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Chardonnay is grown, produced and consumed right across the world,
and with its popularity it has had its critics – ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay)
has been uttered on more than one occasion by drinkers exhausted by the
sheer quantity and varying quality available.

In the UK, viticulture is the fastest growing agricultural sector, in just over just over 40 years we now have more than 940 vineyards across the country. Known primarily for our traditional method sparkling wine, today (with the help of Mother Nature, and a better understanding of what grows best and how to make it taste great), our wine producers are creating nearly as much still wine as sparkling.

What’s the most planted variety? No surprise – Chardonnay. If you like cool climate Chardonnay, similar to a crisp Chablis, made by experimental winemakers, you’re in for a treat; there’s more being planted every year and the most recent national WineGB Awards put Chardonnay at the top of the still wines class. The future for this grape variety in the UK is far from ‘ABC’ and exciting to say the least.

Chardonnay is relatively easy to grow, and being a neutral grape it can reflect its terroir like no other. The flavour profile of Chardonnay changes depending on where it is grown and who produces it, if it’s a cool vintage it’ll be more zippy and citrusy, warmer vintages leads to tropical notes, and it likes a bit of oak ageing. Most importantly, Chardonnay is a grape that shows of great (or not so great) winemaking skills.

Here, a number of award-winning winemakers share their insights on how still Chardonnay is making waves across the country and what they consider is emerging as an ‘English Chardonnay’ style.

Speaking to winemakers across the UK, the common consensus is the adaptability of the grape in our cool climate: “From the golden harvest of the vintage 2018, we introduced two very different still Chardonnay wines showcasing the incredible versatility of this renowned grape variety” says Ruth Simpson of Simpsons’ Wine Estate, their growth plans for this grape on an upwards trajectory with a third vineyard site planted entirely to Chardonnay in 2022.

Chardonnay … can produce a wide bandwidth of styles – from crisp, unoaked wines to fully oaked, rich powerful styles. The versatility of the variety enables the winemaker to make decisions that preserves or enhances the sense of place, whilst enabling the imprinting and influence of a winemaker. To draw an analogy, Chardonnay as a variety provides a strong foundation for the subsequent architecture of winemaking to build upon.”

Chris Unger, Sales & Marketing Director, Hattingley Valley

Chardonnay is unique in “how it expresses itself so differently depending on the geographic location of where it is grown”, says James Lambert, MD and winemaker of Lyme Bay Winery. Speaking with Head Winemaker at Gusbourne, Mary Bridges, her love for her Chardonnay is due to “… the ability of (the wine) to reflect a season. In the warmer years, the profile shows ripe and fleshy stone fruit, and in the cooler years there is a real elegant citrus and tropical nature. In either scenario, the grape is a versatile one, and the complexity it can handle from barrels, old and new is exciting to see.”

Considering how expensive good white Burgundy can be these days, looking local can reap rewards and lessen the impact on your wallet.

A rather English Chardonnay

Our local Chardonnay is more akin to a lean, high acidity, Chablis style wine, however combining this malleable grape with our experimental winemakers and we are starting to see distinct styles emerging, using oak ageing or oxidation, for example.

As our climate changes and allows for fruit to ripen more consistently, we can also expect the quality of grapes to improve each year,. “…the choice of clones is (also) key to quality still wine production in the UK. A lot of the early vineyards were using Chardonnay clones that were better suited to sparkling wines” says Ruth Simpson. “We made the decision to select Burgundian still wine clones… these clones tend to be lower yielding and therefore achieve better concentration of flavours”.

It may be too early to say what a typical English Chardonnay style is, it depends on the vineyard location, the clone, the age of the vines, the climate, and choices made by the winemaker. Graham Barbour, Director at Woodchurch Wine Estate looks for “a certain acidity and fruit-forward character – our cooler climate gives us a crisper, more mineral style with lots of apple, pear and stone fruit flavours”

We cannot compare ourselves to other wine regions, England has a longer, cooler growing season compared to California or Burgundy, for example, “…producing fruit with higher acidity and a more delicate chemistry, the challenge in England is to ensure that the acidity does not dominate and that the fruit has picked up as much natural sugar as possible to ensure that the mid and back palate does not disappoint” continues Ruth Simpson.

Chardonnay in England tends to be a crisper style – citrus, green apples, with lively acidity.
We don’t tend to heavily oak and, in my case, the oak ageing is delicate with mostly neutral barrels being used. England approximates the climate of Chablis 50 years ago – truly cool climate chardonnay – so if this is a style that you like, English Chardonnay is a perfect substitution.”

Alex Hurley, London Cru

The future of English Chardonnay

Yes, our still Chardonnay style is yet to be defined, but being an already familiar grape to consumers, there is a twinkle in the eyes of producers when they talk about its future. Ruth Simpson believes that “some English Chardonnay already has the potential to challenge wines from several areas of Burgundy, they are grown on identical terroir and have the potential to display the same minerality, elegance and ageing potential. This development has attracted international interest, with new players entering the market specifically because of its potential”.

