Chardonnay wine, was once a very popular grape variety but following its surge in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s we have seen something of a minor backlash against it. It seems that many customers have become bored with the over-oaked "custardy" Chardonnay wines widely produced in California and Australia where oak was used as the veil behind which either under-ripe fruit or poor winemaking could be hidden. These Chardonnay wines have given the grape something of a bad name, but wine is all about balance and using generous amounts or oak is ok providing the wine is up to it. Many new world producers now produce an unwooded Chardonnay wine as well as oak ageing fuller and richer wines made from Chardonnay.
Well-made oaked Chardonnay wine from the new world is a real treat when it shows perfect balance between the ripe fruit and the careful use of oak to enhance the natural fruit flavours, but beware cheap imitations. Too often the oak in your wine is added artificially. That is to say that instead of spending time maturing in genuine oak casks a large tank of otherwise relatively neutral wine has its oak flavour imparted by the use of the world's biggest tea bag (containing wood chips rather than tea of course). Shelf price is a good clue here for wines that have enjoyed authentic oak ageing in cask will be more expensive because both the oak casks themselves and the time the wine spends in them are expensive. Corners tend to be cut to hit specific price points so beware of Chardonnay wine claiming to be oak aged which looks cheaper than it ought to be.
At the more affordable end of the price scale go for fresh, clean, unwooded Chardonnay wine (Chile is a good place to look) though moving up a bit to the unwooded versions from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is well worth the extra couple of quid.
In the bigger scheme of things, Chardonnay is the second most widely grown and probably the most important grape variety grown in France as it is responsible for the great white wines of Burgundy from Chablis in the north to Macon in the south. Chardonnay is also one of the three grape varieties permitted in Champagne and is the only white one; thus the words "Blanc de Blancs" on a bottle of Champagne mean that the Champagne is 100% Chardonnay. The trouble is that in its spiritual home in Burgundy you won't see the word "Chardonnay" on many labels since wines here tend to be labelled with the name of the village or commune that they come from and the French rather expect you to know that the white wines of Burgundy from the firm steely dry Chablis in the north through the fuller Puligny-Montrachet, the softer Meursault and nutty dryness of Corton-Charlemagne and as south a Beaujolais Blanc are all made from Chardonnay. In fact, almost all the white wine in Burgundy is made from Chardonnay (there are a few exceptions). The white wines of Burgundy are amongst the finest examples of Chardonnay wine available.
Transplanted to the vineyards of the new world Chardonnay is also widely grown in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the USA. Chardonnay is widely regarded as a malleable grape variety in that it tends to reflect the terroir on which it was grown and responds well to the influences of the winemaker producing everything from crisp, dry delicate wines to full, rich buttery ones.
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