To pick the perfect chardonnay, it's all about location, location, location

Chardonnay can make a beautiful house wine at home – if you can find the right one

Chardonnay grapes
Serious chardonnay is marked by a sense of place Credit: Luke MacGregor / Alamy Stock Photo

Above the commune of Mondement-Montgivroux in northern France, a hulking block of red sandstone towers 100ft into the sky. A tribute to General Joffre and the soldiers who fought under his command, it commemorates the victory of the first Battle of the Marne in 1914. In one of those mind-mashing quirks of life that, across the centuries, places great suffering and great luxury in almost the same location, we are very close here to some of the most celebrated crus of Champagne. 

Head north-east from here and the rolling green landscape takes us through the Côte des Blancs villages of Vertus, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Avize, Cramant…the key grape here is chardonnay. Not that anyone talks much about chardonnay. They talk about the places, the crus, barely mentioning the grape at all.

It’s the same almost everywhere that serious chardonnay is grown, and many of those who love to drink chardonnay take the same attitude. They don’t talk about loving chardonnay, like some might talk about loving sauvignon blanc or loving malbec. They talk about place – about Mornington Peninsula chardonnay, Hemel-en-Aarde chardonnay, Pouilly Fuissé, Montrachet – I could add in any other white burgundy.

Wine pros love to roll their eyes about the civilians who firmly say they “do not like chardonnay” but who wistfully say they really like chablis, unaware of the inherent contradiction. The chardonnay/chablis conversation happens so often it has become a wine cliché, the twist being of course that chablis is chardonnay, made entirely from chardonnay grapes grown on Kimmeridgian marl and Portlandian bedrock and clay in vineyards around the village of Chablis in northern Burgundy.

But do you know what? I think the joke is on the wine pros. Civilians may not know that chablis is made from chardonnay but they have correctly grasped the essence of the wine. Like pinot noir, chardonnay is a chameleon. If we speak only of “chardonnay” we don’t think of the particular, a chardonnay that is marked by a sense of place, we think of chardonnay marked by the commercial imperative to produce lots of it, maybe a yellow chardonnay that tastes of oak chips and warmth and pineapple cubes.

“Never choose chardonnay as the house wine in a pub,” I was warned recently, as I set about tasting wines in the running for the wine lists of the City group of pubs. There are commercial reasons for such advice. There’s also the viewpoint of the pub drinker who wants a thirst-slaking and innocuous house white.

Taste-wise, there are chardonnays that would be perfect: lean, taut whites as clean as a sheet of paper, the sort that pass briskly through your mouth with just a suggestion of lemon and not much else; see also gentle, creamy chardonnays with a hint of warmth but no tropical fruit assault. But who would know, or believe, that this is what you’d picked?

If you can find the right one, chardonnay can make a beautiful house wine at home, though I’d go up a notch or three and look for one that is creamy but also refreshing, with a reassuring quality.

Domaine Begude Elegance chardonnay 2019 would be ideal; it has a beautiful clarity and bright energy, with the gentlest nuzzle of oak. It’s made in the cool foothills of the Pyrenees and sold by quality bag-in-box specialist The BIB Wine Co at £39 for 2.25 litres (equivalent to £13 a bottle).

If you want a house white burgundy, go for the wine that is well-known to so much of the trade (and probably also to readers of this column). Domaine Mallory et Benjamin Talmard Maçon-Villages 2019, France (The Wine Society, £10.95) is a joy, unoaked but with some lees ageing to bring subtle richness. The same producer supplies Adnams with its own-label white burgundy. A third option is the nicely clean M&S Classics No 1 Bourgogne Blanc 2019, France (M&S, £9).

But back to the sense of place. I opened by talking about champagne because I recently listened to Cyril Brun, the chef de cave (cellarmaster) at Charles Heidsieck, discussing the qualities of the wines from villages in the Côte des Blancs that go into the beautiful Blanc des Millénaires (we were tasting the newly released 2006). His words poured out like a kind of poetry.

“Chardonnay from Oger… we tend to feel and taste a kind of fleshiness, a kind of body, a kind of texture you are not supposed to find in chardonnay and that is more normal to find in pinot noir,” he said. “Avize is probably the most exotic/tropical chardonnay profile from the Côte des Blancs. You can have mango, passion fruit, lemongrass, so it brings a touch of exoticism. Cramant is the one that will be the lighter in terms of contribution because Cramant is really refined – you have this zesty profile with a bit of white flower... if you don’t have Cramant [in the blend] it is no longer the same.”

The need to have a feel for place before you can begin to know whether this chardonnay or that might be one you like makes it harder but also more rewarding to love this grape.

Winemaking also has a huge impact on the taste of a chardonnay, but the spread of winemaking fashions mean that this element can sometimes be packaged up into the same mental bundle in which you store information about place.

Winemakers will always talk about the styles of wine that come from different vineyards. Regions are a more realistic starting point when you are beginning to explore.

For instance, I know that I like the taut, struck-match styles of chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula; the lucidity of chardonnay from the relative cool of Hemel-en Aarde in South Africa; the full lion’s mane flavour but keen lemon acidity of chardonnay from Margaret River; the freshness of wines from Limoux, in south-western France; and the pert curves and light creaminess of those from Marlborough in New Zealand, an area famous for its pungent sauvignon blanc but which does chardonnay incredibly well.

Wines of the week

Hill-Smith Estate Eden Valley Chardonnay 2018

Australia (13.5%, Waitrose, £11.99)

An excellent example of contemporary Australian chardonnay. This has a lovely mealy texture, with notes of hazelnuts, soft white bread, white peaches and yellow citrus with a subtle oak spice. Note that at the time of writing it’s out of stock online but due back in any day and still available in store.

Kooyong Clonale 
Chardonnay 2018 


Mornington Peninsula, Australia (13%, Flagship Wines in St Albans, £25.29; Auswinesonline.co.uk, £25; greatwine.co.uk, £22.50)

Kooyong is one of the trendy names when it comes to Australian producers, guaranteed to cause an “ooh” of pleasure when it’s put on the table. This is bright and lemony, with notes of toasted cashew and white peach.

Thelema Chardonnay 2017

Stellenbosch, South Africa (13%, greatwine.co.uk, £17.95)

Many South African producers are making excellent contemporary chardonnays – restrained and yet vibrant. Stellenbosch is a large area with a huge diversity of soils, so it’s hard to generalise, but I can say that this one is excellent – beautifully structured and with a toastyness that comes from ageing in French oak.