If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they don’t like chardonnay, I’d be making a shitload more money than I currently am as a freelance wine writer in a small country.
Chardonnay suffers from an image as a shoulder pad-wearing, fast-talking 80s business woman. It’s loud, it’s brash, you know it’s great but you also find it kind of insufferable. You tried a glass of it at your grandma’s birthday lunch when you were 21 and only about drinking savs with the girls, and it tasted like a block of wood that someone had poured a bunch of vinegar over. You poopooed it, and never looked back, destined to a life of telling people, “Oh no, I don’t really like chardonnay, thanks.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Chardonnay is one of the most versatile grapes out there. It’s like a blank canvas for winemakers to play around on, which means it can be rich and lush with heaps of oak, or lean and minerally and begging to be on the table alongside a round of just-shucked Mahurangi oysters.
The problem is that Chardonnay, back while it was still broking high-powered deals in stilettos (is this analogy problematic?), winemakers liked to hit it with as much oak as possible. Fruit and quality got left behind as winemakers tried to one-up each other with masses of new oak. This was all probably happening around the time you last tried it.
Happily, winemakers have reined it the fuck in. There’s still oak in chardonnay, sure, but it tends to be better integrated, making it taste more like you’re drinking pineapples with buttered toast rather than licking vanilla essence off a tree. There are still oaky examples, because people (like me!) learned to love that, but these are easy enough to avoid - there will be some hot tips later, I promise.
The chardonnay we make in New Zealand tends to have a lot of zingy green-apple-and-citrus acidity alongside its more sedate stonefruit and butter flavours. In terms of winemaking, this marks us out as being just a baby, vinously - they’ve been making wine since at least Roman times in France, and much earlier in other parts of the world. But as we’ve learned here in NZ in the last 100 days or so, young isn’t necessarily bad, and I really like NZ’s style of chardonnay.
If you feel some apprehension toward chardonnay, but my words have spurred you to action, let me guide you with some tips. Firstly, steer clear of anything from Waiheke or the Hawke’s Bay. I’m not saying these wines are oaky by default, I’m just saying that because these are two of New Zealand's key chardonnay regions, there’s a lot more variation in style, and you’re in more danger of buying a wine that will set me back on my quest to get everyone into chardonnay. The best place to start is Marlborough, where the cooler climate makes a leaner wine anyway. Producers like Saint Clair and Seresin have perfected the art of making great chardonnay in this terroir and you should give them a crack, for sure.
Secondly - and this is key - DON’T buy an expensive wine. A huge mistake people make is trying to feed expensive wines to their friends who don’t like wines because they’re the “best”. This may be true, but expensive wines are usually more intensely flavoured, and usually have a decent amount of oak. Colby and Roquefort are YEARS away from each other in prestige, flavour and price, but goddamn there’s only one of those things a child will actually eat.
Thirdly, next time you get given a glass of chardonnay, take a bit of time to think about what you’re drinking. Wine is a great icebreaker, so if you’re talking to someone you don’t know very well, it’ll give you at least 2-3 minutes of solid conversation. Look for flavours like pineapple, apple, peach and nectarine, as well as things like toast, coconut, butter and hazelnut. Consider how it’s different to what you usually like, and think about a situation in which you think you would like it. As a special wine to go with a roast chicken? Or on a rainy autumn afternoon watching reruns of Great British Bake Off?
And if you still don’t like it, that’s ok! There are so many other wines for you to drink.