How Chardonnay got classy: Bridget Jones helped turn it into the naffest tipple around. Not any more 

  • Once upon a time, Chardonnay was Britain's favourite wine
  • But it became frightfully naff as mothers named their babies after it 
  • Now the wine is finding favour - and flavour - again

Chardonnay went from being sought after to frightfully naff

Chardonnay went from being sought after to frightfully naff

Once upon a time, Chardonnay was Britain's favourite wine and a must for any sophisticated soiree. But when, inspired by a TV character, mothers named babies after it, and flashy wine bars served it in goldfish bowl-sized glasses, the writing was on the wall.

Chardonnay went from being sought after to frightfully naff, with the very people who'd been knocking it back by the gallon claiming never to have liked it in the first place.

But now, after years in the wilderness, the wine is finding favour - and flavour - again. Chardonnay is back, thanks to an Australian-led charge and a tweak to the wine's taste to suit palates seeking a less oaky flavour.

Sales are up. According to latest figures, 18 per cent more Britons are drinking the wine this year than in 2014, and Tesco has shifted twice as much of its £6.79 Macon Villages Blanc in the same period.

So why did Chardonnay lose favour - and how did it stage a comeback?

The Chardonnay grape has been around for centuries and though its most famous home is the Burgundy region of France, it's now produced in almost every wine-making country.

Its popularity exploded in the 1980s with the arrival of New World wines, specifically those from Australia with their consumer-friendly labels that revealed the grape variety on the bottle's front.

Flavours were big, bright, bold and fruity - and in the case of Chardonnay, often oaky, too. The number of Chardonnay vineyards more than quadrupled, mostly due to extensive planting of new vines in France and Australia.

Pubs started selling more wine, with drinkers swapping their beer and G&Ts for Chardonnay.

By the Nineties, all wine lists offered the wine by the glass, and we were importing almost eight million bottles from Australia alone. And along with Bridget Jones, who declared it her favourite tipple, we drank buckets of it.

Comedian Al Murray, aka The Pub Landlord, even coined the catchphrase '...and a glass of white wine for the lady,' as a nod to the new breed of wine drinkers.

But then something happened - and that something was called Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the next decade, we discovered the joys of Sauvignon Blanc, specifically those from New Zealand. Suddenly, there was a style of white wine that was refreshing rather than just fruity. Instead of tropical fruit flavours, these Kiwi tipples were all about citrus - gooseberry, lemon and lime.

Matters weren't helped by the arrival of TV drama Footballers' Wives in 2002. The show, about WAGS featured, a glamour model called . . . Chardonnay.

The 'ABC' movement (that's 'anything but Chardonnay') a term coined by an American wine critic and endorsed by John Major, of all people, gained momentum.

Matters weren't helped by the arrival of TV drama Footballers' Wives in 2002. The show, about WAGS featured, a glamour model called... Chardonnay (centre, top)

Matters weren't helped by the arrival of TV drama Footballers' Wives in 2002. The show, about WAGS featured, a glamour model called... Chardonnay (centre, top)

By 2009, Sauvignon Blanc had taken over as the most popular white grape variety in the UK.

And there was another white grape softly creeping up on us: Pinot Grigio. The Italian vino had been quietly seducing taste buds in Italian restaurants and before long supermarkets were putting more of it on their shelves.

Its rise was phenomenal. At its peak in 2011 sales grew by over 20 per cent in a year, according to market researchers Nielsen.

Despite all this, Chardonnay remained firmly at number two. For all its supposed naffness sales remained steady, meaning a lot of the 'ABC' crowd must have been quaffing it behind closed doors.

The recent incarnation of Chardonnay with less oak, lower alcohol, better balance and a lovely, light style, is winning with wine drinkers

And now Chardonnay has undergone a dramatic style makeover. To understand why and how, we need to give it the Gok Wan treatment by stripping it back and examining it in all its naked glory. As grapes go, Chardonnay is versatile: it can adapt to different climates and thrives all over the world. The wine you end up with depends on where it's made and how the winemaker makes it.

For example, Chardonnay is the grape behind the great wines of Chablis, in France's east-central Burgundy region. Here, the mineral-rich soils lend the wine a steely freshness and the wines rarely see an oak barrel. A great Chablis is like tasting citrus fruits in high definition, with acidity to make you smack your lips.

Further south, the Chardonnay grape is behind some of France's greatest whites including those from the Cote d'Or such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.

