Did Chardonnay ever go away and, if so, is it now making a comeback? If the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd were merely trying to get us to try out a few other grape varieties, they have certainly succeeded. In turn the BTC (Back to Chardonnay) party, of which I am a paid-up member, was merely pointing out that Chardonnay produces some of the world’s greatest white and sparkling wines. I hope we can all agree that good Chardonnay is great and the bad stuff is awful and move on a little in the debate.
Talking to importers of New World wine I get the distinct impression Chardonnay never really went away; there is a large swathe of wine drinkers who have continued to buy it even if all of the noise was about Sauvignon Blanc. At the bargain-basement end there are plenty of sickly-sweet wines with very pumped-up, confected flavours, but at €10-€15 you can find plenty of well-made, crisp, dry and fruity Chardonnay from every part of the globe.
If you need convincing, try Aldi’s Lot 2 Chardonnay (€12.99) from Tasmania, a fresh crisp dry wine, made by Wakefield, one of the leading estates of Australia. The New World has learned that masses of new oak and rich buttery wines are not always what the public wants. If anything the criticism is that some have gone too far the other direction, offering us wines stripped of all flavour and character.
Today I concentrate on Australia and New Zealand, which have had very different relationships with Chardonnay. Both now appear to be making world-beating wines made from this variety. At one time Australian Chardonnay was big and brash; how times have changed. Now the best wines come from the cooler regions: the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley, both near Melbourne, and Tasmania all produce some excellent wines as can the Adelaide Hills in South Australia and parts of Western Australia, the Margaret River in particular.
New Zealand has been hugely successful with Sauvignon Blanc, but we have seen precious little Chardonnay in Ireland. That may be about to change. New Zealand is making some excellent Chardonnay, often in regions responsible for the best Pinot Noir, such as Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago, although Neudorf in Nelson and Kemeu River up north are two of the best.
The best Chardonnay I tasted on a visit to New Zealand earlier this year was the 2013 Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay. This will arrive in Ireland shortly. A close second was a Puligny-like Felton Road 2013. James Nicholson has something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Chardonnay; they are waiting for their allocation of Felton Road Chardonnay, but in the meantime customers can try the excellent Neudorf from Nelson and the Dog Point from Marlborough. I would also love to see Pegasus Bay return; they make some fantastic Chardonnay
What should you look for in a top Chardonnay? The best are nuanced yet sumptuous wines, medium-bodied with a lightly creamy texture, possibly with a hint of spicy oak, but never to the exclusion of fruits – green apple in cool climates moving through to pears and then peaches in warmer regions. Chardonnay coats the entire mouth with flavour. The three wines selected this week are all expensive. But then their equivalents from Burgundy would certainly match them for price, if not make them look reasonable.
I know some wine drinkers are reluctant to spend money on white wine, possibly because they see it as something to sip with a starter before moving on to the main course. I tend to save my best white wines, usually a Chardonnay or Riesling, for those times when I am cooking really good fish or chicken as a main course – black sole drenched in butter, turbot, and of course salmon paired with a top-notch Chardonnay will turn dinner into a real feast.