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  • Writer's pictureNelly Ward

Anything but Chardonnay

In light of celebrations of the World Chardonnay Day, I wanted to talk about the ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) club.

Even at the start of my wine appreciation (read: "drinking") journey I was confused by this concept - I couldn't understand what this famous white grape had to do to gain such a horrid reputation?

Officially originating from Burgundy, Chardonnay started its world domination crusade in the 19th century and very quickly spread out to every corner of the world where winemaking exists. Even here, in the UK, it's the most planted grape variety.

A natural cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, it's very adaptable to different soils and growing conditions, it's not susceptible to many diseases and, as long as it doesn't get those spring frosts after an early bud burst, it can produce a good quality fruit at relatively high yields, so it's loved by grape growers.

Being a so-called semi-aromatic variety, Chardonnay is a very versatile grape - it can vividly reflect the terroir (climate, soils, growing conditions), as well as the multiple winemaking techniques and an array of fermentation and maturation vessels to produce a multitude of styles: from sparkling, to crisp and mineral, to ripe and tropical, to rich and buttery. So, undeniably, it's adored by winemakers.

According to Liv-ex (the fine wine trading exchange), Burgundy has gone from strengths to strengths with prices surpassing Bordeaux wines year after year, pointing out that amongst the wine connoisseurs and collectors, the popularity only grows.

So what is it that made Chardonnay so unpopular? Arguably, the widespread of the grape into the New World went too quickly, being planted for volume rather than quality. To mask the lack of natural fruit flavours and to imitate the work of their French counterparts, producers turned to the help of their usual fashion: the bigger - the better. Often using American oak (which gives sweeter spices) and, in a mass production, just chucking the wood chips into a stainless steel tank rather than putting the wine in a barrel, which is way cheaper but never gives a good flavour integration.

In the 1980s-90s, literally at all quality levels the heavily oaked Chardonnays emerged, encouraged by the high scores from Robert Parker (a famous American wine critic) at the top, and by the sweetness craving consumers of the New world.

The wine scene globally got flooded with cheap sub premium wines from US and Australia, and the European drinkers' more "delicate" pallets got quickly tired of all that butter and vanilla, but instead of searching for lighter, more refined styles they felt it's safer to abandon the Chardonnay grape altogether.

However, that was almost there decades ago! The styles of Chardonnay have changed significantly, even in the New World. Of course, there’re still some of the overtly oaked wines found, however, they are now far and few apart. Majority will showcase the fruit, reflect the terroir, and the oak, where used, is delicately integrated. Yet somehow I still consistently hear around “I don't like Chardonnay”.

My question is - which Chardonnay don’t you like?

If you can’t answer this question, I would love to take on the challenge and help you discover your favorite from the huge variety of styles this grape is capable of producing. Although, chances are that you have been a secret Chardonnay lover all along, if you enjoy popping a bottle of Champagne or pouring a glass of Chablis.

FYI: There might just be a stunning Chardonnay included in my upcoming Wine Roulette tasting. ;)

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