Here, the best wines are made for ageing and the flavours are rich and concentrated. Further south in the Maconnais, it's still all about Chardonnay and the wines tend to be fruity but subtle – and often great value for money.But it's Australia that's led the biggest Chardonnay makeover. The buttery, pineapple-chunk style Aussie Chardonnays of old have given way to something less in-your-face. Flavours are still fresh and bright, but not as big and certainly not as oaky. Winemakers call it consumer-friendly. I call it way more drinkable.

Aussie producers realised tastes were changing and adapted.

Supermarkets are reporting Chardonnay success

Supermarkets are reporting Chardonnay success

More vineyards were planted in cooler areas, such as Adelaide Hills. They also started toning down the trademark toasty character by using fewer oak barrels and wood chips - or none at all.

And a process called malolactic fermentation, which changes sharper malic acids to softer lactic acids for a buttery feel, became less fashionable. This more restrained approach has made the Australian Chardonnays subtler. Other countries have learnt from this approach, too. In Chile, many of the newer Chardonnay vineyard plantings have been in cooler areas. The wines are fresh and elegant rather than big and bold.

Hardys, the number-one wine brand in the UK, last year ran a £2 million ad campaign called 'All About Chardonnay' in a bid to reinstate it as the premier grape. Their research shows Chardonnay is now the fastest-growing Australian variety in the UK.

The drink is also enjoying a renaissance in restaurants and pubs. Willie Lebus at Bibendum Wine, a leading supplier to the trade, says people 'will get bored with overpowering flavours of Sauvignon Blanc and come back to the ubiquitous subtleties of Chardonnay.'

He says: 'we will see wine drinkers reverting back to styles like Muscadet, Soave and Frascati. Chardonnay has got the potential to come back with a bang.'

Supermarkets are reporting Chardonnay success stories too - one of Asda's best-selling Extra Special wines is a French Chardonnay from the Pays d'Oc.

Dan Jago, global wine director at Tesco, says as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc fell slightly out of favour, drinkers ventured back to dry, crisp Old World wines.

And Asda wine buyer Philippa Carr says: 'The recent incarnation of Chardonnay with less oak, lower alcohol, better balance and a lovely, light style, is winning with wine drinkers. Anything But Chardonnay? I don't think so!'

So, as the Chardonnay charm offensive continues it remains to be seen whether it can see off Sauvignon Blanc and send Pinot Grigio packing. But, at least, thanks to another famous ex-footballer's wife, Harper is a far more popular name than Chardonnay ever was.

Top 10 Chardonnays you simply MUST try

Extra Special Chardonnay 2014, £5, Asda

Modern take on Chardonnay from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Bright, fresh and peachy.

Exquisite Collection Chardonnay 2014, £5.99, Aldi

Cooler climate Chardonnay, from the Limestone Coast, South Australia. Ripe with tropical fruit flavours. 

Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Chardonnay 2011, £16, M&S

From the mountainous region of Jura in eastern France. Aged for two years before release, it's nutty, rich and intense.

Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Chardonnay 2011, £16, M&S
Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura 2012, £7.29, Aldi

Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Chardonnay 2011, £16 (l) Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura 2012, £7.29 (r)

Tesco White Burgundy, £7.99, Tesco

Simple, fresh, classic white Burgundy that's not been anywhere near an oak barrel. Incredible value for money.

Blind Spot Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2014, £8.50, The Wine Society 

The cool-climate Yarra Valley in south-east Australia's Victoria region is famous for Chardonnays. This one's gorgeous, full of fresh, green apple fruit.

Huntaway Reserve Chardonnay 2012, £10.99, Waitrose

From New Zealand's Gisborne region, this is fermented in French oak barrels, adding serious weight and flavour.

Rustenberg Chardonnay 2013, £13.99, Waitrose

A very grown up wine from South Africa's Stellenbosch region, packed with apricot and orange flavours.

Les Domaines Brocard Organic Chablis 2013, £15, M&S

Made from organically grown grapes and completely unoaked, this is all about the apple fruit flavours.

Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura 2012, £7.29, Aldi

Another Chardonnay from the Jura, but this one's sparkling. Like Champagne it's fermented in the bottle. A really smart fizz for the money.

Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2012, £25, Majestic

Named after the matriarch of Australia's most famous family winemakers, this oaky, tangerine dream is the best Chardonnay in the range. Delicious.

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