The world’s Chardonnay

IMG_4361A generation ago ordinary wine drinkers did not know the names of the grapes from which their wines were made.  Now a days, that’s probably the main thing that they do know.  Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Cabernet all have their mass of followers, they have become brands in their own right. And of these, its probably Chardonnay which leads the field as a brand, mainly on the back of Californian success in the 1980s and 1990s.  Conversely, many regular white Burgundy drinkers have no idea that their favourite glass is made from Chardonnay grapes.  It’s as though Chardonnay the bar wine and classy white  Burgundy occupy different mental compartments.  And certainly most ordinary drinkers do not known that the big C is a staple component of Champagne or, in this case, of Cremant de Loire.  

But every fashion has its time.   Many drinkers and certainly the wine press has long had enough of over-oaked, over done Chardonnay – the flavour of ‘sugary, barbequed bananas’ according to Victoria Moore.  What happened to the neutral, mildly fruity style of Chardonnay, brought on with a bit of oak?  And in the bar, the sharper, more neutral Pinot Grigio has become the default white wine and has suffered the same fate of overproduction.  In its case this leads to characterless wine.

Following the Chardonnay over-dose, the world’s winemakers have had to rethink Chardonnay.  What style are they looking for, should the flavour aimed at be ‘apples and pears’ or come from the more exotic fruit shelf – guava, papaya, mango?  Should they mature the wine in oak or not, and if they use barrels, how dominant should the oak-derived flavours be?    How sharp should the wine be or how rounded in the mouth?  Finally, is the customer looking for a complex, weighty wine to be admired on its own account or for a food wine? 

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Andover Wine Friends had a chance to see what is going on in the quality Chardonnay market at its recent monthly tasting.  The selection was based around the Wine Society’s Chardonnay Champions half-case, complemented by additional wines.  It kicked off with the Blanc de Blanc, ie 100% Chardonnay, sparkling wine from the Loire, marketed as Aureus (see the picture of the label above), a single vintage wine from 2002, aged in the bottle for an impressive seven years.  All this for less than £10?  An amazing bargain – creamy, yeasty nose, fine and persistent streams of bubbles, good if ripe apple fruit, more rounded than entry level Champagne and a refreshing finish. 

IMG_4377Two better quality supermarket wines followed.  Wente’s Morning Fog 2006 shows what has happened to Californian Chardonnay since the bad old days.  Half the wine is barrel fermented, but equally significantly, the wine is kept on its lees for 7 months, to add some yeasty, slightly mushroomy complexity. The finished wine had a pleasantly creamy quality and only showed its Californian background in the relatively low acidity, very rounded in the mouth.  At a similar price point (£8-9 in Waitrose) was the Chilean Encantado Reserva 2007, which had a clean fruity nose, peaches and melons, and some mild nuttiness from the oak.  The key characteristic in both cases is the aim to make balanced, fruit led wines, with decent acidity, supported by the effects of ageing in oak. 

Of course there are still the traditional styles, especially in Chardonnay’s home territory of Burgundy. To show a definitely distinctive style we tried a good, standard Chablis, from William Fevre.  IMG_4370 Chablis’s northern latitude and soil derived from the ocean floor of generations ago leads to sharp, chiselled wines of mineral character (see: Chablis – all flints and fossils).  This example did not disappoint even it also had good Granny Smith fruit.  Too sharp for some, a perfect entry to this classic style for others. 

On this occasion we did not try a classic example from the Côte d’Or, the heartland of Burgundy, where the trick is good fruit complemented by judicious use of oak.  The recent post on the trade Burgundy tasting at Lords had lots of excellent examples from the new 2008 vintage.  Rather we continued our tour around the world with two fine bottles at the £16 mark.  These wines were so good that they were close to closing the gap on those that cost twice as much.

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IMG_4378North of Auckland in New Zealand, Kumeu River (2005) produces a Chardonnay which has been dubbed ‘the best in the world at the price’ by Robert Whitley.  In the glass the wine is a deeper yellow in colour than earlier wines in this tasting, with a green tinge again. Certainly it was a big jump up in complexity on the nose with some tropical fruit, baked apples and citrus, followed by great acidity.   Wow!  Hamilton Russell’s Chardonnay 2006, close to the sea in South Africa’s Cape province, was between straw yellow and gold in the glass, with dense guava and mango on the nose, then oak emerging, very long.   (Incidentally, the bottle itself was massively heavy, as though it were a wine to be laid down in a war zone for 20 years.  Is this really necessary? – wine’s environmental footprint is mainly in the volume of glass used + transportation.)  These are two excellent wines, both New World in approach, with pronounced fruit, but clearly owe a great deal to European notions of elegance and poise.  They show, in fact like all the wines in this tasting, that the Chardonnay prototype has changed. Whether from Burgundy or the New World, all are looking for a combination of good fruit flavours, counterbalancing acidity and judicious use of oak.  It makes one almost nostalgic for an old fashioned ‘barbequed banana’ bomb!

The two top wines on this occasion both came from Australia and indeed both from Margaret River, the promontory which juts out into the ocean in Western Australia.  Indeed, all these wines – with the exception of the very inland Chablis – come from maritime regions and all showed the freshness that the cooling effect of oceans can bring.  They also all had had the benefit of four of five years in the cask or bottle, quality wines at their peak. 

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The biggest single difference at this level is the weight of the wine in the mouth, bigger, more structure, mouth-filling.  But this isn’t created by over oaking or over-extraction of fruit.  The alcohol level is between 13.5 and 14˚ but the wines are perfectly balanced.  Of the two, the Pierro 2006 is much more fruit led, with a complex nose, but with an excellent mineral streak.  Leuwin 2005, by contrast, has a more obvious oak notes, good fruit with a bit of toast, even smoke, to follow.  Shall we finish with the full blown wine-speak tasting note on the Leuwin?

Almost the perfect chardonnay, this sublime wine is astonishingly intense and concentrated; also seamlessly balanced and measured.  Its opulent expression of pineapple, grapefruit, guava and mango-like fruit knits effortlessly with creamy, bacony, vanilla and slightly smoky oak, while it’s underpinned by a chalky mineral texture and punctuated by a chiselled, citrusy acidity.  While there is a hint of spirity heat and sweetness at the finish of its exceptionally long and complete palate, it’s a stunning exercise in power and control (Jeremy Oliver, The Australian Wine Annual, 2009)

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‘Is that a “hint of spirity heat” I detect?’

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