6 top-notch alternatives to Chardonnay
Chardonnay. The world's most famous white wine. Responsible for some of the all-time greatest hits in Burgundy - think Chablis and Chassagne Montrachet - and then grown all around the new world to produce some fantastic wines in Australia, South Africa, the USA and beyond.
Chardonnay is a clever grape in that it easily adapts to both hot and cool climates - with some amazing results. One the one side you can enjoy incredibly lean and precise wines like those of Chablis, one of France’s coolest vineyard regions. And then from the very same grape, you can get wines which are opulent, round and full of tropical fruit.
Another of Chardonnay's best qualities is that it's easily moulded by the winemaker in the winery. It responds well to malolactic fermentation, the process that transforms malic acid (the same acid you find in green apples) into the much softer lactic acid. Lactic acid is found in milk which (yes you've guessed it) is what helps give Chardonnay its famous creamy texture and those rich, buttery flavours. These creamy notes might not be the first thing you think of when you're ordering a white wine, but boy are they something.
Chardonnay also takes to new oak well and the way it behaves varies from place to place. It does so fairly classically in Burgundy and Western Australia, creating wines with a distinctive toastiness. In the USA, American oak barrels give the wine more flavours of vanilla and coconut due to higher levels of vanillins (that rich, yummy compound in vanilla bean) in local oak trees.
There was a huge boom in the popularity of Chardonnay in the late 1980s, which led to Chardonnay being one of the most widely planted white grape varieties globally. Described as the white wine of choice for the Bridget Jones generation, Chardonnay’s hey day (as with all good things) soon came to an end. Iconic New York Times columnist Frank Prial remarked on the shift attitudes in 1995 by stating that the new ‘ABC’ era was upon us - 'anything but Chardonnay'. In its place came more subtle options like Pinot Grigio.
I’ll always remember early on in my hospitality career being confused as people declared their disdain for Chardonnay whilst ordering a bottle of Chablis from the menu. It just highlighted how confusing the world of wine can be to those just starting out. What we've often found is that we don’t always think about why we like something, we just know that we like it. Most things in this world do move in cycles, and whilst Pinot Grigio is still hugely popular amongst wine drinkers, Chardonnay is having a resurgence. And it's the high-quality Chardonnays which really showcase the vineyards in which they were produced that are having a moment in the sun.
With all this in mind, we thought the time was right to turn to Chardonnay for this month's 'Find your new favourite'.
We'll be spotlighting other wine varieties which maybe aren’t as widely planted but are great substitutes for both the leaner, crisp expressions and the richer, fuller bodied wines. A no means exhaustive list, hopefully this will provide you with a few choices if you're looking to expand your usual drinking habits. We’ve also looked at a few of our favourite foods to pair these suggestions with too.
One for the fans of unoaked, young and fresh Chardonnays from cooler climates such as Western Australia or the Chablis region. Lots of fresh peach and apricot but not overly ripe, with a clean, mouth-watering streak of citrus acidity. It doesn't have the minerality of a Chablis, but that refreshing, dry finish hits the spot. A classic pairing with simple grilled seafood. The locals in Galicia would enjoy a glass with a plate of Pulpo Gallego, simple grilled Octopus with paprika and often eaten with cocktail sticks. Yum.
Waterkloof's False Bay range aims to make 'real', affordable, sustainably certified wines bottled in South Africa. A soft, creamy texture comes from the slow, wild yeast fermentation in the winery and there's also a smooth lemon tart flavour. A great alternative to a Macon-Villages white Burgundy and a real treat to pair with a herb-roasted chicken and roast potatoes.
Here we start to explore alternatives to the riper, more honeyed Chardonnays. Viognier is always a delightfully aromatic variety, creating wines which jump out of the glass with rich orange peel and apricot verging on candied fruit. The chalky soils of Limari, Chile brings this Tabali Viognier back together with a streak of minerality and balances those rich, round fruit flavours. A really nice match with Asian foods because of the lower acidity level. Think seabass fried with ginger, soy and a touch of chilli.
Pieropan are the original Soave producers and this is a great alternative for those who like their Chardonnays to have some fresh pastry, nutty characteristics. There's a glut of white floral aromas in the glass, with rounded, toasted almonds and marzipan flavours and a touch of fresh citrus. You have to go classic Italian with the pairing and those richer, nutty flavours can stand up to dishes with more weight. Something like a scallop risotto or gnocchi with clams would be perfect.
These last two wines are ideal for anyone who enjoys their Chardonnay with a good lick of new oak or wants to try something richer and creamier.
This Verdejo was part of our Rueda campaign earlier in the year and really shows the potential for a variety which is often overlooked as being one dimensional. Here they ferment in open wooden vats before ageing in French oak barrels on the lees (dead yeast cells) which helps to impart a richer, creamier texture and also more toasty, yeasty flavours. The fruit is ripe and works well with the toasted hazelnut notes and the wine's voluptuous, full bodied texture. A great white to try with pork loin. I recently came across a recipe which was fried with garlic and honey before being finished in the oven. This would work a treat.
This South African blend of Grenache Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Viognier mimics the style of some of the fantastic white wines from southern Rhone villages such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Whilst being renowned for their red wines, the white wines from this area can be equally as powerful and well structured.
Here the fermentation takes place with wild yeasts in large oak barrels, made with a mixture of new and old wood. This gives texture to the sharpness of the fruit and adds a toasty character to the wine. It's then aged for 9 months, again using dead yeast cells, helping to add that rich, creamy finish. Packed with ripe peaches and apricots, fresh citrus, almonds, freshly baked brioche and sweet spices, this is a complex, full bodied white which can stand up to a little spice with its food pairing. A Biryani would be absolutely perfect with this.
Tempted by them all? Good news - we've popped all 6 bottles into a white wine case for those looking to explore all the alternatives. There's a £7.50 saving and free delivery too. You can buy the Chardonnay Alternatives Case here.