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Or: How Fran Evans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Her Palate

Fran Evans“Life is for living and wine is for drinking. It's easy to stick with what we know – we all have our favourites. But it’s good to try new things; it keeps things vibrant. With a bit of guidance from Dave and the team at Oddbins Crouch End, I have taken some small steps outside of my usual style, and I haven't looked back.” – Fran Evans, Winner of The Palate 2012

It is a truth universally acknowledged, well, at Oddbins at least, that there are some grapes that have a seriously bad rep, for no good reason. Chardonnay is one of these. Without naming names, there are some mass-produced, heavily-oaked, simply unpleasant examples of this varietal that have taken its reputation to the edge.

However, Chardonnay has recently been thrown a life-line from a very unlikely quarter. But, in the best cinematic tradition, having begun with the dramatic climax, we need to turn the clocks back and start from the beginning…

Wine’s not hard. But ever since our former beer-swilling nation was introduced to the marvels of wine, it seems to have been written in stone that you have to talk about wine simultaneously down your nose and out of your bottom. Hurumph. It’s like the wine world has been building a wall made of elitist bricks and pretentious cement to keep the world from seeing that, behind that wall, anyone can ‘do’ wine. So our little fantasy at Oddbins is that we get to drive a massive metaphorical bulldozer straight through this damnable wall, laughing maniacally whilst listening to “Take the Power Back” by Rage Against the Machine. OK, OK, maybe that’s overegging it a teensy weensy bit, but we would really like to cut through the rubbish and make wine more accessible and, therefore, more enjoyable.

So, back in June, we launched The Palate 2012, a nationwide competition to find the UK’s finest taste buds. Over the course of three gruelling blind tastings, 5,000 entrants were whittled down to a final 10, who slogged it out at a climactic final last month, hosted by our Head of Buying, Emma Nichols, with TV’s Peter Richards MW and Susie Barrie MW. The eventual winner of The Palate 2012 was Crouch End resident Fran Evans, who scooped the prestigious title of The Palate 2012, a holiday for two to Tuscany's Frescobaldi Wine Estate and a magnum of Champagne. You can watch a video of the final here...

Fran was an interesting winner because she has a passion for wine but not the encyclopaedic knowledge that she was worried she might need. She really needn’t have worried. Because the thing about blind tastings, is that they are great levellers. "Connoisseurs" can often find themselves knocked into a cocked hat by the raw talent of "amateurs", because blind tastings are just that: they are blind – to knowledge, experience and, happily, ego.

la Closerie des Lys ChardonnayAnd now we return to that cliff-edge and the mysterious saviour of Chardonnay… who do you think the hero was, but our very own Fran. After she was crowned the winner, we invited her to pick a wine from a blind tasting line-up for us to stock in our stores. Whether what happened next surprised her more or less than winning The Palate, we don’t know, but she picked a Chardonnay; a grape that she had, shall we say, professed not to admire. In fact she said she couldn’t stand it. But Chardonnay is a cunning thing, a master of disguise. It is the shape-shifting David Bowie or Kylie of the wine world. Sometimes it appears as a big, buttery, oaky goliath and other times it pops up as a restrained, minerally Chablis; Chilean Chardonnay, left unoaked, can be clean and tropical, while Burgundian versions are frequently delicate, orchard-scented little things.

So, while Fran was recovering from her surprise at choosing a Chardonnay, we were mentally fist-punching the air, because it gave us a valid excuse to extoll the virtues of this much-maligned grape. Although we’d happily bang on about it all day, we’re sure you’d rather hear it from Fran, so this is what she said:

View from Collovray et Terrier's vineyard“Of the four wines, la Closerie des Lys really stood out. I'm not a fan of oaked whites therefore usually steer clear of Chardonnays, however this was unoaked and was a lot lighter on the palate than the new world Chardonnays I have tasted in the past.”

In fact, with its minimal intervention philosophy, natural pest controls and low-carbon footprint, having only come from across the Channel, la Closerie des Lys is a natural match for Sustainability Officer Fran. Looks like it was a match made in heaven.

Collovray et Terrier TeamThe grapes used in la Closerie des Lys make for a beautifully subtle wine because they benefit from a long, slow growing period. This is made possible by the relatively cool climate in Limoux, which benefits from fresh winds from the Pyrenees. The winemakers (the Collovray and Terrier families) established a sound reputation for making Chardonnay in their home region of Mâconnais in Southern Burgundy. When these Chardonnay experts set up shop in Limoux, they opted to classify their wine as a more basic Vin de Pays, instead of Limoux’s Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), so they didn’t have to include the sometimes unpopular Mauzac grape, which is a prerequisite of the appellation. The results are pretty stunning: pale yellow in colour, with hints of green, it’s a clean, fresh style of Chardonnay, with a complex nose of white fruits and flowers. The palate is full, fresh and tropical, while the finish is crisp and refreshing.

That’s all from us for now. We’ll give the delightful Fran the last word:

“Winning The Palate 2012 was a really nice surprise and, as well as boosting my confidence in my own palate, it has swung me on to a wine that I had previously ruled out. I will definitely be perusing the Burgundy section for more Chardonnay from now on!” (LT)

Raimat Abadia WhiteThis post was written while drinking: Raimat Abadia White 2010. Chardonnay, the little hussy, makes a superb bedfellow for a number of other grapes. So if, *mopping our brow*, we haven’t convinced you of its merits, then you could always stick a tentative toe in the water with a blend, like this Spanish beauty. 75% Chardonnay and 25% Albariño, it is a tropical, citrusy little number that would really shine served alongside a spicy paella with chicken, chorizo, clams and mussels.

To ‘change the record’, so to speak, check out the incredible dance moves displayed by Mick Jagger and David Bowie in the video for their 1985 collaboration: Dancing in the Street. For every person who we manage to convert into a Chardonnay-lover, we promise to dance like this. Now that’s service, ain’t it?

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