Chardonnay makes fabulous dry white wines: from the best sites – which are certainly in Burgundy, France, but which we discover are also to be found in South Africa, California and Australia – producing some wines of extraordinary longevity and complexity.
There are chardonnays that are over 100 years old – still in perfect condition and tasting like a combination of Seville Orange marmalade and tangy fresh tropical grapefruit juice.
What did great damage to the reputation of this amazing grape was years of appalling winemaking by American and Australian producers. Chardonnay combines brilliantly with the flavours of oak barrels. The wood imparts a toasty, slightly charry caramel and vanilla flavour to the wine. The result is that the fresh citrus whiffs of the young chardonnay meld with the butterscotch toffee notes from the wood to produce a sumptuous, quite plush combination – striking, but often overwhelming.
To make matters worse, winemakers chose to use the oak to compensate for the shortcomings of their fruit, and then began taking shortcuts with the wood – like using staves and even wood chips. It was only a matter of time before there were enough horrific examples about for people to blame the grape – rather than the winemakers – for what they were tasting whenever they opened a bottle of chardonnay.
By the 1990s the new acronym in the wine industry was : ABC – “Anything But Chardonnay”. At a couple of symposiums in London and Bordeaux, this was the actual subject. It became fashionable to diss Chardonnay and enthuse about unwooded wines like Sauvignon Blanc.
South African winemakers largely avoided the sins of their Australian and American counterparts. Those of our top chardonnays which seem a little woody are usually just too young: they need three to five years after the harvest before they are fully integrated.
We have an extraordinary choice of great chardonnays available in South Africa.
Wine Wizard’s highest scoring Chardonnays at 91 points include: The Paul Cluver Chardonnay 2010 and 2011; the 2011 Ataraxia Chardonnay and the current highest scoring wine on Wine Wizard – the 2010 KWV The Mentors Chardonnay.