Chardonnay is one of the great international grape varieties. Winemakers love it because it is so malleable, in the sense that chardonnay displays its origins — usually referred to as terroir — yet can also be moulded to produce profound wines.
This week we consider great and good chardonnays from France and the Americas that demonstrate the grape’s versatility.
Gilles and Catherine Verge make remarkable white wines in the Macon region of Burgundy. We especially loved their 2007 Vire-Clesse. It feels old-fashioned and remarkably modern at the same time.
This wine is austere and yet slightly buttery with mineral notes. It comes from a single block of vines believed to be about 130 years old, and spent four years on native yeasts in enamel steel tanks.
We encountered this wine at a natural wine event in London. It is not filtered and receives no contact with sulphur, according to the back label.
The nose could best be described as complex with a connoisseur’s aroma that is rustic and sophisticated at the same time. It smells a bit like vintage cider: funky and lean with pronounced apple-ness. Think slices of ripe apricot left sitting in the sun with lemon juice sprinkled over them.
Yet overall it is not so much ripeness as a sense of gustatory tension. In the mouth think lemon curd or lemon butter because of the creaminess and the way the fruit sings in the mouth
The essence of this wine happens at the back of the mouth with nutty textures integrated with the acidity, plus beautiful length. A hint of oxidation boosts those nutty flavours.
The next day that sensation of lemon curd was still present, plus more distinct aromas of apricot, lime and honeysuckle. A majestic wine that we wanted to consume quickly, desiring more.
The 2011 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve chardonnay is an entirely different beast. While a well-made wine, it lacks the finesse of the French chardonnay and feels somewhat artificial in construction.
It is a blend of fruit from the company’s estates, 58 per cent from Santa Barbara county and the rest from Monterey in California. Apparently the top 3 per cent of estate-grown barrel lots go into the grand reserve wines. This wine received expensive oak treatment: It is aged for nine months in French oak (75 per cent) with the rest American, with 100 per cent barrel fermentation plus lots of lees stirring.
The back label says “Monterey fruit brings Meyer lemon and lime to the nose while Santa Barbara provides tropical fruit and pineapple.” All we could taste was the power of the oak – a melange of nuts and vanilla, which will appeal to some palates.
In the glass the wine is bright gold-yellow, probably the result of the new oak. Aromas of fresh mandarin and candied orange peel plus ripe lemons flow from the glass. A pleasant citrus zing in the mouth follows, plus a sensation of ripe fruit and lemon butter, again from the oak. These brought back memories of the heavily-oaked creations of my youth in Australia’s Hunter Valley before leaner wines became popular. As with the Macon chardonnay, we were left with the question: Were we experiencing another throwback?
Or perhaps an example of radically different treatment of the same grape variety?
As with many chardonnays, this wine received malolactic fermentation. This is a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid – the green apple flavours found in the juice of chardonnay grapes – to lactic acid. The latter gives creamy or nutty flavours that make a wine more approachable.
Jess Stonestreet Jackson started the Kendall-Jackson wine business in 1974. He bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in California and had it converted into a vineyard. The first wine under the Kendall-Jackson label appeared in 1982 and it was an instant success. Kendall-Jackson became the best-selling chardonnay in America for more than two decades. Its vintner’s reserve regularly sells about one million bottles a year.
Jackson believed the quality of the French oak barrels used to age his wine was inconsistent, so he invested in his own mill in France to provide barrel staves, and became a partner in a cooperage in Missouri.
Jackson died, aged 81, in April of the year this wine was made. At the time he was one of the world’s wine billionaires. The Jackson family operates 35 wineries in California, Italy, Australia, France and Chile.
A wine from the Aconcagua Costa region of Chile demonstrates yet another aspect of chardonnay. The 2011 Errazuriz is made with “wild ferment”. This refers to yeasts that occur naturally in the air, on grape skins or in the vineyard rather than artificially cultured yeasts the winemaker selects.
Artificial yeasts produce wines with conforming tastes while wild ferments produce much more wide-ranging flavours. Some wineries take the pomace – the skins, pulp, seeds and stems left over from winemaking – along with the lees and return them to the vineyard to be used as compost to encourage the sustained presence of favorable strains of natural yeasts.
Vines from the Aconcagua Costa grow close to the Pacific and the ocean provides cooling breezes in the summer heat. The Errazuriz delivers a pulse of immediate pleasure. Aromas of pineapple, pear, honey and bread jump from the glass. Pleasant acidity on the palate balances flavours of tropical fruit mixed with ripe apples and pears.
Chardonnay is also used to make sparkling wines. In Champagne they are known as “blanc de blancs” style. Elsewhere such as in Chablis they make “cremant”. The Domaine Verret Cremant de Bourgogne, tasted at the vineyard this week, is an excellent wine with a fine bead and profound aromas of green apple, toast and honey.
The mouthfeel is lacey and sophisticated, and the acid gives the wine a profound structure and zing. Many connoisseurs argue that a well-made cremant from Burgundy is much better — and significantly cheaper — than a poor-quality champagne.
All the wines discussed demonstrate the magic that occurs when a skilled winemaker works with a classic grape variety. The combination of artifice and terroir produces wines that can be quite distinct.
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