One sentence that is heard over and over in wine retail outlets, perpetually throughout the UK must be people suggesting that they don’t like Chardonnay, refuse to drink it, blame it for hangovers, single the grape out in particular as the reason that they always seem to get a headache, yet don’t seem to know that it is the grape used in a number of the wines they like.
I have heard countless times people saying things like “I’m having a dinner party, we need some white wine, not Chardonnay, I can’t stand that. What about Chablis, that’s nice.” Wholly unaware that Chablis is made using the Chardonnay grape. The same people never insist on blancs de noir champagne either.
This of course is not their fault. There is a lot to learn about wine and in my opinion it is a subject that the majority of people are just starting to learn about properly and it is encouraging to see the number of people who are looking to learn. I have been involved with running wine courses for several years and in the ones I do the two most interesting parts (for me) were seeing people’s reaction to the way food changes the profile of wine, and opening Chablis to see how many of the people who disliked Chardonnay made all the right noises for it.
What people most likely mean when they say they dislike Chardonnay is that they had too much of the Chardonnay that was on offer in the UK in the 80s and 90s. These included (but were certainly not exclusive to) relatively cheap Australian offerings of Chardonnay that were made incredibly cheaply and had questionable production methods, the worst of the shortcuts being the oaking process. When a decent wine is oaked properly it is poured into and left to age for a certain amount of time in oak barrels. These come in many guises, from new oak to old oak (sometimes hundreds of years old). Even the size of the barrel can add flavour to the wine). New oak tends to be quite sweet spiced (vanilla mainly, especially new American oak), older barrels will give more tobacco and leather characteristics; these are known as secondary characteristics, though this is just the general rule of thumb.
What the cheaper oakers were doing was to lob huge bags of oak chippings, or stakes of oak into open barrels so that the wine became quickly oaked, a far cry from spending 3-4 years in French oak barrels for example. This left the wine quite astringent and didn’t allow for the aging of the wine that concentrated flavours subtly and appropriately.
Chablis is a wine that is not oaked, or has seen very little oak and puts forward the delicate citrus fruit and sedimentary nature of the Chardonnay grape and goes very well with shellfish. The Chablis region is very much a cooler climate and thus the wine is quite acidic and perhaps even closer in characteristics to Sauvignon Blanc than the tropical flavoured, bigger Australian and Californian Chardonnay. This certainly doesn’t mean that oaked Chardonnay is anything but excellent and an interesting way to look at this would be to try a Chablis next to a Meursault, both from the Burgundy region to see the distinction between an oaked and an unoaked Chardonnay from the same region. Both, I am sure most people would agree, are very good.