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A great chameleon: Chardonnay still rules in France’s Pays d’Oc

A great chameleon: Chardonnay still rules in France’s Pays d’Oc

The Chardonnay grape rose to international fame in the 1980s and has since become the World’s most planted white variety. In Pays d’Oc, more than 600,500 hectolitres of varietal Chardonnay were made in 2022 – which amounts to almost the combined total of ALL the other Pays d’Oc varietal whites! There’s a good reason for this: Chardonnay thrives in the sunny south of France, making a seemingly endless array of different wines, the quality of which never ceases to improve. Dominic Rippon selects 14 of his favourite IGP Pays d’Oc unoaked Chardonnays from a recent tasting of the 2022 vintage.

Dominic Rippon
3rd November 2023by Dominic Rippon
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“Although Chardonnay grapes tend to fetch a small premium compared with lesser-known varieties, Pays d’Oc Chardonnay undoubtedly makes some of the world’s best value examples,” writes Rippon.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Chardonnay in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon. To fully understand, you have to go back to 1987, when vin de Pays d’Oc – now IGP Pays d’Oc – was unleashed on the world.

Languedoc-Roussillon’s vignerons looked jealously at the whirlwind success of New World varietal wines, particularly in California, and began to wonder if they could use the concept to create a third way for winemaking in the south of France, for those who didn’t wish to (or couldn’t) make AOC wines but sought to distinguish their creations from a sea of indistinct Vin de Table.

The popularity of Chardonnay, as well and Cabernet and Merlot, in export markets made it inevitable that these varieties would come to dominate plantings in Pays d’Oc, where vineyard owners replaced less recognisable grapes with what would become known as “international varieties”.

The range of different Pays d’Oc Chardonnay produced is vast

France is, of course, Chardonnay’s birthplace, where it is responsible for all fine white burgundies, from Chablis to Pouilly-Fuissé. It is a relatively easy variety to grow and can produce decent sized crops without undue loss of concentration in grapes, but what really endears Chardonnay to winegrowers is its sheer versatility. Interpretations of Chardonnay are limited only by the number of terroirs in which the variety is planted, each one creating unique and original flavours – so what first allowed the variety to flourish in Burgundy’s vineyards in the Middle Ages is now the very reason for its success in Pays d’Oc.

The Pays d’Oc vineyards stretch over a full 110,000 hectares in Languedoc-Roussillon, from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the gates of Provence in the east, with every imaginable soil type and a surprising array of climatic influences. The range of different Chardonnays produced is consequently vast. These wines are unmistakeably the products of southern French warmth yet are generally more restrained than their New World varietal counterparts. And although Chardonnay grapes tend to fetch a small premium compared with lesser-known varieties, Pays d’Oc undoubtedly makes some of the world’s best value examples.

A baker’s dozen of IGP Pays d’Oc unoaked Chardonnays

Chardonnay 2022, Domaine Les Yeuses, 13%

This bright straw-tinted rosé is made from optimally ripe Chardonnay grapes at Domaine Les Yeuses, an 80-hectare estate with vineyards that descend through garrigue almost down to the Mediterranean, near Mėze. Its aromas are delicately floral, showing apple blossom, honey and peach. Lovely intensity on the palate; delicate but assertive – a lot of wine for the money. A well-balanced white that will pair with all kinds of foods, especially tapas and light Mediterranean stews (as a great foil for garlic).

RRP in France €7.30. Available from: direct from the estate

Il était une fois – Tête en l’Air 2022, Maison Ventenac, 12.5%

A really excellent Chardonnay from the dynamic Ventenac estate, with a flavour profile as elegant as its packaging promises. Made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the foothills of the Montagne Noire and harvested at night, the wine’s steely freshness is immediately apparent. Direct, ripe citrus aromas, with apples, honey and a hint of butter. Flavours are beautifully balanced: cool and restrained with a vital minerality that drives the wine’s flavours and prolongs its finish. Serve with razor clams à la plancha.

RRP in France €7.90. Available from: UK importer – Graft Wine

Chardonnay “La Marouette” 2022, Organic, Jacques Frelin Vignobles, 12.5%

A superb value organic Chardonnay from a négociant house that was entirely new to me. Rich yellow in colour, with a nose that is grassy and pleasantly herbaceous on opening the bottle, then peaches emerge with a swirl of the glass. Flavours are tight and lemony, rounded out by stone fruits, biscuit and a dash of honey. Great purity of flavour, suggesting shellfish as the ideal match.

RRP in France €4.17. Available from: UK importer – Vinceremos

Chardonnay “Signature” 2022, Florès (Vignerons de Florensac), 13.5%

The Florès co-operative’s new “Signature” varietal range come from its 570 hectares of vines surrounding the Bassin de Thau, on the wind-swept shores of the Mediterranean. This pale lemon-green coloured Chardonnay offers exotic scents of mango, passion fruit and honey. On the palate, the attack is ripe and juicy, with broad, honeyed flavours kept in check by a firm thread of acidity. Drink with seafood risotto or paella.

