GRAPE VIEW: THE RE-EDUCATION OF CHARDONNAY

In the Highlander Wine Blog, we have visited Chardonnay on several occasions. Here we discussed overlooked classics of which Chardonnay was one, and here we looked at one of the greatest expressions of the grape the world knows.

In this post, a quick glance at the classic styles will lead us to recent and current trends, with some suggestions
for excellent examples.

The best known wines occupy stylistic extremes. Chablis from northern France is typically crisp with no oak influence. The cool climate creates Granny Smith apple, citrus and marine stone flavours, and the lack of oak use as well as the avoidance of malo-lactic fermentation (one of the processes that make white wines taste creamy and soft, as well as imparting a buttery aroma) is consistent with the fruit ripeness to execute the freshness of this style. Seek out Gilbert Picq and Gerard Tremblay (both $30 range) for excellent value.



Australian and Californian Chardonnay
historically have offered the other extreme, with the warmer climates providing riper fruit. The ripeness translates into higher sugar in the grapes, and therefore higher alcohol content making a wine feel rich and weighty. The tropical fruit and melon aromas take nicely to the vanilla and toast of oak, and the buttery character from the malo-lactic conversion plays into the whole while emphasizing the soft richness of the wine. Lander Jenkins ($23ish) or Rombauer ($45ish) from California are classics.



Those wines considered the greatest of the great fall somewhere in the middle, coming from less extreme climates - the Montrachets & Meursaults of France as well as the cooler zones in California and Australia such as Carneros or the Mornington Peninsula.

In recent years, winemakers around the world have been reacting to consumers' reactions to these original extreme styles. Fancy for the soft, easy, mildly sweet, oak-chipped chardonnays has waned, yet people still want some ripeness. This has created an across-the-board pursuit of varying styles from all regions. Many California producers, for all the ripeness they achieve, simply skip the step of oak treatment. This creates pear and Golden Delicious apple flavoured, soft chardonnay without the toast, vanilla or butter. Some are softer from malo-lactic conversion while others are ripe but crisp. While they can be nice if a little boring, others can be exciting, unusual and rewarding. Good examples include Four Vines Naked ($23ish) and the remarkable wines from Diatom (range from $60 - $75).



In cooler climates, longer hang-time and/or chaptalization and heavier oak use has been used to recreate the styles from warmer zones. These usually end up out of balance, with boozy and oaky aspects that lack the tropical fruit flavours to fill it in.

The best wine makers, rather than reacting to trends, are finding the right balance. The wines come from well-selected sites that moderate the extremes of one climate or another. The pendulum is settling in the middle with oak use appropriate to the relative fruit ripeness, acidity levels balancing body, multi-dimensional aromatic expression weaving different fruit characters with spice, wood and soil characteristics. Well-handled wines from classic zones include Stuhlmuller from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma and Demuth-Kemos from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino.



Some of the emergent areas to watch include Oregon, Ontario, Washington, Santa Barbara and Argentina. Look for
wines from Evening Land, Tawse (range), Norman Hardie ($37ish), The Chardonnay Conspiracy ($30ish), Sandhi ($38) and Catena (range).



We live in a compelling time, one in which the old school is seeks out new ideas while the new school looks to the past for precedent. In the end, we the wine lovers benefit from all the activity.

-Matt Browman

 

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