California Wildfires Strike Again

(picture thanks to AFP and Daily Mail)

Sadly, once again I find myself blogging about the woes affecting California’s vineyards. The state has ideal summer weather, perfect for ripening grapes, but the heat and dryness brings the risk of wildfires which, over the past few years seem to have worsened, becoming a serious and unwelcome regular event.
Two of the most extensive fires ever recorded have struck the area recently with, tragically, a number of fatalities plus several injuries and many homes and businesses destroyed. The fires are mainly in or close to key wine producing areas and already I have seen reports of extensive fire damage to 2 wineries, one in Solano County and one in the Santa Cruz Mountains and more minor damage to vines and outbuildings elsewhere including at 3 estates in Napa.
But the damage caused directly by the fire is only part of the story as far as wine producers are concerned. Acrid smoke hangs in the air around the fires and can be smelt many miles beyond; a number of official warnings for poor air quality are in force. Although this is bad for the local population, this year, more than ever before, it is affecting the grapes, too. The 2020 fire season has begun earlier than usual and, as a result, many of the grapes are still on the vines, unlike previous years when most would already have been harvested and be safely in the winery fermenting. This creates a particular problem, especially for red grapes. If smoke gets into the grape skins, it will taint the flavours and produce bitter, unpleasant tastes. White wines will be less affected as the winemakers can quickly press the grapes releasing the juice and the impact should be minimal. Not so for reds, where the skins are a crucial part of the process, essential for flavour and texture in the wine. It has been suggested that more rosé will be made as a consequence, but that isn’t really what the premium areas of California are aiming for.
The very latest reports are that the temperatures have moderated slightly giving the firefighters a chance to get the blazes under control. We can only hope that continues but, with the fire season still far from over, the problem could be around for some time to come.
I join with all wine lovers to say we will be thinking of the people affected and wishing them well.

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

Chablis“Love Chablis; hate Chardonnay”. How many times have I heard that said – or, indeed, the reverse? It’s a comment that needs to be answered carefully because, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, all wines from the Burgundy district of Chablis and claiming that designation must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. But it’s clear from the statement that many people buying wine don’t know that.

And, in a way, their comment is understandable. Chablis is a very particular expression of Chardonnay, a grape which makes wines that vary enormously in flavour depending on where it’s grown and what happens to it in the winery.

So, in a coolish climate, Chardonnay produces wines such as the Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis which we enjoyed with a friend recently – clean, fresh and minerally with attractive green apple flavours – whereas in the hottest parts of California or Australia, the much riper grapes give much fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines tasting of tropical fruits, pineapple and the like.

And winemakers love working with Chardonnay as it is a good base on which they can impose their individual style and preferences, especially when it comes to using – or not using – oak. Fermenting or maturing wine in oak barrels, particularly if the barrels are new, adds a completely different dimension to the wine with spicy, nutty flavours either overlaying or replacing the natural flavours of the fruit.

As a result, someone liking the delightfully refreshing 12% alcohol Chablis mentioned above might not appreciate a wine like the rich, creamy Saintsbury Chardonnay from Carneros in California (Majestic, £13.99 if you buy 2 bottles) with its subtle toasty oak character and the full flavour and weight that comes from a warmer climate and 13.5% alcohol. For me, both are good, yet, there is nothing that obviously says that they both come from the same grape variety.

Given that, I can understand why some people can say they love Chablis, but hate Chardonnay – but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a Wine Educator when faced with the comment!