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Chardonnay isn't dead yet!
I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Chardonnay. On the one hand this grape makes some sublime white wines with huge depth of flavour and stunning complexity; on the other, it produces a sea of bland, technological, slightly sweet concoctions that hardly merit describing as 'wine'. It's probably also true that familiarity breeds contempt. Chardonnay is everywhere. It is partly a victim of its own success: compared with its Burgundy peer, Pinot Noir, which is a fussy traveller, Chardonnay has travelled throughout the world without complaining. Wherever it is planted it seems to produce at least passable wines, and given half a chance does very well. It also adapts to a whole range of winemaking styles. So although I often grow bored with Chardonnay and seek my white wine pleasures elsewhere (see my article Anything but Chardonnay), I always return. For me, there is no finer white grape, although some, such as Riesling, come close. So here is a selection of Chardonnays from across the world that I think effectively state my case.

It's unfair to dismiss Australian Chardonnays as being big, crude and oaky. Since the 1980s, when some Aussie Chards were guilty of this charge, winemakers have learned fast. Consequently, premium Australian Chardonnay represents one of the most consistent and good value of all wines. The increased plantings of Chardonnay in the early 1990s, when white wines were in vogue, and the subsequent swing to red grapes, has also helped to keep prices down. At their best, these wines are full flavoured with complex, ripe fruit and nicely judged oaking. Yum. And let's not forget the often  impressive inexpensive wines made in industrial quantities -- the likes of Lindemans Bin 65, which is a really attractive wine despite its large-scale production.

Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 1998, Margaret River, Western Australia
A full-flavoured, complex wine with a toasty nose of honey and spice, followed up with a rich, spicy, nutty palate. There's a rich mineralic streak, and the noticeable oak is well balanced by the intense fruit flavours. Memorable stuff, but drink it now rather than cellaring it. Excellent. (£11.25 Bentalls)

Wirra Wirra Chardonnay 1998, McLaren Vale, Australia
Made from small batches of fruit, some of which were fermented in new French oak, some in 1 year old French oak and some in stainless steel. Lovely smoky/toasty nose gives way to rich fruit on the palate, with figgy, buttery and mineralic notes. Pure and complex, this is superb stuff, without too much oak. Excellent. (£9.99 Waitrose)

Shaw and Smith Unoaked Chardonnay 1998, Adelaide Hills, Australia
I'm not normally a fan of the 'unwooded Chardonnay' style of wine, but this is a stunner. A light gold colour, it has a spicy, honey nose. On the palate it exhibits intense fruit flavours, with spicy and honeyed complexity coupled with a pronounced minerality. Excellent. (£9.29, Tesco)

Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay 1998, Hunter Valley
A rich, buttery Chardonnay, with toasty oak and honeyed fruit. Sophisticated stuff, showing good balance and refinement. Very good + (Majestic £9.99)

Lindemans Padthaway Chardonnay 1998
From Padthaway, a relatively cool region in South Australia well known for producing great Chardonnays. I was really impressed by this wine. Fully barrel-fermented. Deep yellow colour. Complex fruit flavours combined beautifully with new oak. Rich, intense and concentrated, with figgy, tropical fruit and spice notes. Superb stuff. Very good + (Thresher £8.49)

Brokenwood Chardonnay 1998, Hunter Valley
Mainly McLaren Vale fruit, this spends five months in one year old French oak. Toasty nose. Soft, rich, peachy, tropical-fruit, spicy wine. Ripe, full and complex. Very good. (£8.99 Oddbins)

Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Chardonnay 1998, Hunter Valley
This is a single-vineyard Hunter Chardonnay that spends 12 months in new French oak. There is a huge nose of butterscotch and tropical fruit. Spicy and complex, this superb wine is concentrated and delicious. Excellent. (£17.99 Oddbins Fine Wine)

Hardys Nottage Hill Chardonnay 1999, SE Australia
Fresh, full flavoured Chardonnay with good balance, attractively put together with just a touch of oak. Just shaded by Lindemans Bin 65 in this category, but it’s a close call. (£4.99 widely available)

Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay 1999, Southeast Australia
Served well chilled, this is a delightful, full-flavoured lemony Chardonnay with a touch of spice and some restrained tropical fruit character. Lightly oaked, with a nice texture. You can't get much better for a mass produced sub-£5 Chardonnay, and in its genre this is the best. (£4.99, widely available)

South Africa
At the bottom end, I remain unimpressed by South African white wines, but they are making real strides with their premium whites, and Chardonnay leads the pack. These wines show great concentration of flavour, bridging nicely the typical new world and old world styles.

