Category Archives: Chardonnay

What Kind of Chardonnay?

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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.

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Beyond Sunshine in a Glass

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Australia built much of its early reputation in the UK on crowd-pleasing Chardonnays.  The recipe was simple but effective: plenty of up-front tropical fruit and oak flavours and generous levels of alcohol.   “Sunshine in a glass” as they were often described.  And, although these wines are still popular – look on any supermarket shelf – there are many wine lovers who would never even consider, let alone buy, an Oz Chardonnay.  Their reputation, at one time so helpful, now puts off some of those who grew up on the early Chardonnays but who are now looking for something more interesting and complex.

Yet, if you search a little wider (and pay a little more), there are some really talented winemakers in Australia who are using the country’s favourite grape to produce delightful, flavoursome bottles in a subtle style that would have been totally alien 2 decades ago.  Take Lenton Brae’s Southside Chardonnay from Margaret River (Wine Society, £14.95) for example. 

Lenton Brae Chard They use older vines (some planted in the pioneering days of 1982) to make a rich, mouth-filling wine with lovely green apple and pear flavours.  Fermenting in a mix of new and used French oak barrels adds a restrained spiciness.  But despite this, there was also enough crispness and freshness to go perfectly with asparagus – a dish I’d normally associate with a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry English white.

Margaret River in Western Australia has always done things a little differently.  2000 miles away from the more famous vineyards in the south-east of the country and with cooler influences from the Indian Ocean, WA has never produced wine in the volumes of those further east.  It has always concentrated more on quality than quantity as shown perfectly by this Lenton Brae.

But wines such as this are also a timely reminder to those who have ignored Oz Chardonnay for so long to take a fresh look.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

The Judgement of Paris Revisited

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judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

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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!