Winegrowers load a traditional wine press with Chardonnay grapes for Champagne wine during the harvest, in Montgueux, central France, on August 23, 2022. (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP) (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP via Getty Images)
On Drink

Chard: an apology

On the rehabilitation of chardonnay

Riesling, the great grape of Germany, has long been a cult among wine lovers. Some sommeliers even have riesling tattoos. And while I wouldn’t go that far, if you’d asked me my favourite grape, until very recently I would have said riesling.
But the funny thing is that my buying preferences show something different. I’m mildly addicted to a website called Cellar Tracker where I have been recording almost every wine I’ve tried for more than ten years, and it seems the white grape that I drink the most of isn’t riesling at all … it’s chardonnay. All this time I thought I was a sophisticated riesling lover but actually I’m a common or garden chardonnay swiller.

Back in the 1990s when I first got into wine, there was a movement against the growing homogenisation of the world’s wine called ABC: “anything but chardonnay” which handily also stood for “anything but cabernet”. This was at a time when growers from Piedmont to Penedès were planting chardonnay (or cabernet sauvignon for reds) instead of local grape varieties.

There was a worry that in the future all wine would taste the same while the more obscure varieties would disappear. As an ABC enthusiast, I thought it far better and more interesting to drink riesling, or fiano or albariño or esgana cão (a Madeiran grape that means “dog strangler” in Portuguese because of its ferociously high acidity).

Jancis Robinson was also not a chardonnay fan. Recently I’ve been watching her Wine Course made in the 1990s on YouTube. It still holds up well, and the budget by modern standards is mind-blowing; one moment she’s in Burgundy, the next she’s in Australia.

Can we have another series like this again soon please? Each episode is devoted to a grape and in the chardonnay one Jancis (she’s one of the few famous people who it is acceptable to refer to by just her first name, like Britney or Boris) can barely contain her contempt for many wines made from the variety describing them as “sugar water”. She’s also not keen on the world’s second favourite variety, sauvignon blanc, either.

I was with Jancis. In fact, I was with Jancis on most things which points to a possible explanation for my chardonnay conversion. When I started out, I hadn’t developed my own tastes and so I was buying wine that I thought sounded sophisticated — such as Mosel riesling.

But as I’ve got older, I’m now buying bottles purely because I like them. Furthermore, I cook and entertain a lot more than I did when I was in my twenties and chardonnay, especially white Burgundy, goes with pretty much anything. If you don’t know what to order when eating out then a bottle of Mâcon-Villages will cover all your bases (the red equivalent if you’re interested is a bottle of Beaujolais).

But also your average chardonnay has got a lot better since the ’90s, or perhaps I should say that it leans more towards my tastes. I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of Frasier recently and the chardonnay they drink is nearly orange. This style which is still very popular in the US is based on very ripe, some might say overripe, grapes which are then treated to a pre-fermentation maceration to get colour and body out of the skins.

Following fermentation with a yeast which accentuates tropical fruit flavours, the wine would be perked up with some tartaric acid and then either aged in new oak casks or more likely for cheaper wines have oak chips added.

a truth about wine: it can taste remarkably different depending on where it is grown and how it is made

The finished product would be thick and syrupy with a deep golden colour. Not very chic but a revelation in 1980s Britain when everyday white wine meant Blue Nun or Black Tower. They’re what Oz Clarke called “bottled sunshine” in his colourful slots with Jilly Goolden on BBC2’s Food and Drink programme. Like those loud waistcoats everyone thought were so witty worn with a morning suit or dinner jacket, they were great fun then but a bit embarrassing now.

Nowadays, your everyday chardonnay is likely to be lighter and more refreshing. Some of the more upmarket stuff from Australia in particular makes Chablis seem positively opulent, which reminds me of a story wine merchants love to tell about a customer who said she didn’t like chardonnay but did like Chablis — it’s funny because Chablis is made from chardonnay. Ho ho ho!

It does, however, point to a truth about wine, and especially about chardonnay: it can taste remarkably different depending on where it is grown and how it is made. Lean green Chablis tastes nothing like Meursault though they are both white Burgundy and made from chardonnay.

This is the magic of chardonnay, you can do anything you want with it. It can be sharp and chiseled, or it can be opulent and buttery. Chardonnay can both be the perfect accompaniment to oysters or roast turkey with all the trimmings. It grows and makes decent wines almost anywhere. You can even get good English chardonnay, especially from Essex. Côte de Chelmsford: I wonder what my snobby younger self would have made of that.

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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