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Chardonnay - A QUEEN amongst grapes? Elegant & Sophisticated? But yes of course!

I do think it is a shame when a super-duper item attracts an unfair reputation, generally because someone has made a copy-cat version that is a poor imitation. It could be designer clothing but for me it is wine and the Chardonnay grape to be specific. Chardonnay is one of the main three varieties in Champagne. It is the only variety for the making of Chablis and it offers a choice of wines from dry and crisp whites with a palate-exciting minerality all the way to round, buttery and creamy wines that can have the best that sophistication and mouth-watering, rich elegance has to offer. 

So why you ask, did we get the expression ‘Anything but Chardonnay’? The simple answer is cheap white wines, mostly from Australia starting back in the 1980’s. By the end of the Century, the consumer, who has much more taste than many pundits give credit, got tired of the ‘over-chunky’ over-ripe whites that really needed a knife and fork to drink them as there was so much oak flavour you could almost feel the sawdust.. Result? ‘Anything but Chardonnay’! 

To be fair the Aussies vineyards are placed so the fruit will fully ripen and the producers all thought that by copying great wines and those of France in particular, that by giving them the ‘benefit’ of oak’ they could soon succeed in what was a new and exciting market. Oh, if only it was that easy!! They forgot the French already had 250 years’ experience, the Aussies thought they could do it in twelve months – ha ha ha. 

Australian wine producers quickly latched onto the European market and UK in particular, producing wines for an emerging market for people, who back then generally had no experience of regular wine drinking. They were after a ‘quick fix’ but consumers soon tired of the ‘one trip pony of white wines’. Having tried to compensate too much sugar and low acidity from the very ripe fruit, they used oak in its various forms but the wines totally lacked any subtlety or elegance. 

There are a number of ways to produce wines with some oak influence, with the ‘best of the bunch’ being staves of oak hung in the middle of a large vat during the fermentation. When done with care and not in a hurry, this can produce delightful wines with soft vanilla overtones and stylish fruit on the palate. But there are two other ways that are quicker, yet much less classy. One of these is to add batches of ‘oak lozenges’ [disc-shaped slivers of oak] that are put into the vat, often in bags and by stirring the wine from time to time the flavour is ‘integrated’ over a short time. This can be ‘OK’ but not for anything of style. 

BUT then, we come to the cheap and easy route – ha ha ha. Take a bucket or two of ground-up oak chippings and when the grapes arrive from the vineyard and are dumped into the receiving hopper, empty the buckets into it. Subtle? Not a lot! As you will imagine that is so basic and crude the resulting wines is too. 

The very best Chardonnays are made by taking what we call ‘free-run juice’. The picked and selected grapes are put into a hopper and the weight of grapes at the top of the vat push down on those below, breaking the skins of the ones at the bottom and almost at once the juice begins to run out. This is the best and it is taken aside and put straight into a new or maybe a once-used French-oak cask. 

The natural sugars in the juice will work with and be ‘eaten up’ by the natural yeasts that are present on the skins of the grapes. This we call natural fermentation and by keeping the wine cool, sometimes disturbing the bottom of the barrel [called ‘battonage’], slowly the juice takes on the flavours and character of wine as we know it. This can take weeks or even months and from time to time the wine will be put into a different cask which we call ‘racking’. This helps to meld the aromas and flavours gently bringing all together into perfect balance with a heady mixture of buttery vanilla too. Maybe it will go through malolactic fermentation which is a gentle second fermentation that changes the malic acid into lactic acid and from there we get those amazing deeply intense flavours brought together over a mellow base of the oak maturation. 

However, we must not forget Unwooded Chardonnay that is made without any time in cask or influence of oak. These are generally made in stainless steel vats you will find they have lovely fresh green apple aromas with fresh citrus flavours or perhaps freshly cut pineapple and tropical fruits having a zingy, tingly finish. Quite different from those of yesterday. 

So I urge you DO TRY CHARDONNAY AGAIN and see what a difference there is. All the best, have fun, enjoy wine and ‘doooo’ try something different, there are 

so many out there.
Toodle-oo - Andrew Hill [wineman46@live.com] 

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