ABC: Absolutely Brilliant Chardonnay
In a sip: Chardonnay produces some of the finest wines in the world, so why is the grape sometimes seen as a divisive subject? Martin Brown believes that there is a chardonnay for everyone – even chardon-nay-sayers! Here, with the help of our Fine Wine List (and the superior nose of a Golden Retriever), he offers some tips to find your favoured style this Christmas …
Knut's superior nose in action
The litmus test: dog Instagram
Some time ago my wife entered the online underbelly known colloquially as 'dogstagram', where people use Instagram to share and caption photos and videos of their favourite fur-covered children. She has proven exceptional at it, acquiring a legion of fans across the world, and I was quickly recruited to act as a cog in her Golden Retriever media empire.
My task was (and, for that matter, still is) to pen a short weekly review of a wine that our four-legged epicurean, Knut, has supposedly discovered, and which is accompanied by a photo of him posing with the bottle.
It was going brilliantly… until I mentioned chardonnay.
At this point, a number of 'momagers' of similar dog accounts began to voice displeasure. With tongues wagging faster than the models' tails, they regaled us with their distaste for chardonnay, and/or a particular one that hadn't gone down well.
The best response I could fathom, in the voice of our canine critic, was as follows:
'Chardonnays are much like dogs. Many are friendly, but some alas are not. Some are big and round; others lithe and slender. Some are still, while some are effervescent. Some smell of suspiciously little and some, it must be said, stink most frightfully of wood/muck.'
Indeed, it would appear that at the centre of all this kerfuffle is a relatively mild grape variety, but one that responds to where it is grown and how it is made with dramatic diversity.
So how do you find the right chardonnay to invite into your home?
Of course, chardonnays are for life, not just for Christmas; but at the time of year when many of us finding ourselves splashing out on some fancier bottles and entertaining, it's useful to have a think about what sort of animal you might be after.
I'm lucky enough to taste quite a lot of chardonnays every year with our buyers, particularly during the annual 'Wine Champions' blind tastings. The chardonnay round is nearly always the most exciting session for me, as it brings into stark focus the incredible variety and quality that one grape is capable of producing across the winemaking world.
The annual Wine Champions blind tasting
However, with well over 100 chardonnay or chardonnay-dominant wines on our books, spanning Chablis to Chile, the task of finding the right one might require a little help. It was with this in mind that we put together a globetrotting, style-straddling chardonnay section in our Christmas Fine Wine List. In response to those wine drinkers who call themselves ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay), we opted for the more glass-half-full epithet, 'Absolutely Brilliant Chardonnay'. This is the source of most of the pool of candidates assessed below.
With the howls of dogstagram ringing in my ears, I also began asking friends, family and of course Society members what it was they liked, disliked and looked out for in a chardonnay.
Having listened and learned as much as I could, I came up with the following scale to help consider some Christmas chardonnay candidates:
This is the most contentious and the most varied of the techniques used with chardonnay. Depending on how long the wine stays in oak (and how new the oak is), it can instil anything from a little extra structure without any wood flavour, to an indulgently flavoured cloak of butter and vanilla.
Many Chablis wines, and some of the finer 'new-wave' cool-climate chardonnays from the new world, are often described as 'steely'. This does not refer to the wine's sense of resolve, nor any penchant for soft jazz-rock, but instead a quality that comes with high acidity and litheness. Steely chardonnays are a few steps beyond just 'refreshing' – they dial up the acidity and tautness of structure to something that will 'cut' through food, rather than merely thirst.
A broad term, often dependant on ripeness, and indeed how much oakiness and steeliness the wine possesses. The fruitiness of a wine can either shine at the forefront or be complemented by other elements acquired in the vineyard and winery. As mentioned, the chardonnay grape can be fairly light on fruit, but others (especially those from warmer climates) can boast quite pronounced citrus and tropical notes, for instance.
The most subjective of the four criteria, but informed by the previous three, this mark aims to give an idea of how crowd-pleasing the chardonnay in question is likely to be. Also, when it comes to chardonnay, pricier doesn't always mean more popular with guests. Please don't take this as a green light to hack your budget to the bone! However, it's worth remembering that pricier chardonnays are often more likely to employ more oak, or have greater steeliness due to their being planted in a vaunted and/or marginal (that is to say, expensive) vineyard.
With this attempt at a scale in place, and with Knut the Retriever's nose finely tuned and worryingly eager to assist, we set to work on the following festive possibilities from New Zealand, France, Chile, Argentina and Canada:
Chardonnays under £10
Before ascending to the lofty heights of the Fine Wine List, we first examined two (very) different under-£10 chardonnays:
Wither Hills Marlborough Chardonnay 2015 (New Zealand, £8.95)
Oak-avoiders, look away. Oak-agnostics, give it a go!
This serial winner in our 'Wine Champions' blind tastings always punches well above its weight at the oakier end of the spectrum and proves in style that there's much more to this much-loved New Zealand region than fresh sauvignon blanc.
