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International Chardonnay Day: Why loving this grape is as easy as ABC

Styles and Varietals  /  May 26  /  BY Jez Fielder

International Chardonnay Day: Why loving this grape is as easy as ABC

by Jez Fielder

One of the most planted grapes in the world. Tick. The varietal that shows the white face of Burgundy. Tick. Vilified by a host of people who have got it all wrong. Tick.

May 26 has been deemed International Chardonnay Day. So let's find out more about it, and why some people simply refuse to drink it.

Isabelle & Denis Pommier: These two love a Chardonnay. But they would. They make it.

Chardonnay divides the room. On the one hand it is the perfect grape for the winemaker to show their mettle with complexity and extraordinary elegance, on the other it's something that a section of consumers have rejected. And the latter portion has, over the years, popularised the acronym ABC: 'Anything but Chardonnay.'

It could be that Chardonnay is a victim of its own success. It's the most planted white grape in the world, after all. It's perhaps not an adventurous choice in the eyes of some. There is certainly a rising trend in discovering less well-known varietals. But it's more likely a question of style. At the start of the millennium, New World winemakers began pumping out creamy, barrel fermented Chardonnays, which were quite different at the time and inspired something of a boom. Other winegrowers noticed this and aped the style, leading to a market flooded with relatively inexpensive fat, buttery, oak-chippy Chardonnays. Wine bars and pubs stocked them, which led to the association -- in the mind of the consumer -- between Chardonnay and that particular style of Chardonnay. But this grape has so many guises, it's erroneous to think it's a one-trick pony.

What's wrong with Chardonnay?

It could be that Chardonnay is a victim of its own success. It's the most planted white grape in the world, after all.

According to 2015 stats from OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) the grape's vineyard area was 210,000 hectares across 41 countries. Therefore it's perhaps not an adventurous choice in the eyes of some. There is certainly a rising trend in discovering less well-known varietals. But it's more likely that the ABC faithful are responding to a particular style.

In the 1990s, New World winemakers began pumping out creamy, barrel fermented Chardonnays, which were quite different at the time and inspired something of a boom. Other winegrowers noticed this and aped the style, leading to a market flooded with relatively inexpensive fat, buttery, oak-chippy Chardonnays. Wine bars and pubs stocked them, which led to the association -- in the mind of the consumer -- between Chardonnay and that particular style of Chardonnay. But this grape has so many guises, it's erroneous to think it's a one-trick pony.

Why does Chardonnay taste different in different places?

In cool climates, Chardonnay can display aromas of green and citrus fruit, and also, as is the case with the Chablis from Isabelle & Denis Pommier, white flowers.

In warmer climates, the grape can show aromas of tropical fruit and stone fruit. With this Dominique Cornin Saint-Véran, you can even detect candied orange.

And both of these examples are from the same region. Burgundy gives you a real diversity of styles from the steely north to the plumper south.

What is 'Malo'?

Another element that creates a markedly distinct style of Chardonnay is something called Malolactic Conversion, or simply 'Malo'. During the winemaking process, bacteria converts malic acid (that you find in apples) into lactic acid (that you find in milk). Chardonnay that has a distinctly buttery mouthfeel has undergone this process. In the right hands it adds complexity, but there is a danger that a wine could lose some of the grape's primary fruit characters.

Balancing act

Paul Negrerie, winemaker at Chateau de Pommard, is familiar with the concept of ABC.
"I understand that you may be deceived by oaky, buttery and impersonal chardonnay over-planted around the world," he says, "but here in Burgundy the Chardonnay reveals its best potential. The melting pot of different types of limestone and clay alongside the winemaker's know-how will lend to this varietal a deep complexity and a perfect balance."

Jean-Rémi Fray (L) and Paul Negrerie from Chateau de Pommard

Speaking of balance, winery owner and author Rajat Parr shot to fame as a superstar sommelier. He co-founded a movement in 2011 called 'In Pursuit of Balance' which eventually ran out of steam in 2016. But its very existence pointed to a shared opinion in some quarters that bigger wasn't better and oaky styles didn't aid the journey towards a perfect expression of the grape. Wineries didn't exactly sign up in their droves, but the project gained a lot of buzz.

“If you choose to not drink Chardonnay anymore because you've often been disappointed by wines made from it, you’re totally wrong," says Chateau de Pommard's Vineyard Manager, Jean-Rémi Fray. "Chardonnay provides the quintessence of white wine when it grows on appropriate terroirs. Here in Burgundy we are fortunate to have an ideal location for the expression of Chardonnay. If you don’t like it, maybe you just don’t like white wine.” 

But if you needed reminding of power and finesse of fine white Burgundy, Chateau de Pommard have put together this special collection to celebrate International Chardonnay Day, containing:

  • Savigny-Les-Beaune 2020 (Organic)
  • Meursault 2020
  • Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru "Morgeot" 2020
  • Ladoix Premier Cru "Les Gréchons" 2020
  • Chassagne-Montrachet 2020
  • Santenay Premier Cru "La Maladière" 2020

Why not share it with someone who says they don't like Chardonnay, just for the joy of watching them change their mind.

Jez Fielder

Jez Fielder

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