Bridget Jones's favourite tipple falls out of fashion

IT WAS once the way to sound at ease with a wine list: "The chardonnay, please, and a bowl of your plumpest pistachios." But that fat, buttery, oaky taste may have had its day, writes Vanessa Thorpe. This summer, wine experts are predicting a swing away from the grape that has stamped its flavour over the 1990s.

"It is not that a good chardonnay cannot be a good wine," explained Michael Schuster, the author of Understanding Wine and owner of Winewise, an Islington school for would-be sommeliers, "but these days there is an awful lot of it about and too much of it is over-oaked and very alcoholic. Winemakers seem to be doing it badly simply because it is rather easy to get away with a bad chardonnay."

Other wine writers are forecasting that in 2000 an estimated 610,000 tonnes of California chardonnay will simply flood the dwindling market. Last year the state crushed a record 484,403 tonnes of chardonnay - more than 57 per cent up on the 1996 vintage - and, as a result, prices at the bottom end have had to drop sharply.

The original chardonnay grape is one of the seven traditional European classics identified by the wine writer Hugh Johnson, along with riesling, pinot noir, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and muscat, but it far outstrips them in global popularity and public recognition.

It is now the most widely planted white wine grape in Australia with 1,198 hectares planted in 1996 compared with 276 hectares in 1991.

"It is extremely cosmopolitan as a vine," said Mr Schuster, "and that is what makes it so attractive to winemakers. If you are a couple of days late or early picking it, it doesn't matter as as it would with a sauvignon blanc."

The problem is that chardonnay, which has comforted a thousand crestfallen Bridget Joneses in a thousand wine bars, has now spawned as many imitations as the thirtysomething diarist herself.

"The dangerous temptation is to use more oak than the wine can take and in a warmer climate the extra sugar can make the alcohol content too high," warned Mr Schuster.

One London barman said: "Everyone looks down the wine list slowly for dramatic effect. Then, when they see a word they can pronounce, they just ask for any chardonnay."

Mr Schuster argues the case against "common" chardonnays more passionately: "It is rather like a beautiful woman who is wearing more make-up than she needs. She may catch your eye from a distance but when you get closer, it detracts from the effect."

No real wine drinker should be a slave to fashion though, and Mr Schuster says that even Blue Nun liebfraumilch's reputation as low calibre is undeserved. "People are awfully snooty about it because it is medium- sweet, but it is a well-made wine of its type. When I test people blind on it, they are often embarrassed to discover that they quite like it."

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