Sally Williams has a marksman's touch with this style, using the wood to enhance rather than dominate the wine's flavours. As such, there's a lot of toasty richness here but also vibrant apple and melon notes, resulting in a wine that would shine with richer seafood dishes, risottos or creamy-sauced chicken.
The Society's White Burgundy 2016 (France, £9.75)
Burgundy to pour without preparation or hesitation, whether eating or not.
I've had the privilege of being present at the blending of a previous vintage of our much-loved white Burgundy and can vouch for the incredible efforts that go into maintaining its consistency and quality. Every year it is unoaked, fresh and with the depth of fruit necessary to make it sufficiently versatile to handle the myriad occasions and foods that get thrown at such a widely bought and well-loved wine.
The 2016 carries on this tradition very well indeed, with broad appley fruit and a refreshing finish to ready the palate for a second glass. A tried and trusted wine, and easily the most overtly crowd-pleasing of the line-up.
Chardonnays worth splashing out on
Moving up a little in price, we then put these five globetrotters from the chardonnay section of our Christmas Fine Wine List under the microscope:
Samuel Billaud's Chablis: a big hit with our tasters
Limoux Blanc, Domaine de Mouscaillo 2014 (France, £14.50)
Complex but crowd-pleasing. Take your palate off the beaten track!
This is a fantastic find from a windswept and barren vineyard high in the hills above Limoux in the south of France. Everything on our chardonnay-scrutinising scale is here in some capacity, but nothing is overdone: a sparing and spot-hitting touch of oak, steely food-friendliness, delicious depth of melon-like fruit and an overall friendliness meaning it is a good bet for conoisseurs and casual quaffers alike.
It will slip down well solo, but will shine with food. Pasta in creamy sauces, soft cheeses, chicken salads and seafood will all be enlivened by this singular southerner.
Talinay Limarí Coastal Limestone Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 (Chile, £14.95)
Serious, steely cool-climate chardonnay par excellence, and one for the foodies.
Limarí has emerged as the place for fine Chilean chardonnay in recent years, and this remarkable wine comes from one of the coolest vineyards in the entire country with a coastal climate (just 12km from the sea) and a high limestone content in the soil. This combination results in a style that screams 'steely'.
Though some roundness is given to the wine by a hint of oak, this is nevertheless a tight, fresh and focused expression, very different from the chardonnays featured above. Capable of cutting through steamed or grilled fish, chicken casseroles, lightly cooked shellfish dishes or vegetable terrines like a knife through butter, this intense and precise wine is a food-lover's dream.
Samuel Billaud, Chablis Les Grands Terroirs 2015 (France, £16)
As close to a failsafe fine chardonnay as you could hope for.
Chablis is usually held up as the epitome of steeliness, but in the generous 2015 vintage, this wine offers an absolutely delicious combination of classical purity and crowd-pleasing fruitiness, unencumbered by any oak.
This wine is relaxed and rounded enough to enjoy while preparing a meal, but also fresh and fine enough to complement the fruits of your labours. Oysters are the classic match but don't overlook its potential for soft cheeses, charcuterie or even the main Christmas turkey event itself.
Zaha Tunuyan Mendoza Chardonnay 2015 (Argentina, £20)
An exciting new world outlier that we feel deserves a wider audience.
From the classic to the curio, but as you'll see from the readouts on our scale, this Argentine delight isn't all that dissimilar to the Chablis above it, offering a balance between generosity and precision that's as impressive as it is inviting. This is all thanks to a clever combination of a late-ripening incarnation of chardonnay, a high-altitude vineyard and a superb winemaking team.
Where it differs from the Chablis is its its flavour profile: there's a herbal and hazelnutty quality to this wine that I find quite extraordinary. I've road-tested this at a few gatherings and meals, and can confirm that its class manages to cut through a lot of noise (both literally and food-flavour-wise).
Norman Hardie Niagara Peninsula Unfiltered Chardonnay 2015 (Canada, £23)
Adventurous, electrifying chardonnay from the cool-climate cutting edge.
Norman Hardie battles temperatures as low as -25C in his Ontario vineyards, and has to bury his vines in winter in order to protect them. His belief is that 'great wines are always made on the edge'. Every year his increasingly sought-after wines seem to be more and more refined, and his 2015 Niagra chardonnay is a masterclass in edginess and elegance.
At just 11.9% alcohol, this is a steely, flinty and fresh wine that packs a remarkable amount of character into its taut and linear structure. It's also a good example of the increasingly fashionable 'struck-match' scent many cooler-climate chardonnays are sporting, and which I often find evocative of Christmas candles (maybe that's just me!). This isn't necessarily the kind of wine to bring out for a casual aperitif, but with a remarkable story behind it and an array of food-matching possibilities (its saline tang on the palate makes it a glorious match for shellfish), it could just be the chardonnay you didn't know you'd been waiting for…
I hope that this list has given you a few ideas for exploring this Christmas, and shown that when it comes to chardonnay, you don't need a finely honed canine sense of smell to sniff out your favourite!
Digital Content & Communications Editor
(With a little help from Knut the Golden Retriever…)