Danie De Wet Bataleur Chardonnay 1998, Robertson, South Africa
Remarkably expressive high-end South African Chardonnay, with a full nose of toasty, nutty barrel-ferment character and a concentrated palate of lemony fruit, minerals and high acidity. Despite the new oak, this wine is not at all fat: I suspect it was not allowed to undergo full malolactic fermentation, and the resulting bright acidity really brings this complex wine to life. Very good/excellent (£12, Fortnum and Mason)

Warwick Estate Chardonnay 1999, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Rich, intense, nutty and toasty Chardonnay with a dense, mineral-laced palate and high acidity. This is a huge savoury wine that represents excellent value for money. Really interesting, perhaps a little rough round the edges for some. Very good + (£6.99, Waitrose)

Graham Beck 'Lonehill' Chardonnay 1998, Robertson, South Africa
100% barrel fermented in a mix of new and second fill French oak. A rich, concentrated wine with brisk acidity, well-judged oak and smoky, mineral-laced, nutty complexity. Very good + (£6.99, Thresher)

Thelema Chardonnay 1998, Stellenbosch
One of South Africa's most famed Chardonnays, the 1998 vintage is a big but refined wine that carries its 15% alcohol well. It has a rich nose of toasty oak with a creamy, ripe character. It's savoury and rich on the palate, with nutty and lemon notes and great concentration and balance. Overall it is quite soft, with good balancing oak. Very good +   (£11.99 Noel Young)

Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay 1997, Paarl
A very modern South African Chardonnay that almost gets it right. Light textured, subtle, but with noticeable toasty oak, this is a fresh Chardonnay with some bottle age. Lean and balanced in character, but a bit light in texture and fruit to carry the oak. Good. (£8.99 Tesco)

De Wetshof Estate Lesca Chardonnay 1998, Robertson, South Africa
A crisp, fresh and full flavoured Chardonnay, with attractive nutty and toasty character. There is firm acidity, and a slight bitterness on the palate. This is a nice, savoury dry white with well judged but noticeable oak, which represents good value for money. Good/very good. (£5.99 Sainsbury)

Italy has traditionally made Chardonnays in a light, fresh, high-acid style. However, I've been impressed by a few examples I've recently tried that have broken this mould. 

Lis Neris, Isonzo del Friuli Chardonnay 1998, Alvaro Pecorari
A real treat, this is an Italian Chardonnay that manages to combine the best of the old and new worlds. Pale yellow with a full nose. On the palate it has complex, nutty fruit with mineralic notes and light oak influence. With good concentration of flavour, this is a rich Chardonnay with real character. (£8.95, Berry Bros)

Chardonnay Castello della Sala 1999, Antinori, IGT Umbria, Italy
Fermented in Franch oak, this is a striking Chardonnay with a pronounced toasty oak nose. On the palate, the barrel-ferment character combines nicely with savoury fruit and high acidity. Quite oaky, but very good none the less. (£6.99 Majestic)

Trulli Chardonnay 1998, Salento, Italy
Golden colour. Nutty, figgy nose gives way to a simple but clean palate with good balance and acidity. Good and great value, but surprisingly mature, so drink up. (£4.49, Thresher) 9/00

California Chardonnays have a reputation for being overly oaky, fat and alcoholic -- and many of them are. In addition, they often represent exremely poor value for money, and their availability in the UK is not great. In general, the USA is not a happy hunting ground for Chardonnay fans, although there are good examples if you hunt hard enough.

