“Wine makes a man act like an ass in a rich pasture.”


To oak or not to oak... chardonnay is the question. There was a time when I would have laughed at the idea of any unoaked chardonnay unless it had Chablis on the label, and of course there was a time when Chablis was the standard term to be used for unwooded whites around the world. Thankfully the French said ‘Non’ and succeeded in gaining protection for the name, and rightly so when you consider how unique and steely the style of Chablis actually is.

Recently however I've grown rather fond of unoaked chardonnay as a style, but the snobby side of me still doesn’t allow me to open them for guests. In many ways they are chardonnays in name only, but once I got over myself and accepted that, I started to enjoy them for what they are which is easy drinking tropical fruit delights. As well as presenting an easier drinking and perhaps more modern style, unoaked chardonnays are generally cheaper to produce because decent oak ain't cheap folks and yet, my heart still draws me back to butter and vanilla.

I guess it comes down to the occasion and if it’s a light fruity aperitif or something to accompany an afternoon salad in a sunny climate then I'll go for no wood but if it’s to partner something more interesting than a lettuce leaf or to sit by the fire with then I want the wine to have seen enough oak to make a sideboard with. This discussion couldn't happen of course without the unique quality that chardonnay offers. It’s a bit of a chameleon grape in that it can produce crisp refreshing wines with biting acidity or it can reappear as a fat buttery almost swollen wine that often thinks its a red. Its chardonnay's almost uniquely eccentric reaction to oak that makes the magic. It takes to wood like a squirrel to nuts and sucks the life out of it while undergoing a transformation like no other.

Anyway, the moral of this column is to re-engage with chardonnay this year and learn to love both styles. When the sun is splitting the trees and your lunch looks like the inside of a rabbit hutch, go unoaked but when you want an evening treat or something to impress the neighbours, go traditional folks.

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

Stellenbosch Chardonnay, Rustenberg

You could easily be fooled into believing you were in Montrachet when you taste this stunner. Fruity aromas with lashings of vanilla on the palate. Gorgeous.

Ten Acre Wines £14.50

Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay, Australia

An Aussie classic and it’s still one of my comfort blanket chardonnays. Peach and Melon on the nose with rich creamy fruits on the palate and a lovely toasty finish.

Sainsburys £8.00

East London and West Essex Guardian Series:

  • Gerard Richardson MBE is Newsquest wine columnist