Chardonnay is a strangely divisive grape variety. For many, it’s simply the wine grape that makes the best white wines in the world – those from Burgundy, and the Côte d’Or in particular, being regularly quoted as examples of its greatness. Yet, I’ve often met wine lovers who say they will drink ‘ABC’ (Anything but Chardonnay). So, who is right? The answer is complicated.
Unlike many grape varieties that need a particular climate and soil conditions to give of their best, Chardonnay will thrive almost anywhere where grapes will grow; it ripens reliably in cool areas such as Chablis (and, these days, even in England) but retains its freshness in the baking heat of Australia’s inland vineyards. But the styles of wine produced vary dramatically with the temperature.
However, every bit as important as the effect of climate on the taste of Chardonnay is what happens in the winery. Winemakers often see the grape as a blank canvas on which to weave their magic – magic that frequently involves the use of oak barrels (or, more mundanely, oak staves or chips) to create flavours that the grapes alone wouldn’t possess. From the 1990s until the early 2010s, there was a trend towards more and more invasive use of oak dominating the fruit. Perhaps this is when the ABCs tasted their Chardonnay?
More recently, thankfully, many producers have significantly dialled back their use of oak to produce a wine where any oak flavour is much more subtle, often barely noticeable, but just used to round out a wine and give it an attractive, mildly spicy or savoury character. Mission Estate’s Reserve Chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand (Wine Society, £13.95) is an excellent example of this style. Yes, it spends 9 months in French oak barrels, but these impart little overt oakiness to the wine just a delightful richness and mouth-filling character to complement, but not overpower, the lovely peachy and soft grapefruit flavours.
This is oaked Chardonnay as is should be. I wonder if I can tempt any ABCs to try it?
I wasn’t going to blog about wines to drink over the holiday season this year. Looking around, I thought that there’s enough advice elsewhere and you’ve probably got your own ideas anyway. But then I opened a bottle over the weekend that would be just perfect as the accompaniment to a turkey dinner – or many other poultry, white meat or robust fish dishes for that matter – and so, not for the first time, I changed my mind.
Loimer’s Manhart (Majestic, £14.99) is a blend of 3 grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – that are almost always seen on their own but that, on this evidence, work really well together. The first sensation on the nose is one of toasty oak confirming that both fermentation and brief ageing was in oak barrels. But, once you taste, there is no real sensation of oak at all, just a lovely, rich, creamy, almost oily white, full of crisp apple, peach, apricot and tropical fruit flavours with a hint of warm spice (I thought nutmeg, my wife thought cumin) and an exceptionally long, dry tangy finish. We paired it with some monkfish wrapped in Parma ham and quickly roasted in the oven. Absolutely delicious and just the kind of full-flavoured dish that is a lovely match for the wine.
It would have been easy to ignore the bottle on Majestic’s shelves – its very plain, sparse label certainly doesn’t shout ‘buy me’ – but, happily, I had enjoyed Loimer’s wines previously (their Riesling and Gruner Veltliner are both worth buying if you can find them) and thought it worth chancing this one from vineyards in the Niederösterreich region of Austria, overlooking a tributary of the River Danube. I’m very pleased I did.
Austria’s wines experienced some difficult times in the 1980s but, as a result, have been completely transformed and are now on a high. If you’ve not explored them recently, wines such as this would be a great place to start.
In this blog, I’m going to continue with my theme from last time: how do you choose which wine to buy? One method I’ve found works well is to buy a different wine from a producer whose wines you’ve enjoyed in the past. Winemakers often have their own preferences which are reflected in the wines they make so, if you’ve enjoyed, for example, a Cabernet Sauvignon from a certain producer, try their Merlot if you see it on the shelf. That way, you can expand your horizons without taking too many risks.
It’s a plan that I used when I was in Majestic Wine recently. We’ve long been fans of Domaine Begude’s ‘Etoile’ Chardonnay (£13.99), a subtle, gently oaked, creamy white from Limoux, just south of Carcassonne at the western edge of France’s Languedoc region. It’s a great value alternative if you like Pouilly-Fuissé! So, when I saw the same estate’s ‘Le Paradis’ Viognier (£15.99), it was an obvious choice.
The Viognier, as you might expect, is a little more aromatic than the Chardonnay with delightful aromas and flavours of peach, ripe pear and melon and a restrained savoury finish. The label tells me that the wine spent time in oak barrels but they seem only to have been used to round out the palate, there is no overt oakiness to taste. We enjoyed it with some red mullet cooked in a rich tomato sauce and the two blended perfectly.
Limoux is not a particularly well-known or fashionable area but Domaine Begude is beautifully situated some 300m (1000ft) above sea level giving that ideal balance of hot sunny days for ripening the grapes and cooler nights to retain vital acidity. It’s owned by an English couple, who bought it back in 2003 and now run it on entirely organic lines using no pesticides and only natural manures and fertilisers.
The results are clear to see (and to taste) whether you choose the Chardonnay, the Viognier or one of their other varietal wines that – subtle hint – hopefully, Majestic will stock at some future date.