The dirty dozen


Though I loathe both the relentless branding of chardonnay as gluggable plonk and its consequences - terrible, loud, oaky wines - I now begin to feel some sympathy for the maligned little grape whose selling point has been consistency. How it must sigh as it swells on the vine, fated for the most part to meet palates educated only by fashion's fickle finger - first the reconnaissance party of trendy Londoners and now, as the army of followers marches on to overcome merlot, the straggling metropolitan rearguard.

With chardonnay-hating the new black, now might be the time to spread a little discord by seeing whether it is possible to be a discerning chardonnay drinker. The grape, after all, is revered for such burgundies as pouilly-fuisse. But it is the cheaper versions I seek to test, so we are drinking £5 chardonnay only this evening. Twelve different bottles of it, all courtesy of Oddbins.

In some circles spittoons are used at wine tastings. My friends would laugh in derision if I suggested such a thing and I know how rising levels of alcohol in the blood tend to affect sensory perception. So I have opened all the bottles at once. I am nothing if not fair.

And, to give it a fighting start, I have consulted the wine expert Hugh Johnson on how to enjoy wine. Chardonnay is, he says, an assertive, full-bodied wine whose aim and purpose is to accompany food and it is fatiguing to drink it without eating. So we are having dinner. Delicious little herb-roasted tomatoes with olives and home-made fish pie with green beans in mustard vinaigrette.

The first thing that becomes clear is who is best at emptying their glass. My friend Kay and I win hands down. We have summarily dismissed four wines on the trot (Koonunga Hill; James Herrick Vin de Pays d'Oc; Lindeman's Cawarra - unoaked - and Carmen), sometimes for no greater crime than tasting like the vanilla monster we expected. Then we come to Sentinel. Our mouths fill with terrible pungency. We roll our eyeballs, understanding now the advantages of a spittoon. The rest goes down the sink. I feel so flagrantly wasteful squandering alcohol in this manner that in a moment of uncharacteristic prudence I pour myself a mere thimbleful of another offering - Norman's Lone Gum.

If I liked chardonnay, I would like this one - and that is as positive as I can get. Meanwhile my cousin has found another for the plughole (a sur lie variety) and, hoping for something tastier, is pouring Casablanca White Label. At last, here is a chardonnay devoutly to be desired. It is light, fruity and crisp with an edge of citrus. And it is made in Chile's low-lying Casablanca valley whose cool climate also produces excellent sauvignon blanc. Not only am I enjoying it now, particularly after the other nasties, but I think I would buy it again.

By the time my latest love arrives we are half-way through the fish pie mountain and have found another wine we are calling "the nice one". Interestingly, it is a bit more expensive (£6.49) than the others. "I want that," says my latest love, claiming for his jaded palate an instant gratification that we have toiled to discover. I promise he can finish the bottle if he can identify it - which he eventually does - as the d'Aranberg's Olive Grove chardonnay. It's fruity and rich but far subtler than the other Australians - a very superior drink.

But the wine-tasting is no more. The wine-tasters are engaged in happy roistering and have reached the stage of indiscriminate drinking. "Perhaps," suggests my friend Sam, "after the success of your chardonnay dinner party, you might like to throw a brandy, gin and vintage port tasting party which I would be happy to attend." Well, perhaps.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again