And to add to this, as our producers bond stronger relationships with their vineyard sites and experiment with production techniques, we are already seeing awards for our still Chardonnays, from international Decanter awards through to local WineGB accolades.

Graham Barbour sees the grape evolving with “…..more complexity – fermentation and ageing in barrel and longer ageing in bottle will give us the opportunity to see how Chardonnays in cooler climates can still develop those buttery characteristics. Also I’d like to see how Chardonnay can be blended with other varieties popular in England ….” whilst James Lambert sees a promising future for our cool climate style, “I anticipate a shift towards lighter, more crisp style of chardonnays with lower ABVs reflecting a growing consumer preference for these characteristics.”

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The English Chardonnay taste test

Here we take a look at a number of still Chardonnays from a few of our award-winning producers in the UK.

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Devon

Lyme Bay Chardonnay 2021 £23.99

Lyme Bay Winery

This complex wine is pure elegance. Made from Essex grapes, aromas of bruised apple, citrus, mowed grass, wet wood and white peach lean into a round mouthfeel of pear and grapefruit, its sour lemon acidity supported by hints of almonds and a long, enticing finish.

Lyme Bay is unique; the team source quality fruit grown by grape growers across the country. The 2021 vintage had a late dry spell and allowed the grapes to hang longer on the vines for peak ripeness. Fermentation in a combination of stainless steel and oak enhanced complexity, whilst extended ageing on the fine lees (dead yeast cells) created texture.

Lyme Bay Winery

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London

Chardonnay 2022 £23

London Cru

Made with grapes from West Sussex, the floral nose hints of toast, green fruit and cut grass. Aged in neutral oak barrels from Burgundy, the palate is beautifully textured folding into notes of lemon curd, apple, pear with a steely finish.

Produced by head winemaker, Alex Hurley, the grapes were selected from two vineyards, one providing aromatic ripe fruit, the other offering grapes that are more fresh citrus and apple notes with higher acidity; with ageing over seven months in neutral second hand oak barrels from a wine estate from the Cóte de Beaune in Burgundy.

London Cru

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Kent

Gravel Castle Chardonnay 2022 £19.50

Simpsons’ Wine Estate

Subtle hints of orange blossom filter through the scent of crisp English apples alongside an almost chalky creaminess. The palate displays depth with a ripe body of citrus and green fruits and a flinty finish. Gravel Castle Chardonnay was aged on its fine yeast lees for a few months, offering a wonderfully textured palate.

Simpsons Wine Estate

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Surrey

Chardonnay 2022 £24.50

Denbies Wine Estate

From one of England’s largest single estate vineyards, the complex nose of this wine is all green apple and lemon, with a touch of pineapple and fresh lychee; unfolding into a round, palate that is citrus fresh with hints of caramelised apple pie.

Denbies Wine Estate

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Kent

Woodchurch Chardonnay 2018 £27

Woodchurch Wine Estate

A slightly floral nose supported by bruised apple, pear and stone fruits with a subtle creamy appeal flowed into a light citrus palate. Bracingly fresh with hints of almonds, possibly from its three months spent ageing in oak barrels, complete with sour grapefruit on the finish. A bright and breezy aperitif for a sunny picnic.

Woodchurch Wine

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Kent

2021 Chardonnay Guinevere £35

Gusbourne

This multi award-winning wine manages to be both delicate and complex, it felt almost over ripe on the nose, with hints of mandarin orange, citrus, white peach and vanilla spice leading to a subtle palate of apple, pineapple and toasted nuts, with a bracing sour lime finish. Having spent 10 months in French oak, 20% of which were new barrels there is a slight vanilla spice appeal on the nose.

Gusbourne

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Kent

Chardonnay 2022 £28

Westwell Vineyard

Not overly complex yet easily quaffable, this limited edition Chardonnay has a natural air about it, with a nose of bruised apples and pears leading to a sharp palate of freshly cooked apple crumble. This is crisp and lean, with just enough barrel ageing to add some texture.

Westwell Vineyard

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Hampshire

Still Chardonnay 2022 £25

Hattingley Valley

On the nose, lemon, lime, grapefruit, pear, mandarin orange and white peach. Slightly shy on the palate, dominated by fresh, bracing acidity and notes of green apple, sour lemon, hints of nuts and cream leading to a sublime, citrus finish.

Hattingley Valley

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Kent

Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2021 £36

Chapel Down

Made by one of our most respected winemakers, this single vineyard wine is delicate yet complex with notes of red apple, citrus peel and a subtle finish of shortbread. Having spent nine months in French oak barrels there is a distinct richness to the wine.

Chapel Down

Details and prices correct at time of publishing this story. Please check the producer’s websites for up to date information.