This is about Chardonnay. Why? It’s grown all over the world and I’ve noticed Chardonnay has taken a ‘hit’ in sales. Coined the ‘Bridget Jones effect’ by wine writer Oz Clarke, this movement has proselytized vast numbers and most people are no longer buying bottles of Chardonnay (Bridget Jones would write in her diary about her sad, manless life over an oversized pour of Chardonnay and then gripe about how she was going to kill herself and put her head in the oven). This negative marketing caused Chardonnay sales to plummet. I too, had lost my Chardonnay-mojo, disenchanted with the bitter finish of over-oaked butter bombs. Now, I’ve learned that Chardonnay can be absolutely delicious with oak as long as the fruit takes center stage and the oak plays second fiddle. Here’s what you probably know already…
Chardonnay is grown all over the world. It is a grape that loves to travel and easily grows in almost all climates (unlike Sangiovese or Nebbiolo). It is pinned the ‘winemaker’s grape’ for its ability to be molded and malleable to the creators taste.
Here are terms that may be new to you. These are important for understanding high quality Chardonnay.
- Lees Stirring or in French, bâtonnage is a technique that increases the complexity in wine. Lees are the dead yeasts that fall to the bottom of the vat during fermentation and ageing. Wines meant for early consumption will usually be racked off of their lees or be filtered out immediately. So if a wine says it has lees ageing, it is most likely an indication of quality because these wines are meant for some ageing. Lees ageing enhances the structure of the wine and increases body and mouthfeel especially in the mid-palate. When you smell a wine that has been aged on lees, it can smell of nuts such as almonds. It also helps to encourage the malolactic fermentation.
- Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation. With white wines, winemakers can choose from blocking this fermentation, or partially fermenting the wine this way, or fermenting all of the wine this way. In written form, you may see this as it’s shorthand, ML (on the backs of wine labels or on the website). The process turns all of the tart, green apple acids, the malo, into the soft, round acids of milk, the lactic. When you taste a ‘buttery’ Chardonnay, you are usually tasting the effects of ML
- Barrel Fermentation This is when you ferment a wine in small oak barrels (around 225 litres) instead of large oak or stainless steel vats. Traditionally, wine was fermented in large vats and then transferred to smaller barrels for oak flavouring. Wines that are barrel fermented in the small barrels will have a softened, less obvious and more integrated oak flavour than wines that are simply fermented in large vats and then transferred to small barrels for oak ageing. With great Chardonnay, subtlety is key.
- When people say Chablis, White Burgundy, Pouilly Fuissé, Corton or Montrachet, they are talking about Chardonnay.
Here are some examples of excellent Chardonnays from around the world.
With Chardonnay from areas that have long hang times and/ or warm climes such as Napa Valley you can smell and taste some tropical fruits, melon, pineapple, and even guava. Shafer Vineyards ‘Red Shoulder Ranch’ Chardonnay is just this. It does see quite a bit of oak, but this fruit can handle it and it has a gorgeous white flower lift. The winemaker has wisely prevented the malolactic fermentation to keep it’s acidity racy. BC Importer: International Cellars $66-$78
Chaberton Estate Reserve Chardonnay from the Similkameen Valley, British Columbia 2014 provides a richness through the full malolactic conversion you wouldn’t expect from British Columbia and for only $18. This wine is for those who love butter! You can contact the winery directly or if you’re a restaurant, email Jared at Whistler Wine Merchants.
Because of the wonderful regionality and artisanal importance of wine marketing, finding wines isn’t easy. Here’s one wine that you may find at most BC liquor stores. Oyster Bay Chardonnay 2014 from Marlborough, New Zealand. This is the crispest of the ones listed here. It has elegant oak treatment to compliment it’s citrus fruit. The wine is also barrel and vat fermented and lees stirred, and yet they have blocked the ML to retain its citrus fresh finish. It’s $2 off at the BC Liquor Stores for the month of August 2016.
And of course, we can’t talk about Chardonnay unless we mention it from it’s Burgundian homeland. This wine shows that brilliant grilled pineapple, light toast and restrained alcohol of the old world without the usual earthy-dirty funk of Bourgogne. This is made by an Australian and showcases the precision winemaking of the new world showcasing the clean, pure fruit first. As with a lot of small production Burgundy, I have no idea where you are going to find this wine for yourself. You’ll have to order a bottle of it at Hawksworth Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Vancouver BC.
Ahhh, Chablis. The unoaked, crispy expression of Chardonnay that comes from a region that is prone to spring frosts. Garnier et Fils Chablis 2014 is their entry level wine and brought to British Columbia by Wine Syndicate. Every year, it over delivers at it’s price, between $26-$31. The wine sees some lees stirring and always gives a hauntingly seductive white flower lift within its mineral framework.