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Practical wine information for those who could know better.


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Chardonnay in under 500 words. No Chance!

chardonnayStrewth, it’s hard to condense even the smallest amount of information about a grape into a single post!  Let’s start with some basics and elaborate from there once we’ve got a bit of information behind us.

Chardonnay is the first noble grape we are going to look at and it can be found, well, everywhere.  Literally.  It is the meal ticket to international markets for developing wine regions and hence is grown pretty much wherever wine is produced.

Burgundy

Why so?  Firstly, Chardonnay is one of the easiest grapes to work with, in so far as it is quite a neutral grape that responds strongly to the influences of the vineyard (e.g. soil type) and winemaker (e.g. oak aging).  Chardonnay also happens to be much easier to pronounce than many other varieties!

The other key reason for its popularity however, is the outstanding wines that it can produce.  Chardonnay’s versatility enables it to yield good quality wine pretty much wherever it is grown and along with the famed whites of Chablis, Chardonnay is also one of the principle grapes used in the production of Champagne, not to mention a handful of other French classics, such as Pouilly-Fuissé and Montrachet.  ‘Nuff said.

Located in Burgundy in the northeast of France, Chablis (pronounced Shab-lee) is the home of Chardonnay.  It is believed to have been created down the road in the village of Chardonnay, in the Mâconnais, whether by accident or design by Cistercian Monks crossing the Pinot and Gouais Blanc vines in the 14th century.  Jumping forward 700 years (history lesson over), most traditionalist wineries in Chablis use stainless steel tanks, which impart no flavour on the wine. The cool climate results in a subtle fruit profile and the chalky soils of Chablis imparti a flinty or mineral quality to the wine (we’re getting into terroir here – better ease back and cover this later!).

Conversely, look to New World and you will see how differently Chardonnay responds to warmer climates.  The additional ripeness the grapes can attain typically leads to more tropical fruit character and higher alcohol content.  Add malolactic fermentation, aging in oak and on the lees into the mix (all explained below) and it is easy see how diverse wines made from Chardonnay can be.

Along with her fantastic, detailed blog, I love the diagrams that Miss Wakawaka from WakawakaWineReviews.com has put together, to demonstrate the varietal characteristics of a number of grapes.

You’ll find WakaWaka Wine Reviews and the typical varietal characteristics of Chardonnay by clicking here.

Some classic treatments of Chardonnay any self-respecting wino should be aware of:

Chardonnay agingOak aging

Most are aware of the vanillin, toasty effects of oak barrel aging on Chardonnay.  The process takes place after fermentation and is simply a period of maturation in oak barrels, which have been charred (literally) on the inside.  Other than the age of the oak in use, it is the level of charring that determines the characteristics picked up by the wine during the aging process.  Oak chips (or even powders) are much cheaper alternatives that naturally have their critics and supporters.

MLFMalolactic Fermentation (MLF)

MLF is the process of converting the naturally occurring tart and green apple-like malic acids into softer, more milky lactic acids.  This creates a richer, buttery character to the wine, as opposed to the more acidic, apple-like quality of malic acids.  The process takes place during, or just after fermentation and is usually initiated through the addition of the requisite bacteria to the wine.

Sur lieAging on the lees (sur lie)

The lees of a wine are simply the dead yeasts and other sedimentary particles that are filtered out of wines before bottling (think of turning a cloudy stock into a sparkling consommé).  Mostly used in the production of Chardonnay or Muscadet, the lees may be stirred through the wine during fermentation, or even bottled with the wine, as is the case with Champagne.  The effects of increased contact with a wine’s lees is a fresher, creamier wine with more body.  Look for “Sur lie” on your wine label (if you’re lucky enough that the production methods are detailed).

It is easy to see how early New World Chardonnay vintners from Australia and California in particular got excited by and combined many of these treatments in their rush to create world-renowned wines form their own vineyards.  Thankfully, a maturing industry, coupled with innovation that Europe can’t touch and an absence of the restrictive regulations that govern wine production in Europe have enabled warmer climate wine makers to ease things back a bit.

As I found out in Disliking Chardonnay: As easy as A, B, C?, it is now harder in Australia to find the dominating, overpowered Chardonnays of the early Nineties, than it is to lay your hands on a more traditional, crisper Burgundian style.  And those winemakers not looking to ape their Old World counterparts are creating very distinctive wines in their own right, whilst still retaining freshess and vibrant appeal.

