It’s Time To Revisit Chardonnay

It’s Time To Revisit Chardonnay


Whatever your thoughts are on this Burgundian grape variety, it is remarkable how enduring Chardonnay is. It’s the second most widely planted white grape in the world, and is still the most popular with consumers globally. Among winemakers, there’s no doubt that making great Chardonnay is an alluring prospect, but despite all of this we’ve recognised it’s very polarising with consumers. Anecdotally, our customers will either be avid Chardy drinkers, or absolutely not at all. What those who are Chardonnay drinkers love about it, is exactly what those who are not hate about it. The richness, the overt butteriness and oakiness.

But bear with us here, because we want to make a case for the two ends of this polarised crowd to meet us in the middle. Let's forget our preconceptions of the variety, and start again. Let’s make peace with Chardonnay.

The Back Story

In its home on the cool, limestone slopes of Burgundy, the word Chardonnay doesn’t often appear on a label, but instead goes by the name of where it’s grown. Names like Meursault, Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and Chablis are revered and celebrated as much because of where they are from as what variety they are. For us and many other wine professionals, the wines from these vineyards are absolute benchmarks. So with the explosion of ‘new world’ wine regions in the last 50 years, in countries like the USA, Australia and New Zealand, it's easy to see why producers in these countries have wanted to emulate this Burgundian classic. The variety is now planted in most wine regions around the world. 

As a variety, Chardonnay doesn’t have the pretty aromatics of Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer, or the distinctive pungency of Sauvignon Blanc. Its relative neutrality gives the winemaker a greater opportunity to consider what style they want to produce. Chablis in the north of Burgundy, is known for an expression made without too much wine making artifice. It’s deliberately left unadorned, austere and fresh in style. Further south in the Côte de Beaune, there’s a greater emphasis on building or elevating the wine post its primary fermentation. Oak barrels are more than a storage vessel. They impart flavour and allow for a gentle oxygenation to develop the wine. A secondary malolactic fermentation turns hard malic acid into softer lactic acid, imparting a buttery character and richness. The lees (dead yeast cells left from primary fermentation) break down and can be stirred through the wine to build texture and savoury flavour. Burgundian producers aim to deftly express the hallowed ground where the grapes are grown, while making their mark stylistically in the winery. Making great Chardonnay is finding the balance between these two facets.

It’s this challenge that has been so alluring to winemakers around the world, and it’s been spurred on by the popularity of the variety with punters. But this is where things get polarising. Through the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and 2000’s, in new world wine regions in particular (but not exclusively), the winemaking was amped up. It was a ‘more is more’ approach and it was met with rapturous applause because of the bold immediacy of the wines. The influence of winemaking, like the use of oak ageing and malolactic fermentation, overshadowed the expression of a sense of place. To add to this, many regions where Chardonnay was planted have warmer climates to Burgundy, in Australia and California in particular. This amounted to even richer, riper wines that were lower in acidity and higher in alcohol than traditional Burgundian styles. So for many, including ourselves, this is the kind of Chardonnay we were introduced to. Like many sensory indulgences, what is initially upfront and impressive soon becomes too obvious, and we seek more subtlety and complexity to engage with. Many Chardonnay drinkers had had their fill of these big wines, and turned to other varieties that were less full on and cloying. And then there’s a mainstay of drinkers who have clung to these styles, deciding that that’s what Chardonnay should be. 

The Middle Ground

The use of the term ‘new world’ to describe younger wine growing countries outside of Europe has been questioned of late. As these countries have become more established, mature and ingrained in the landscape, producers have identified great sites that suit particular varieties, just like in Europe. The wines of top new world producers have evolved to express more than just varietal character or winemaking, but a sense of place as well. The French of course, have a single word for wines expressing place - terroir. With greater vine age, and as our new world wine communities evolve, we increasingly understand and seek expression of terroir. 

In New Zealand, ever since the establishment of our modern industry, winemakers have had a damn good crack at producing Chardonnay. And we’ve tasted many big, bold, buttery, well oaked examples over the years. But this isn’t all we’re capable of. Names like Kumeu River, Neudorf, Millton and Bell Hill are sought after and grace the wine lists of top restaurants around the world. We highlight these producers because they quickly came to grasp and showcase what great Chardonnay is about - understanding and expressing terroir, with added finesse and complexity coming from understated, experienced winemaking.

This is the middle ground where we want to meet you. If you love those big styles, we’d challenge you to try some more elegant, understated wines. You’ll still find texture and the influence of winemaking, but in a more balanced way. It’s like the difference between a meal that’s well seasoned, and one that’s overly seasoned. If you’re in the camp that thinks you’re put off Chardonnay for life, it’s time to revisit. The modern styles we’re seeing have freshness, moderate alcohol levels, complexity and a sense of place. 

As you’d expect, we’re eager to demonstrate what we're on about, by the bottle. Recently we’ve tasted some truly excellent, harmonious and elegant styles that all happen to come from the top of the South Island, namely Marlborough and Nelson. In most cases, these come from vines grown on clay soils (terroir in action?). They’re all made by passionate, organic, small producers and display the attributes of great, balanced Chardonnay, so give them a go. It’s time to revisit Chardonnay.

Luta Shadows Chardonnay 2021
Deep Down Chardonnay 2022
Atipico Chardonnay 2023
Ashleigh Barrowman Queen of Swords Chardonnay 2022

Eaton Raupo Chardonnay 2021