Vinelives Championing English Wine - ARE YOU AN ‘ABC’ WINE DRINKER?

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A warm Vinelives welcome back to Hilary Waller of Eastcott Vineyard in West Devon. Here, she discusses the Chardonnay issue and why this esteemed grape gets a bad press. Controversy here. Please see the special offer on their sparkling wines on the site – 20% discount.

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Over to Hilary……….  Ed.

Some years back we had a customer arrive at our Winery Cellar Door, who proudly announced that she was an ‘ABC’ wine drinker. I must admit that I’d never heard that term. Her explanation was ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ and therein lies an interesting part of my personal and professional tasting journey, about this Jekyll and Hyde of grapes.

As a social drinker, my experience of Chardonnay was as a still wine, often from the Southern Hemisphere and always oaked. In short, not something that I liked! Even when I began formal wine studies, prior to setting up our vineyard and winery in Devon, we only tasted Chardonnays grown in a warm climate. They all tasted too strong, often rather buttery and with an overdose of oak. Since then I have met so many other customers who feel the same.

But since becoming a grower of Chardonnay, I have come to understand its many guises. It is almost unique as a grape, in that growing it is favoured both in the coolest climates such as England and in the warmest places such as Australia. The level of heat during the ripening season gives an incredible range of different flavours, more than I have come across with any other variety.

In a cool climate, Chardonnay tastes of lemon and green apple, but as the weather warms up it begins to pick up more pineapple notes, ending up with totally tropical guava and mango in the hottest regions.  When I found a flavour chart illustrating this, I instantly recognised why I would have preferred it as a cool climate wine, because I love lemons but not mangoes.

Then the grapes come into the Winery and here the choice of how to use them can make another big difference. Maturing still wines in contact with oak is an age-old technique, but it’s also quite a heavyweight tool. A wine needs to have strong flavours from the grape, not be overpowered if too much oak is used. Too many of the cheaper, still Chardonnays fall down here for my taste. If you move a little up the price range and look carefully you can find unoaked wines, which are quite different. In my experience winemakers from cooler climes tend to use less oak because they know that their grapes will have a more delicate flavour. An unoaked Chablis is a good example.

Then we come to sparkling wines and for me, this is where Chardonnay really comes into its own. It is the most popular ingredient in Champagne, where its under-ripeness due to the cooler climate adds the perfect zing. It is often blended with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to make a classic Champagne but it is also popular on its own, as a Blanc de Blancs. At Eastcott we make both and from the start, I realised that it was time to shed my prejudices and look at Chardonnay afresh. What I found was delicious citrus flavours ranging from fresh lime to white grapefruit in a Blanc de Blancs and lemon sherbet to ripe apples in a Classic Cuvee.

Chardonnay is the most popular yet unusual grape in the world. But you need to know whether what’s in your glass is Jekyll or Hyde, in order to enjoy it!

Hilary Waller

Co-owner of Eastcott Vineyard

Eastcott specialise in making delicious crisp method champenoise English Sparkling Wines, from grapes grown in their West Devon vineyard. Each year they decide which wines to make, when they see what the harvest brings, so their range varies from time to time. They sell from the cellar door, online and at local events.