There’s a saying in the wine industry that you can tell a lot about a person based on how they react to Chardonnay.
But first, the backstory. During the late 1980s and 1990s, perhaps to try to distinguish themselves from their French counterparts, wine makers in California, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere, made their Chardonnays well-oaked, luscious, toasty and full of vanilla and butterscotch and toffee flavours. And people loved them.
That got the critics and classicists going. Full of contempt, they derided these wines for obscuring the Burgundian grape’s inherent finesse and layered crisp fruit notes. So, when the wine public wanted to show they’d caught on, they were all too ready to join the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) club.
But while their ABC noses were still stuck way up in the air, many wine makers had moved on. They were busy exploring more varied and subtle expressions of the grape. As they researched and experimented, they began making enticing new wines with leaner, more tailored contours, showing flavours of green apple and pear, lemon and lime, and pineapple with a hint rather than a full onslaught of oak. They invested in different types and sizes of oak vat. Others favoured steel over wood or concrete tanks or concrete eggs to make their wines. Some fermented their fruit in oak for depth and nuance. Some encouraged malolactic fermentation to take the edge off the acidity in favour of a creaminess, and, others, not. Some, using the process of bâtonnage, stirred up the lees for a rich, yeasty, biscuity character. Once again, others, not.
Suddenly, critics and sommeliers were delighting in the wide variety of tantalisingly fresh and elegant, rich but restrained Chardonnays to emerge, often with a flinty, acidic backbone. It seemed some South African wine makers had hit the Goldilocks note, finding just the right balance between fruit, structure and palate length.
There are still a few people sitting in the now almost derelict ABC club house, but most have left to discover what a delight Chardonnay can be across an exciting spectrum of styles. (Those ABC club members who tendered their resignations are the people the wine industry describes as in touch, on the ball or willing and adventurous, ready to broaden their taste repertoire.)
Next generation wood-fermented and then judiciously oak-aged Chardonnays can deliver juicy, crisp and bright fresh stone fruit, apple and citrus notes with complexity, a silken or creamy texture and lovely palate weight and length.
Sometimes, when you want a mouth-wateringly fresh and lively flavour of bright green apples and zingy lemon, a trace of white flowers and a hint of sea spray, that’s the time for an unwooded Chardonnay. Thirst-quenching and reviving, it’s the perfect late summer drink that works a treat with crunchy salads and light dishes.
For added interest, some winemakers prefer not to filter their Chardonnays. (Most do, though, as with most other wines.) When wines are left unfiltered, they can present with more aromatic and flavour intensity, but it takes huge skill to pull it off successfully.
And we haven’t even mentioned Chardonnay as central to classically made sparkling wines that here in South Africa, we call Cap Classique. The grape, most frequently blended locally with Pinot Noir (but also sometimes with Pinot Meunier) can lend fresh, tangy citrus and alluring floral notes.
You decide which Chardonnay expression is your favourite from these carefully selected and acclaimed wines from our cellars.
We’d love to hear from you.
The Vinoteque Team