Tag Archives: oaked wine

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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Educating a Wine

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There are many ways a label can tell customers that the wine in the bottle has been influenced by oak: the mention of barrel, barrique or cask, the French élevé en chêne (raised in oak) or simply the word oaked or some similar reference.   It can also be implied by the use of spicy or smoky, although neither of those is definitive.  But some words I saw on a red Bordeaux label recently gave a whole new meaning to oak ageing and its purpose: rather than using ‘élevé’, this producer said that his wine was ‘éduqué en fûts de chêne’ (literally, educated or brought up in oak barrels).

futs-de-chene

By doing this, he is comparing the ageing of his wine to the bringing up of his children.  Is that a reasonable comparison?  I’d say yes.  I often tell groups that wine is a living thing; good wines, especially, go through a distinct youthful stage, followed sometimes by difficult teenage years, then a comfortable middle age, when the wine is at its peak, before reaching old age and, if you keep it too long, extreme old age.

So, the upbringing analogy is a good one.  The producer has taken his newly made wine, full of bright young fruit and probably quite firm tannins, and put it into oak barrels.  What happens in those barrels is interesting: oak is slightly porous – not porous enough for the wine to leak out, but porous enough for tiny amounts of air to get in.  The air reacts with the wine, softening the tannins and making the wine more rounded and harmonious.  In addition, if the barrels are new (or reasonably new), they might also impart an oaky or smoky flavour to the wine, changing it further.

In this way, the raw young wine is transformed into a rounded, characterful bottle ready to take its place at table.  Just like turning a brash infant into a mature adult.  So, a wine, like a person can, indeed, be ‘éduqué’.