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Published:  23 July, 2008

As part of Harpers' Anything But Chardonnay seminar in London, in July, a blind tasting was held to establish whether the world's Chardonnays are in danger of losing their regional identities. Neil Beckett considers the outcome

Anything but Chardonnay is exactly what many of the wines at the recent Harpers Chardonnay seminar and tasting might have been. Admittedly, one of the 32 wines, which came from all over the wine world and ranged from 4-40 per bottle, was not a Chardonnay (an Australian Viognier, which only 10% of tasters recognised as the ringer). But all the others were made from the world's favourite white grape variety. And while many in the trade assume that they know it all too well, the results of the tasting suggest that they do not actually know it half as well as they think they do. Part of the problem is that Chardonnay betrays its origins less and less readily, appearing in a bewildering and increasing number of guises. A Chardonnay may be born in the USA, but it may have been born of French parents, delivered by an Australian, fed by a New Zealander, raised by an Italian, dressed in an American oak coat and given a French oak hat. This crisis of identity is causing an identification crisis. Everybody knows how confusing and humbling blind tasting can be. But among the 54 sporting tasters who (anonymously) returned their completed tasting sheets, most had considerable experience of this game, holding a professional qualification of some sort: three were MWs, twenty-nine had passed the WSET Diploma, eight the Higher Certificate, and one the Certificate. They represented a broad cross section of the trade, and included those in buying, marketing, selling, PR, winemaking and wine writing. As well as giving a tasting note, they were asked to identify the country of origin and specify one of four price ranges: under 5, 5-10, 10-20, or over 20. (The wines were arranged in a random sequence.) What could be simpler? The effects at the time may have been mildly intoxicating, but the results are sobering (see table). Unless you are absolutely certain on the first nose or taste that a wine could not be anything other than a 1990 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Combettes from a great producer, you normally have to take things a little more slowly. You may not be able to narrow it down to Puligny-Montrachet Champ Canet or Referts, but you can at least tell whether it's Old World or New World. Right? Wrong. Even this most basic distinction is being eroded, maybe more for Chardonnay than for any other grape variety. More than half of the wines (20/32, or 63%) were not even identified as coming from the right "half" of the world by more than half of the tasters. No wine was thought (correctly or incorrectly) to come from the Old World or the New World by all tasters. (Ouch.) The two most identifiable wines were No.17, 2000 Lindemans Bin 65, and No.6, 1998 Kumala from South Africa, which 34/54 tasters identified correctly with regard to origin (4/3), or price (18/25), or both (12/6). There were only five other wines (Nos 2, 9, 11, 14, 23) for which more than half the tasters got the origin or the price or both right. (Ouch again.) The wine for which most tasters (12) got both the origin and the price right was again the 2000 Lindemans Bin 65. Only seven tasters got both for No.30, the 1996 Eileen Hardy, the next most correctly identified wine. Six tasters identified another three wines (Nos 2, 6, 13), and five tasters another three wines (Nos 7, 14, 20), completely correctly. The least identifiable wine was No.8, a 1998 Domaine Drouhin from Oregon (25), for which only three tasters identified the origin or the price and no taster got both, closely followed by a Californian wine and two Burgundies (Nos 3, 10 and 13, all 10-30). There were ten wines, almost a third of the total, for which no taster got both the origin and the price (Nos 3, 8, 15, 16, 18, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31). (Ahem.) A few examples show just how confused and confusing Chardonnay's identity can be. Among the classic Old World wines, No.10, a Burgundy costing 30, was thought by 13 tasters (almost a quarter of the total) to cost less than 5, and to come from Australia, New Zealand, USA, Germany, Spain and Eastern Europe (as well as France). A top US wine, No.8, costing 25, was thought by 16 tasters to cost less than 5, and to come from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, France, Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe (as well as the USA). The quality of the most expensive Australian wine, also the most expensive wine in the tasting - No.25, at 39.99 - was only marginally better recognised: there were still six tasters who did not think it would sell for more than 5, and its origin was reckoned to be New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, USA, South Africa, France and Eastern Europe (as well as Australia). At the other end of the price spectrum, an Australian wine, No.26, at less than 5, was thought by one taster to be worth more than 20, by 13 other tasters to be worth 10-20, and to come from France (Burgundy), Spain, USA and New Zealand (as well as Australia). A wine from Greece, No.28, and a wine from Chile, No.29, both in the 5-10 range, were both thought by three tasters to come from France (Burgundy) and to be worth more than 20. Although there were confusions which were flattering to both Old and New World wines, it is those making and selling the latter who will take most comfort from the tasting. It is one thing to be the Montrachet of Australia, quite another to be the Riverina of Burgundy. Briefly shifting the focus from the recognition of the wines to the recognition by the tasters, the Chardonnay champion on the day was a wine merchant with a diploma, who identified seven wines (still less than a quarter of the total) correctly in terms of both origin and price. The next best score was five completely correct wines. As many as 17 tasters (almost a third) did not get both the origin and the price right for even one wine, while 15 tasters did not get the origin right for even one wine. The average score was 8/32 on cost, but less than 2/32 on origin, and the same on both cost and origin. Although the atmosphere of the tasting was informal and relaxed, most tasters were conscientious in their sipping, spitting and scribbling. Even the wit whose tasting note for No.17 reads: "Spotted a pretty girl and lost concentration, then the bottle was empty", took his (or her) responsibilities more seriously than that suggests. The results of the tasting do not suggest any new conclusions, but do dramatically reinforce the impressions and suspicions which many have long harboured but not been able to test so thoroughly: above all, that Chardonnay's identity is becoming more and more blurred, more and more international. There may be quibbles as to how representative the wines were, but at least on this showing the champions of technique will be happier than the champions of terroir. If ever there was a time when ABC could have stood for Anywhere But Chassagne, or Anywhere But Corton-Charlemagne, that time has passed. Whether consumers and traders continue to be as appalled, bored, confused, fascinated and seduced by Chardonnay as most tasters were on the day, is one of the big questions for the next five to ten years.