Most of us know someone who will drink any white wine but chardonnay. The variety has had a fall from grace since its time as the UK’s favourite wine in the 1990s.
In a survey of British adults who drink alcohol conducted in April 2016, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association found 32% of people had consumed chardonnay in the last month, making it the UK’s third most popular wine behind Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc (47%).
So what’s behind this bad reputation and could a new crop of chardonnays from the new world change our minds? We asked the experts at the London Wine Academy.
Why has it got such a bad reputation?
The rise and fall of chardonnay began in the nineties, when there was an explosion of chardonnay as producers in Australia, California and, to a lesser degree, South America, used oak to emulate the high-end wines of Europe. The idea was that if they put some oak in, it was going to taste like Burgundy.
Adding the oak flavour that people enjoy can happen in a variety of ways and affect the overall quality and flavour of the wine. Liz Aked, another of the London Wine Academy’s experts, told us that this can be done by ‘staving’- inserting oak blocks into the stainless steel vat the wine is made in – or ‘chipping’ – inserting a bag-full of wood chips into the vat.
“This was successful early on, so imitated by many producers to the extent that they over-used the methods,” said master of wine Clive Barlow. “It’s like over-using a spice in a dish, people just got bored with wine tasting like oak rather than grape.
“Then it became ‘anything but chardonnay’ because like many things in wine, it became popular, then over-produced and then badly done, so it fell out of favour with the consumer and the wine critic.”
Chardonnay has also become synonymous in the public consciousness with headaches. Barlow debunked this myth, saying “maybe it’s more to do with the quality and the volume of wine people are drinking”.
The thing is, you could be drinking chardonnay without knowing it. If you like Chablis or Champagne then you’re drinking wines made from the chardonnay grape.
New wave wines
Waitrose says it has a crop of chardonnays available in its store that may convert the ABCs to chardonnay once and for all.
We blind-tested these on our experts Barlow and Aked, and on the class of novice wine tasters they were teaching.
Rustenberg Chardonnay, £13.99
Expert verdict: This was one of the favourites with our experts, who said it was the most oaked and the flavour lasted longest in your mouth. The maker of the Rustenberg has built this bottle up with flavour and Barlow said it would make a good one for sharing with friends.
Consumer verdict: The class weren’t so enchanted with this one, with an equal number liking as disliking it. Some described it as too strong in flavour, others felt the strong notes of oak were just right.
Saint Clair Winemaker’s Blend Chardonnay, £14.99
Expert verdict: A very sweet chardonnay, fresh and peachy but a little on the pricey side. Barlow said this one could be enjoyed on its own.
Consumer verdict: The St Clair was very popular with our class of testers, coming out on top. One of the ABC drinkers in our class said she would probably drink this wine again.
Cowrie Bay Chardonnay, £6.99
Expert verdict: Barlow called this bottle ‘creamy’ and ‘subtle’, though Aked thought it lacked flavour. The experts generally agreed that consumers would enjoy it.
Consumer verdict: This bottle converted one of the two members of the class who had originally said they didn’t like Chardonnay. They enjoyed the light touch of oak, calling it refreshing. The majority of the class said they would drink it again.