Foxen Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay 1997, Santa Maria Valley, California
From a single vineyard of 10 acres, this estate wine is barrel fermented in new oak and spends a further 18 months maturing in barrel. It has a full, rich, barrel-ferment nose and shows great concentration, but it is very, very, very oaky. For hardened California Chardonnay lovers only. (£18.99, Majestic)

Fetzer Private Collection Chardonnay 1997 Limited Release, Mendocino, California
I can't make my mind up about this wine. On the one hand, it doesn't fall prey to the worst excesses of premium Californian Chardonnays, with their blowsy fruit and opulent oaking: instead, this is restrained yet powerful, almost in a Burgundian mould. On the other hand, this wine is a rather angular and disjointed, and I'm not sure I actually like the result: it has good components that don't quite fit together. Subdued, nutty, honeyed nose with a touch of smoke. Restrained on the palate with lean, savoury complexity, high acid and great concentration. The high-ish alcohol makes itself known on the finish. A sophisticated effort, perhaps let down with the finish. Very good. (£9.99, Oddbins) 9/00

Fetzer Barrel Select Chardonnay 1997, Mendocino, California
Quite evolved, with a toasty oak nose. On the palate this has begun to soften, and is attractively creamy and oaky. Overall, it is quite a tasty Californian Chardonnay that needs drinking up soon. (Majestic £7.99)

French Chardonnay
Let's face it, France is the home of Chardonnay, and it still makes the most complex and compelling examples. But these wines, from the better-sited vineyards of the Burgundy region, are extremely expensive and made in tiny quantities. Less expensive Chardonnay from the Mâconnais region of Southern Burgundy can be good value, and although I've previously been unimpressed by Chardonnay from the south of France, these seem to be rapidly improving. Interesting fact: Chardonnay has recently been shown to be the result of a cross between the Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. 

Chardonnay Domine Les Garrigues de Truilhas 1998, James Herrick, Vin de Pays d'Oc
The name comes from the stony soil of the vineyards. Lean on the nose with smoky, mineral-like characters. Some ripe fruit on the palate, but overall still quite lean, with more smoky, mineralic notes. Slightly bitter finish. Quite good. (£5.49 Oddbins)

Domaine de La Motte Chardonnay 1998, James Herrick, Vin de Pays d'Oc
10% barrel fermented; 50% malolactic. Concentrated but tight. Light lemon and mineral laden Chardonnay with some nice smoky/appley notes. Nicely balanced and savoury; quite delicate. Good. (£6.49 Oddbins) 5/00

Domaine Begude Chardonnay 1999, Comte Cathare, Vin de Pays d'Oc
A light, fresh, lemony Chardonnay. Its appealing, but quite simple. Medium bodied. Good. (£4.99 Oddbins)

Domaine Valette Pouilly-Fuissé Clos Reyssie 1995, Burgundy
A mature wine from the most famous of the Mâcon appellations in Burgundy. Golden colour, with a nose of honey and butterscotch. Rich, honeyed and spicy on the palate with bright acidity and a touch of caramel. This is an unusual wine; I suspect that the grapes were harvested late and that there's a bit of oxidation character too; it's certainly fully mature now, so drink up. Very good in this style. (£5.99 Majestic) 8/00

Domaine Valette Mâcon-Chaintré 1997 Jeunes Vignes, Burgundy
A tasty, full flavoured, mature Mâcon Chardonnay. Light gold in colour. Quite intense with a smoky, honeyed nose. Rich and ripe with a sweet finish. Luscious honey and spice on the palate. Very good, and a bargain. (£5.99 Majestic) 8/00

Henry de Vézelay Bourgogne Chardonnay 1996
Despite its age, this is still a pale yellow colour. Honeyed, nutty nose is followed with a classic Bourgogne/Mâcon palate of apples, honey and nuts with piercing lemony acidity holding it all in good balance. Evolved and quite complex; the bready, toasty character reminds me of a still vintage Champagne! Good/very good (£3.99 Majestic) 8/00

Verget Tête du Cuvée 1997, Mâcon, Burgundy
Yellow/gold colour. Subdued nose of honey and nuts, followed by a full palate with bright acidity and honey, nuts and lemon. It's well balanced and there is some minerally complexity; a typical mature Mâcon Chardonnay. Good. (£3.99 Majestic) 8/00

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