Chameleon Chardonnay

the closures

It’s tough being Chardonnay – on the one hand you are so popular that you have become a girl’s name; on the other hand people have tired of you and have moved on to Pinot Grigio and even Moscato.  But once you get into quality wines, the real appeal of the grape to the drinker is the range of styles of wines.  Saturday’s fine wine supper gave the chance to follow this grape from its Burgundian home to Champagne and on to Australia, South Africa and California, Argentina and even Tuscany.  What this showed was that this fairly neutral grape is open to many nuances and a couple of major styles which reflect the climate and soil where it is grown and then the winemaker’s choices – barrels or not, malolactic fermentation, time on the lees, length of ageing.

This tasting was based on a Wine Society offer.  In general its ‘Championship Chardonnay’ half case was excellent.  Its one weakness was that all the wines were either fermented and/or aged in oak.  Having spent any spare money on a highly individual Champagne I went for a budget choice of the lean, clean, oak-free Chardonnay, Santa Julia, Mendoza, Argentina 2012 which wetted the star Blanc de Blancswhistle more than adequately – pale lemon, modest on the nose but refreshing green apple to melon fruit on the palate, medium length.  If this was well made and generally acceptable, Terroirs, Agrapart, Champagne was brilliantly particular, an exercise in nervy acidity  and chalky purity.  The current wine is a blend of 2007 and 2008, aged in oak but, for taste, in old barrels and with little of the brioche and yeasty flavour from its four years in the bottle on the lees.  But what there is a perfectly judged acidity (despite full malo and 5g of residual sugar per litre) and remarkable green fruit, oyster shell and even saltiness.  Outstanding in its purity.

The other seven still wines fell basically into two camps – medium weight, restrained, moderately oaked, wines on the one hand and fuller, warmer, bolder flavours with more oak on the other.  But fascinatingly the wines only broadly followed the old world/new world dividing line.  Fourchaume, Vignoble de Vaulorent, William Fevre, AC Chablis Premier Cru 2007 was clearly cool climate in style but quite rich, while Les Courtelongs, Jacques Saumaize, AC Pouilly-Fuissé 2011 was noticeably warmer, the fruit moving into the peach and apricot register. But joining these Burgundians was Single Vineyard Selection, Farrago, Kooyong, 2010, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, Australia.  the competition 1the competition 2
This could not be further from a stereotypical, in your face, Australian Chardonnay – restrained fruit on the nose, fresh, yes it was warmer on the palate both in terms of fruit and the 13.5% of alcohol, but in a blind tasting you could easily put this in the old world.  By contrast you would have little doubt that Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell, South Africa, 2011 was from a warm place (even if it is cool by South African standards), and certainly Monte Bello 2007 lived up to its Californian location, though again it is relatively cool. Similarly, Collezione Privata, Isole e Olena, 2011 was super rich, concentrated and balanced – the last being  a remarkable achievement for Chardonnay in Chianti!   

BourgogneFinally Les Enseignières, Puligny-Monrachet, Henri Prudhon, 2006 was a superb combination of mouth-filling fullness and chalky tension.  On weight alone you might put in in the new world, but in fruit expression and intensity you would have to plump for a grand Burgundian slope. 

Chardonnay truly reflects its place but the places get ever more varied. At the same time wine makers are doing their best to narrow the gap between by styles by striving for elegance rather than sheer impact.  After that it is really a matter of choosing which style you prefer. 

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