What’s the most insulting thing you can do to a grape? Mixing it with cola, lemonade or tonic water is a slap in the face, but the lowest of low blows is surely to confuse it with a sultana. That’s what some of the biggest wine companies Down Under did in a scandal that has been described, somewhat dramatically, as “one of the largest scams in Australia’s history”. Unknowingly, the likes of Hardy’s and Orlando bought chardonnay mixed with sultana juice from the now defunct Rivers Wine, whose former boss has just been convicted and fined £200,000.
To some people, particularly those who belong to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement, this latest humiliation is no less than the variety warrants. To its detractors, chardonnay is oaky, soft and irredeemably bland: the elevator music of the wine world. It’s also tainted by popular culture. Remember Bridget Jones, not to mention the soap opera character in Footballers’ Wives, who set fire to her (fake) boobs with a candelabra?
I may be biased, having a written an inexplicably remaindered book about the grape 20 years ago, but I think chardonnay deserves better. Yes, there are plenty of dull examples around, but when the stuff is good it’s stupendous. Its most prominent rivals – sauvignon blanc, viognier and pinot grigio — can’t match it for quality, complexity and ageing potential. Only riesling and chenin blanc come close.
Part of chardonnay’s problem — if it can be described as such — is its ubiquity. I can’t think of single wine-producing country that doesn’t grow chardonnay. When I was writing my book, I found vineyards in Denmark, Kenya, Bolivia and Zimbabwe. After it was published, I came across an even more unlikely source in a green house in South Shields.
Chardonnay is an old grape — it was planted in Burgundy by the Middle Ages and quite possibly before, given that there is a village of the same name in the region. But its rise to prominence in the New World is comparatively recent. Before the early 1970s, it was almost unheard of. Chardonnay is the great white wine success story of the modern era.
It used to be easy to tell white burgundies and their New World imitators apart. At the very top end, there is still nothing that compares with a great (and very expensive) Corton-Charlemagne or Montrachet, but the gap has narrowed, in terms of quality as well as style. If you like chardonnay as much as I do, there has never been a better time to enjoy what it has to offer.
Places such as Marlborough and Martinborough (New Zealand), the Yarra Valley and Margaret River (Australia), Limari and Casablanca (Chile), the Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara (California), the Willamette Valley (Oregon), Walker Bay and Constantia (South Africa) and the Uco Valley (Argentina) are increasingly making wines that have the freshness of good white burgundy. Big, blowsy styles — what the Aussies, with characteristic bluntness, call “Dolly Parton wines” – still exist, but they’re losing ground to more balanced, food-friendly styles.
Would the Bridget Jones of the mid-1990s recognise these new-fangled chardonnays? I like to think she’d still relish drinking them, unit by carefully-recorded unit. Even tipsy, she could also tell the difference between a chardonnay and a sultana.
2009 Errazuriz Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley (£5, down from £8.07, 13.5%, Asda)
On the current deal, this cool climate Chilean is the best value chardonnay in the country: pithy and lightly oaked with butter and citrus notes.
2009 Kangarilla Road Chardonnay, McLaren Vale (£8.79 each for two, 13.5%, Majestic)
Remarkably elegant for an Aussie chardonnay from a warm region, this is smoky, refined and well-balanced with zesty acidity and a hint of peach.
2009 Tesco Finest Chablis (£8.99, 12%)
Typically unoaked and sculpted, this well-selected own-label from Vaucher is minerally and taut with an undertone of creamy, crème fraîche.
2008 Shepherds Ridge Chardonnay, Marlborough (£8.99, 14%, Marks & Spencer)
Wither Hills is the supplier of this M&S own-label from New Zealand, and very drinkable it is, with toast and butterscotch flavours and a long, refreshing finish.
2007 Saint Véran, Rives de Longsault, Domaine des Deux Roches (£13.99, 13%, Laithwaites)
There’s a touch of older oak on this southern Burgundian chardonnay, but it’s all about the pear and melon fruit. Aromatic, stylish, balanced and very moreish.
2002 Waitrose Brut Special Reserve Vintage Champagne (£26.99, 12%)
Sourced from the brilliant P&C Heidsieck, this all-chardonnay bubbly is delicious: savoury, fresh and nutty with attractive, bottle-developed characters.
Originally published in The Times