When times are uncertain, there’s nothing more reassuring than the familiar flavours of wines we already know and cherish – so why not spend a little extra effort on finding one that’s a cut above?
Where: Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, Chile
What: Still white
Why: Sure, you could join the "Anything But Chardonnay" club, but you’d be missing out on some of the most exciting wines to emerge from the new world over the past decade. Though purists may not agree, I would contend that great chardonnay is no longer the sole province of Burgundy and a major advantage of shopping outside the Côte-d’Or is that very few bottles come even close in price (except maybe a handful of lauded Californians).
Cool climate bottles are generally more promising than warm, with their heightened acidity and flintier expressions. New Zealand, Australia, California, South Africa and Chile all have appropriately chilly meso-climates. Look for origins that are close to cool coastlines (Walker Bay in South Africa; foggy West Sonoma Coast or windy pockets of the Central Coast in California; San Antonio Valley in Chile) or comparatively high in altitude (Upper Yarra in Australia).
The other critical factor in “new wave” chardonnay is winemaking philosophy. The much-maligned butter ball chardonnays of yore were made with generous helpings of new oak and would have gone through complete malolactic fermentation (a biological conversion used to soften a wine’s acidity) and large amounts of lees stirring (a process used to add volume and creamy texture). In reaction, many producers in Australia especially aimed for an ultra-skinny “unoaked” style, the worst examples of which were either painfully shrill or flatly insipid. Today’s fine-boned, chiselled style is characterised by a slightly smoky “mineral” quality (think of the smell of just-extinguished matches), tart acidity, bright, citrus fruit shading into unripe stone fruit and a sophisticated dash of cedary oak. The best ones remind me of Hermès Jardin perfume series.
Which: New Zealand: Kumeu River (any of the Chardonnays); Australia: Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay, Giant Steps Tarraford Chardonnay, Oakridge Chardonnay; California: Peay Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Eden Rift Estate Chardonnay; South Africa: Hamilton Russell Chardonnay; Chile: Errazuriz Estate Chardonnay