RRP in France €6.20. Available from: UK Importer – HB & Clark

Chardonnay “Les Vignes de Madame” 2022, Domaine de la Baume, 14%

From sandy clay and clay-limestone soils between Béziers and Pézenas, this is a relatively pale Chardonnay, with beautifully floral aromas of peach and sweet melon, even a hint of fresh grapes. Pure and pretty. Flavours are delicately peachy, with a nice mix of butter and minerality on the finish. A must-try with fresh clams cooked in a garlic butter and parsley sauce.

RRP in France €8.50. Available in UK only On Trade

Chardonnay 2022, Les Caves Richemer, 13.5%

The Richemer cooperative cellar is a real find for those in search of excellent value varietals, like this bright, green-tinted Chardonnay, from sandy clay and gravel vineyards on the banks of the Etang de Thau, near Sète. Open, fresh aromas of grapefruit and creamy pineapple. Rounded on the palate, with a citrus bite and a faint – but not unpleasant – hint of astringency on the finish. Drink with Greek feta salads.

RRP in France €4.95. Available from: direct from the estate

Chardonnay “Classique” 2022, Domaine Girard, 13%

Domaine Girard is located west of Carcassonne, in the beautiful Malepère hills, where it is a local reference point for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. Grapes are grown on clay-limestone slopes at an altitude of up to 450 metres. The wine is dazzling pale gold in colour, with a nose that is restrained at first, more than a little Burgundian, before opening into delicate notes of ripe lemons, quince and Braeburn apples. There’s real richness on the palate, with a refreshing middle and that lingering butteriness on the finish so beloved by Chardonnay fanatics. Try with grilled oily fish such as mackerel.

RRP in France €8.50. Available from: direct from the estate

Chardonnay “Les Ronces” 2022, Domaine de Castelnau, 13%

With its dual vocation as a producer of excellent Picpoul de Pinets and outstanding Pays d’Oc varietals, Domaine de Castelnau has excelled itself with this 2022 Chardonnay. Pale straw in colour, with ripe apple, kiwi fruit, honeysuckle and a hint of white pepper on the nose. Perfectly poised on the palate, with just the right balance of ripeness and zing. A serious wine to match with haute cuisine, such as white fish in delicate sauces.

RRP in France €5.50. Available from: UK importer – Jeroboams

Chardonnay “Sélection” 2022, Organic, Domaine Rose & Paul, 13%

In the far west of Languedoc, near Carcassonne, Domaine Rose & Paul benefits from the cool influence of the Atlantic, with more rainfall than is common in the region. This lees-aged wine is one for fans of floral, candied Chardonnays, with its aromas of white flowers and pears. Gentle on the palate, with soft acidity, a plump middle and a reassuringly dry finish. Great as an aperitif or with a salmon tartare starter.

RRP in France €9. Available from: direct from the estate

“Guillaume Aurele” Chardonnay 2022, Alma Cersius, 13.5%

A real Mediterranean vin de soleil from pebbly clay-limestone soils near Béziers. Pale lime juice hue, with delicate scents of melon, ripe apples and freshly baked croissants. Fruit salad flavours explode on a juicy mid-palate. The wine’s vibrant fruitiness makes it an excellent aperitif, but there’s enough body to allow paring with most ingredients in a Christmas seafood platter, or even exotically flavoured (sweet and sour) fish dishes.

RRP in France €7.50. Available from: Barton Brownsdon & Sadler Ltd

Chardonnay 2022, Domaine la Provenquière, 13.5%

La Provenquière is a grand 15th Century château-estate near Béziers with a fine selection of varietal Pays d’Ocs, like this complex, mealy Chardonnay. Citrus, guava and early picked almond aromas with a hint of shortbread. The wine has an oily mouthfeel with those delicately elusive fruit flavours reminiscent of pricier whites; a lively middle, and a generous yet ethereal finish. Interesting enough to enjoy on its own, or with hors d’oeuvres.

RRP in France €7.90. Available from: direct from the estate

Chardonnay 2022, Domaine de l’Herbe Sainte, 13.5%

This estate makes an exciting range of varietal wines in the hills north of Narbonne. Pale lemon in colour, limestone subsoils give this Chardonnay a pleasingly herbaceous character, with freshly squeezed lime and a hint of kiwi fruit on the nose. There’s plenty of zing on the palate, with Granny Smith acidity, plenty of amplitude mid-palate and a mineral finish. A great match for oysters.

RRP in France €7.50. Available from: direct from the estate

“Oppidum” Chardonnay 2022, Domaine la Négly, 13%

Situated in Fleury d’Aude, in the shadow of the Massif de La Clape, this well-respected estate is a staple of local restaurant wine lists. Oppidum Chardonnay is a kaleidoscope of golden green shades; a lees-aged white with subtle aromas of ripe pear and nectarine. Juicy stone fruits dominate the palate in a wonderful marriage of freshness and concentration. The finish is elegant and persistent, with a classy citrus twang. Another candidate for grilled fish.

RRP in France €8.50. Available from: direct from the estate

Chardonnay “Esprit Cépage” 2022, Vignobles des 3 Châteaux, 13%

A great value bistro-style Chardonnay. Pale yellow with flashes of green. Subtle aromas of sherbet lemon merge with apple blossom and hints of the exotic. Delicate but well-rounded on the palate: a great alternative to high-end Picpoul as a partner for shellfish.

RRP in France €6. Available from: UK importer – Ellis of Richmond

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