Try Mount Macleod Chardonnay 2010 ($17.99, Dan Murphy’s) (reviewed here), or ask your local bottle shop guy for a recommendation (the happy, cheerful one that is, not the grumpy one that is trying to turn your kids into alcoholics…)

Chardsign

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Disliking Chardonnay: As easy as A, B, C?

I was a bit late to the party with Chardonnay.  As A, B, C (or Anything But Chardonnay) was taking hold, it was 1995 and I was just getting installed as Manager of my first wine shop.

This was Worcester, beautiful place to grow up and wine-wise very middle class and middle of the road.  France, Italy and Spain was still very much where you looked for quality wine; the New World section was mostly Lindemans Bin 65, Jacob’s Creek and the odd quality wine that showed there was activity aplenty elsewhere – it just hadn’t really found us yet.

Actually, this is from 1936 - the original site of Thresher on The Tything is behind The lamp post on the left.

Actually, this photograph was taken in 1936.  The Thresher store would open on The Tything behind the lamp post on the left many years later!

So as I was getting started, the sophisticated new adopters of Nether Wallop, Pratts Bottom and Kidderminster were already at the point where they had started rejecting the big oaky and full-bodied Chardonnays that were really all Worcester really new Australia and California for.

I didn’t notice, I was too excited!

The point to all this is that almost 20 years after that, plenty of people I know still have an aversion to Chardonnay whilst declaring their undying commitment to wines that are very similar in style to Chardonnays from places perhaps less familiar.  As it happens, I got a lesson of my own yesterday when trying to prove the point that Chardonnay is not the devil in a bottle (and nor has it been for years)…

I’ve never been a fan of the bloke in the wine shop (not Dan Murphy’s!).  He never says hello, goodbye or even thank you despite my spending at least as much in his shop as I do at the supermarket next door.  Consequently I avoid him as much as I can.  Anyway, I was trying to demonstrate the variety of Chardonnays that are out there by contrasting and comparing three examples and had been quite disappointed by the heavy Australian example I was initially recommended.  Not because  it was bad, but because it was light, fresh and well-balanced.  Lovely, but I was after heavy and oaky!

So I went to buy another one to better illustrate the point but on scouring the aisles, all I could see was Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River and other cooler climate options.   Upon asking the grumpy bloke’s much more pleasant colleague to recommend a really heavy, warm climate Chardonnay, she looked at me a bit blankly and said she’d find someone else to help me. Of course, it was him.

When I asked for the aforementioned big, heavy Chardonnay but under $20, he (predictably) skipped the pleasantries and not unlike like Darryl Kerrigan considering the price of jousting sticks, said (les predictably) “You’re dreaming.”

Tell him he's dreaming!
And there’s the rub:  As a purchaser of Aussie wines, unless you’re spending bigger bucks, you’re going to struggle to find the very thing you’re trying to avoid in a Chardonnay, let alone run the risk of actually bumping into it!  And if you’re actually looking for the bit, buttery ones you’re probably best looking to California.

So now I really can’t be bothered contrasting the two! The tasting notes for both are already posted and the obvious point for the fan of the crisper wine is that there is a Chardonnay out there for you.  There’s loads of them!

For future reference, the gauntlet represents a challenge...

Gauntlet = challenge!

If you’re one who still cringes over the memory of over-oaked (probably with chips, which are a very poor alternative to barrel ageing) and over-ripe wines that can’t refresh, no matter how much you chill them, I challenge thee:

Head to Dan Murphy’s, buy the Petit Chablis I recently reviewed and give it a go.  Alternatively ask for another recommendation, but aim for something produced in stainless steel, to strip back the oak and vanilla and get a really crispy drop.  You might be pleasantly surprised and if so, head closer to home and try some cooler climate Aussies.  Who knows, you might even dare to order one in public!

As an aside, the grumpy wine shop fella gave the kids a cap each as we left the store and I had to reflect on whether I’ve judged him too harshly.  Negative.  Not only is he rude, he’s now trying to hook my children into the demon drink by seducing them with free merchandise!  I might report him.

BTW, in case you care here’s a link to the Frank Prial article in 1995 that first coined the phrase ‘A. B. C.’