Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell


Don’t hate me for loving Californian wine

YOU KNOW THAT perfume-like scent of long, dry grass baking in the sun at the height of summer? It has a floral hint to it, along with something…earthy?

That, to me, sums up what I can smell when drinking (decent) wine from California. It’s a smell of all the good things in the Golden State – dried grass, hot air, stone, earth, sea and foliage – coming together in the bottle.

To me, it could very well be that expression of ‘terroir’ the likes of Michel Chapoutier or Randall Grahm bleat about endlessly.

They’re probably right.

But I know what you’re going to say to me here: Californian wine is, for the most part, terrible, isn’t it?

Look no further than the sea of cheap chardonnay and other abysmal wines coming out of California’s sun-broiled valleys, all made to fly off supermarket shelves and satisfy distinctly – ahem – downmarket tastes.

Well, okay, sure. Unfortunately, much of the wine coming out of California suffers from excessively high alcohol levels, too much oak (I drank a Central Coast pinot noir the other day that would have been much more enjoyable had it not tasted as though it was fermented from the oak tree itself), too much sugar resulting in jammy flavours and any number of other faults.

But the state isn’t a sea of stinkers. There are some incredible wines there – unfortunately you’ll have to pay a lot for them because this isn’t a cheap place to make wine.

When done well, I can’t get enough of good Californian wine. When done horribly, I usually have no choice but to seek solace in an Old World Medoc claret so dry and tannic it could knock my teeth out of their sockets.

Any Worlders…

This brings me to a thought I have been trying to develop, although perhaps not very successfully (yet) but bear with me.

When it comes to wine drinkers, there are three types of people: Old Worlders, New Worlders and Any Worlders.

The nomenclature I’ve chosen leaves a lot to be desired (feel free to send me your ideas for a better word), but leaving that aside, these three categories tend to work. There are those who will only drink wine from places like France or Italy; those who can’t stand the acidic, tannic wines of the Old World and prefer only to  drink ‘fruity, oaky chardonnay‘ from Australia or South Africa; then there are those who are agnostic to geography and just want to drink great wine no matter its origin.

I’d fall into the final category. Even though many of my favourite wines come from France these days and I actually like drinking wines that have tannins strong enough to bring down elephant, I have to confess my love affair with Californian wine – when executed properly.

I’m thinking of examples like Ridge, Clos du Val, Sean Thackrey, Tablas Creek, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena and so many more. Yes, plenty are – eep – on the expensive side, but this is not always true.

The best way to explain why I can continue to love wine from California despite its many letdowns comes from this quote from the film Sideways when Miles and Jack were headed to a vineyard known for its chardonnay:

Jack: “I thought you hated chardonnay.”
Miles (to Jack): “I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”
Jack: “Huh.”

Photo: Porbital