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Food and Drink

DRINK / Versatile crowd-pleaser charms new audiences: Far from falling out of favour, chardonnay continues to expand, says Anthony Rose

Rumours of an end to the chardonnay boom have been greatly exaggerated. The classic white grape variety's invasion of the vineyards of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and the South of France continues apace. Even Eastern Europe and Italy, once largely chardonnay-free zones, have succumbed.

Despite a fashionable tendency to talk down this grape in favour of riesling, chenin blanc, semillon, pinot grigio, viognier, anything, in fact, but chardonnay, none of these varieties can match its crowd-pleasing ability. The lack of personality is its chief virtue. It is infinitely malleable, and its compatibility with many foods is incomparable.

Twenty-odd years ago, exorbitantly priced and delectable white burgundy inspired the chardonnay revolution. But when New World chardonnay at first tried to beat white burgundy at its own game, the result was a rash of powerfully alcoholic and oaky wines, some so heavy that they proved to be one-glass wonders. The 'food wine' backlash went too far in the opposite direction, producing irredeemably lean chardonnays.

Now, chardonnay producers have learnt, according to Dick Ward of California's Saintsbury Winery, 'how to get concentration and richness without too much alcohol'.

Basically, chardonnay divides into two broad styles. The 'Opal Fruits' style offers a spectrum of flavours reminiscent of melon, peach or pineapple. Mostly fermented in stainless steel, it may be supercharged with a touch of residual sugar, cosmetic oak chips or even oak barrel. This refreshing, early-drinking style is deliberately geared to the value-for-money end of the market.

In the more sophisticated style, the primary fruit tends to be subordinated to subtler nuances of flavour and character. Here, the producer uses all the tricks in the book. Fermentation in new or nearly new oak barrels is the key, offering better integration of the toasty, spicy and smoky flavours of new oak, plus added texture, richness and backbone.

Further refinements include stirring the grapeskin lees and converting malic to lactic acid (by fermentation) to give the wine the seductive character of butterscotch or popcorn. The best versions are often distinguishable from top white burgundy only by the price tag.

The fruitier styles are uncomplicated, but for under pounds 4 you can still find plenty of character in the Chardonnay Tradition, Vin de Pays d'Oc, from Ste Hilaire ( pounds 3.99, Oddbins; and at Waitrose, as Le Gineste Chardonnay), a rich and fruity young wine, or the fresher, crisper and mouthwateringly bone-dry 1993 Giordano Chardonnay del Piemonte ( pounds 3.99, Marks & Spencer).

South Africa's Danie de Wet is a master of the superbly refreshing, unoaked chardonnay. Try the 1993 Chardonnay sur lie ( pounds 4.39, Oddbins and Safeway).

Chile, too, makes bracing young chardonnays such as the tangy 1993 Montenuevo Maipo Valley Chardonnay ( pounds 4.45, Waitrose). And back in Burgundy, 1993 Macon Davaye, Domaine des Deux Roches ( pounds 5.99, Oddbins), is outstandingly bright and lemony. However, for sheer purity of exuberant ripeness, my vote in this style goes to the exotically fruity 1993 Tasmania Wine Company Chardonnay ( pounds 7.99, Sainsbury's Vintage Selection).

In the 'white burgundy' style, a recent tasting of Australian chardonnays revealed many 1993 vintage wines to be lighter and more complex than ever. The 1993 South Australia Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay ( pounds 6.25- pounds 6.99, Oddbins, Victoria Wine selected branches) has Wolf Blass's characteristic sweet spice and charry coconut oak, but is more restrained and fruity than hitherto. In a lighter, crisper, tropical-fruit style, the delicately oaked 1993 Goundrey Langton Chardonnay ( pounds 4.99, Asda), from Western Australia, is on top form, while the 1993 Mitchelton Preece Chardonnay ( pounds 5.99, Majestic Wine Warehouses, and at Oddbins soon) has intense fruit and elegant style.

South Africa, too, is making up for lost time, if the powerful, toasted-oak bouquet and rich, nutty fruit of 1993 Avontuur Le Chardon Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay ( pounds 4.99, Waitrose) and the clove-and-butterscotch fruitiness of 1992 Backsberg Chardonnay ( pounds 5.95, Waitrose) are anything to go by.

It is still possible to find very stylish, complex white burgundy under pounds 10, such as the deliciously buttery Meursault-like 1992 Bourgogne Blanc, Domaine Charles et Remi Jobard ( pounds 8.95, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10, 071-376 4767) and the 1992 Saint Romain, Verget ( pounds 9.60, Laytons, London NW1, 071-388 5081), a subtly oaked style from one of the lesser-known appellations of the Cote d'Or.

Meanwhile, although Oddbins is rapidly running out of Louis Carillon's stunning 1992 premiers crus Les Champs Canet ( pounds 18.99), Les Referts ( pounds 19.49), Les Perrieres ( pounds 19.99), it still has good stocks of the seductively nutty-rich Puligny Montrachet, pounds 14.99.