Chardonnay Lovers Ahoy!

Chardonnay Comeback

Oh chardonnay – it’s so lovely to see you back!  A couple of decades ago New Zealand’s chardonnay-scape was almost a no-mans land.  After the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club had declared the bold, fat, super-oaky, buttery examples we’d been served since the 70’s decidedly unfashionable, it basically became the corduroy of wine.  So we sifted our way through the 1990’s, awash in a sea of sauvignon blanc and new-fangled pinot gris.  New Zealand was going through a wine and food awakening, and chardonnay was being left in the dust. Back then, says UK wine writer Victoria Moore, “mass-market chardonnay looked yellow and tasted like a tropical sunset might taste if you were sticking your nose in a barrel full of pina coladas and barbecued bananas as you looked across the beach”. It didn’t help that a whole generation had been scarred by seeing the self-confessed overweight, slightly hopeless, unhappy singleton Bridget Jones swigging it back and belting out “All By Myself” on her couch.  It was akin to a Miles from Sideways Merlot-moment and no-one wanted to identify with that. Yet chardonnay lovers never really let go.  Something was missing and, despite trying really hard with other varieties, nothing gave us that same feeling of satisfaction that a glass of chardonnays’ golden goodness did.  

Despite not having as much chardonnay in the ground as we did a decade ago, fortunately our wine producers didn’t give up either. Instead they began looking seriously at how our palates were evolving in order to get smarter about the styles they put on the market.  Sure, there were still those who yearned for those big, buxom, old school examples, however a new market for lighter, tangy, fruit-driven styles had emerged.  Big oak was out and as the new millennium gained traction, a range of subtler, balanced, elegant chardonnays began to hit the shelves.  These new chardonnays suited our growing appreciation for Eastern and Asian cuisine, different takes on poultry and seafood and our thirst for lighter, cleaner, conversation wines. 

We’ve also seen a huge rise in “unoaked” examples.  Personally I’m not fond of the terms ‘unoaked’ or ‘unwooded’ because they somehow give the impression that the wine is lacking something or may be substandard.  While they may not be my first choice in chardonnay personally, for many it’s all they can stomach.  The result of the popularity of this trend is that people have seen the pure, fruit characters present in the unoaked styles, and now want the best of both worlds.  So modern chardonnays that don’t allow fruit characters to share the limelight with oak won’t win fans. 

Today New Zealand has never been in better shape for top-level chardonnay.  I feel absolutely qualified to say that because my job involves tasting dozens of wines every week and I judge wine competitions around the country. Plus I’m an unashamed chardonnay fan, I absolutely love it and will argue ‘til I’m in my grave that it’s one of the most delicious wines known to humankind. I’m also a firm believer in that when you’re so stretched for time that all you can manage to serve for dinner is a cooked chook and some coleslaw from the supermarket – whatcha gonna pour?  Chardonnay of course! 

The thing that winemakers love about chardonnay is its versatility.  It will produce great examples from every type of terroir imaginable and here in Godzone, we’re crafting award-winning styles in every single wine region – no other grape can match that.  You can also pretty much throw anything at it and a delicious drink will follow; all manner of different combinations of oak, tank or stainless steel barrel fermentation and/or maturation, wild or man-made yeasts, malolactic ferments*, or lees stirring* regimes – chardonnay will hold its own and allow a winemaker to put their own stamp on the style which ends up in the bottle. 

No matter what end of the spectrum whether it’s lean, dry, delicate and mineral-driven or exotically rich and creamy, toasty and tropical – today there’s a chardonnay for everyone. 

For Food’s Sake…When it comes to pairing Chardonnay and food, the rules are simple: The bigger, fatter and creamier the wine, the bigger, creamier and richer the food can be.  So think about how well Chardonnay laps up creamy pasta or a pan-seared, crispy skinned Snapper fillet slathered in beurre-blanc. Another ‘rule of thumb’ to follow is  ‘if it’s smoked, bring on the oak’. In other words the smokier the food, then the Chardonnay can be as buttery and oaky as you like.

All that glitters…Shiny medals on bottles are a good indication of quality – but look carefully at what those medals represent, as some simply say things like ‘winery of the year’ or some such – which isn’t relevant to the exact bottle you’re holding.   Chardonnay can challenge wine competition judges because there are many different expressions to consider, but medals will be given to chardonnays that show great balance, weight, fruit concentration, freshness and how cleverly the winemaker has managed any oak that’s been used.

Glassy Eyed… So much of chardonnay’s appeal lies in it’s luscious, multi-layered aromas – and the shape of the glass you serve it in is going to have a huge effect on how they’re perceived.   The aroma molecules in chardonnay tend to stay close to the surface of the wine, so opt for a shallower glass with a wide, ‘swirlable’ bowl – a glass that’s really easy to get your nose into.  High-sided, narrow glasses will only stifle the aromas and have a tendency to make the wine taste sharper when you sip. 

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