How it has happened is a deep question of sociology; but it has happened, and there is no going back: everybody today has a clear and distinct idea of Chardonnay. Go to any competent restaurant in this brave new world, and there will be a selection of Chardonnays on the wine list. Enter a bar anywhere in Britain, Australia or America and ask for a glass of Chardonnay, and you will be instantly obliged. People who know nothing about wine have nevertheless heard of Chardonnay, and in all probability retain a memory of tasting it. It is a wine people rely on, swear by and sometimes even recognise.
Yet there is hardly any grape with so varied and unpredictable a taste, and Corney & Barrow's offer is a striking illustration of the point. Chardonnay is the grape from which the world's greatest white wine is grown in those tiny Burgundian vineyards whose legendary names - Montrachet, Blagny, Corton-Charlemagne - expand in the brain as their wines expand on the palate. But the same grape produces the steely wine of Chablis, the oily estate wines of Australia, the carefully regulated brands from California, and the madcap Chardonnays of the Languedoc, often produced by Australian exiles in flight from some scandal back home. It is the world's most versatile grape, producing sharp and sprightly aperitifs to rival the fragrant, buttery wines of the Côte d'Or.
The Muddy Water Chardonnay from Waipara in New Zealand comes close to the Burgundian paradigm, with an oaky veneer through which the minerals shine like jewels. It is not cheap: but neither are those matching wines from Burgundy, and you won't easily find a Burgundy with quite this silver finish or leathery undertow. It is a wine full of character, unlike the cheapo Côtes Catalanes, which shows Chardonnay in its opposite guise, as an unassuming ordinaire, to be put down in jugfuls on the table along with olives, goat's cheese and chorizo, in the hope that the guests will appreciate the quantity, if not the quality, of what they drink.
The wines most likely to attract our readers are those from Chile and South Africa, both entirely unlike the other two and resembling each other only in their crisp attack. The Araucano is a careful blend of cool-climate and warm-climate grapes, partly oaked, and produced by the Lurton brothers as a kind of demonstration that a French producer who respects the soil and climate of Chile will be indistinguishable from a native. This is a fragrant wine, the aroma fluttering above the meniscus like a butterfly above a bed of flowers. Personally, I preferred the Nelson's Creek, a dry, crisp, mineral-rich wine with all the character required to stand up to Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, brilliantly conducted by Marin Alsop this past week on Radio 3.