Compare and Contrast

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“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!

What Kind of Chardonnay?

ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.

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!