The ABC of Chardonnay
So, International Chardonnay Day has come and gone. While the day may have been ushered in with the sounding of trumpets and the gulping of gallons of Chardonnay wine by the converts (or those simply looking for an excuse to get both musical and tipsy), it was no doubt largely ignored by the “ABC” crowd.
Members of the ABC fraternity shun all things Chard. ABC, after all, is the acronym for Anything But Chardonnay. Which puts a fairly fine point on their views concerning this undeniably popular grape. So why has this noble grape become a grape of wrath in the eyes of the ABCers?
One of the problems, paradoxically, is the degree to which the character of Chardonnay can be, and is, influenced by the winemaker.
There’s an old (and oft-repeated) saying that “wine is made in the vineyard.” I’ve always found this is kinda like saying “fish sticks are made in the ocean.” Technically, of course, wine is made in a winery (much like fish sticks are made in a factory). What the saying alludes to is the “garbage in, garbage out” reality of winemaking. If the fruit is of sub-par quality, the wines will be too (this analogy is probably less true of fish sticks).
Where I’m going with this is that, unlike white grape varieties like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat (to name a few “aromatic” whites), that sport distinctive character naturally, Chardonnay has less going for it in this department. Sure, soil type, vine age, and viticultural practices will all combine to give more concentration and distinction to the fruit, but it takes the skill of the winemaker to truly coax out the best from Chardonnay.
Broadly speaking, there can be two outcomes when the winemaker’s “art” is applied: a rich, sublime wine with incredible complexity; an overly processed, heavy-handed, unbalanced mess…or something that just tastes like tap water. The latter versions are mostly the result of huge wineries fermenting millions of litres of Chardonnay that has been chipped, planked, or otherwise processed into something resembling pineapple juice, or that has been “unoaked” (and probably over-cropped) and tastes like very little.
Yes, buying truly outstanding Chardonnays can put you into second mortgage territory. But you can get good ones for much more reasonable sums. A few Chardonnays have crossed my palate as of late that fall into this category. Anything But Chardonnay? Try: Always Buy Chardonnay!
Mount Riley Marlborough Chardonnay 2011 ($17.95)
New Zealand stormed international beaches with an armada of scalpel-sharp Sauvignon Blancs so lively and charged with aromas and flavours they threatened to jump out of the glass. These can be nice when managed properly, but can be overly green and aggressive if left untamed. Consumers who have been palate-zapped by this style should consider the Chardonnays coming off this island. The Mount Riley is a good example. Peach, citrus, mild fennel notes and a very subtle toastiness (from very subtle oaking) round out the aromatics. The palate melds the brisk, liveliness of kiwi Sauv. Blancs with richer melon, herb, and lemon flavours capped by a long, balanced and mildly buttery finish.
Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserve 2011 ($11.95)
Santa Carolina’s Casablanca Estate yields Chardonnay grapes with excellent fruit/acid balance. The wine does not undergo maololactic conversion, ensuring that the natural, taut acid component stays intact. The result is a Chardonnay that deftly balances smoky/buttery/clove and baked apple nuances with an elegant, restrained, style and a brisk, fresh finish. Try with a grilled, meaty fish like monkfish, or scallops in a cream sauce.
Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 ($15.00 – approx.)
With its granitic soil and close proximity to the Pacific, the Nimbus Estate produces fruit that benefits from complex minerality and a long, slow ripening period. The grapes for this wine are hand harvested and hand selected and is fermented in both stainless steel and barrel and undergoes 10 to 12 months aging in oak (approximately 30 per cent of which is new French). Intense, smoky/flinty aromas are given added complexity with hints of butterscotch and apricot that linger on the long, memorable finish.
Viña Maipo Vitral Chardonnay Reserva 2011 ($13.95)
Fruit for this wine is sourced from the cool-climate Casablanca Valley, ensuring good balance between acidity and fruit. Aromas suggesting white flowers, peach, citrus and a hint of almond lead to a mid-weight palate with flavours of lime, apple, melon and hint of toasty oak. Elegantly styled, it offers poise and refinement as opposed to brute power. A good match for lightly herbed white meat and fish dishes.
Château Martinolles Limoux Blanc 2011 ($20.00 – approx.)
Besides buying up what seems to be most of the Languedoc region of southern France, Jean-Claude Mas, of Domaines Paul Mas, has crafted some remarkable wines at equally remarkable prices. In fact, I can’t really recall the last time I had a Chardonnay of this caliber at such an affordable price. I’d call it a steal, but it’s actually more of a give-away. Very fragrant with floral, peach, lemon and subtle tropical fruit notes with a slight nuttiness and a whiff of buttery/toasty oak. Rich, intense, and assertive with concentrated baked apple, pear, and citrus fruit flavours, all of which linger welcomingly.