape variety from the label, would that make a difference? Probably not! Some wineries down under have already begun labelling their wines as ‘Unwooded Chardonnay’, a system that other countries, like Chile, have adopted. It does make the high street consumer take a second look but it’s not a total solution. Like everything else with wine the only course of action is to educate the customer. Try and drill out those prejudices. The more the general public can understand about Chardonnay and other varieties, the more people can learn to experiment and enjoy wine more. In short, one grape variety doesn’t make one style of wine.
Wine is an agricultural product that picks up characteristics from its surroundings, as the French call it ‘Terroir’. Clonal variations play a part in this too. These variations are borne out of years of experimentation in the nurseries. Discovering how grapes adapt to certain soils and climates. One clone will produce a slightly different style in South America than it would do in Northern Europe.
So give a thought the next time you dismiss this varietal. It needs a friend. Chardonnay is a name with a lot of to offer. Be kind to it.
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