Ask many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’. Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring. So, why the extreme difference of views?
The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same.
Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours. A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach. Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon.
And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work. Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want. For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours. And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.
Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through.
Pierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach. Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length.
I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes. If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.