I'm sure you'll agree with me that Chardonnay is one of those grapes that’s been around the block a few times… She had her golden moment, as seen in American movies and sitcoms where, when ordering a wine, it was always a glass of Chardonnay and poured as a deep golden liquid. This followed through to the days of ABC – Anything But Chardonnay. As a wine specialist tour guide, I've had many of these ABC requests and yet I persevere to find "the one" that will change my guests’ minds! Most recently, and I'm personally quite thankful for this, Chardonnay is making a comeback in South Africa.
I think the main reason behind this renewed interest in the grape is because winemakers are treating it with a little less oak. The oak contact gives the wine its familiar butterscotch, vanilla, toffee or caramel notes that people often associate with a Chardonnay. There is also an intimidating term called malolactic fermentation. Quite often Chardonnay goes through this secondary fermentation process. What this means is, sharp malic (apple acids) are converted into softer lactic (milk acids). This process used to be encouraged, but winemakers are holding back on the process significantly these days, which means the resultant wines often express fresher acids and less of a heavy body and mouth-feel to the wine.
Although the number of unwooded Chardonnays is increasing locally, these wines seem to be more widely encouraged and enjoyed by the consumer than the critic, with not many receiving as high praise and scoring from wine judges. Even though the large majority of Chardonnays are still wooded, they are often fermented in older barrels, or left in the barrel for a shorter time, or have limited malolactic fermentation, all resulting in a lighter style than we were used to a couple of years ago.
In general, Chardonnay is a spectacular food wine. Unwooded Chardonnays are ideal with fish pie and fishcakes (especially salmon), other simple salmon preparations – poached or with a buttery sauce; chicken, pork or pasta in a creamy sauce; chicken, ham or cheese-based salads such as Caesar salad. Full-bodied, oak-aged Chardonnays can take an extra degree of richness. Dishes like Eggs Benedict, for example, or even a steak Béarnaise; grilled veal chops with mushrooms, late summer vegetables such as red peppers, corn, butternut and pumpkin; pumpkin ravioli, or good ol’ Cheddar cheese