I suspect that Oz Clarke had tongue in cheek with his recent claim that chardonnay's decline was down to its association with a lovelorn Bridget Jones bolstering her lack of self-esteem with yet another glassful of the stuff. In fact, whatever influence Helen Fielding's creation may have had on chardonnay was undeniably positive, and if there's been a 3 per cent decline in sales, as claimed by the retail analysts TNS, it's more likely to do with the fact that so much of it has become over-branded and over-promoted.
It's because it can be so delicious that chardonnay has become a victim of its own success. In search of something different, consumers have been driven into the arms of sauvignon blanc, viognier and riesling. Boring pinot grigio apart, that may be no bad thing, especially where the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement has drawn our attention to specialities like Spain's albariño, Austria's grüner veltliner, Italy's fiano, South Africa's chenin blanc, Argentina's torrontés and Australia's semillon.
It would be doing chardonnay a disservice, however, to overlook the fact that the grape of white burgundy is responsible for the greatest diversity of styles and range of qualities of any white wine variety. It can be crisp and unoaked as in chablis, oaked like meursault; it can be still as in white burgundy or sparkling as in champagne. It can be hand-crafted and full-flavoured or dull when made in industrial quantities.
France remains a hub of fine chardonnay, producing moreish examples such as the 2006 Bourgogne, Louis Jadot, £9.99, Tesco, with its smoky, vanillan-oak aromas or, as in the case of the 2006 Mâcon Uchizy, £8.99, Marks and Spencer, a lipsmacking, peachy chardonnay with a citrusy acidity. From Domaine Brocard, the 2007 Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Chablis, Sainte Céline, £8.99, is classic chablis with a delicate butteriness and bone-dry, Granny-Smith bite. Be prepared to pay more, and a chardonnay such as the magnificent 2005 Puligny Montrachet 1er cru Les Referts Domaine Jomain, £30, Majestic, will reward the senses with sumptuously concentrated fruitiness and a flinty quality that hits all the high notes.
Australia may be criticised for leading the commodity chardonnay charge but the stylish Asda Extra Special Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, £7.12, with its undertones of buttery fruitiness, proves that's not always the case. The stunning 2006 Stonier's Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay, £102.55, case of six, marksandspencer.com, is an elegant, textured style with subtle undertones of butterscotch richness and grapefruity intensity. Moving up the scale to one of Australia's top chardonnays, the 2006 Pierro Chardonnay, Margaret River, £28.50, Jeroboams shops, displays a complexity of flavour from barrel-fermentation and lees stirring that, price apart, could easily be the very finest chassagne montrachet.
As one of the new battlegrounds for affordable, quality chardonnay, Chile is coming up with excellent wines, such as the refreshing, pineappley 2007 Winemaker's Lot Chardonnay 'Llanuras de Caramarico', Limarí Valley, £7.99, or buy 2 = £6.39, Majestic, and the 2007 Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay, £9.99, Tesco, an intensely flavoured version with an oatmealy richness. New Zealand is also capable of producing delicious chardonnay, like the 2007 Lone Range Heretaunga Chardonnay, £9.99, M&S.
As wines such as these and many more illustrate, reports of the demise of chardonnay are v. v. exaggerated.Reuse content