An introduction to one of summer’s classic white wines
For those who are just joining us, the proposed focus for this column over the course of 2011 was to “explore the complexities of flavor and style that make this wine or that one fantastic.” We’re not looking for the best wines under $10 but for really good wines in the $20-$200 range that might be better enjoyed on special occasions rather than everyday gulping. The idea is that in discovering the classic flavors of particular varieties and regions, we will be better equipped to understand and appreciate the wines that we find most appealing.
One approach to this is to look at wines from the classic grapes, that is, those varieties which over time have produced quality wines and are grown in a number of regions. World class, you might say. And with summer at our doorstep it’s time to consider the classic whites: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. (The classic reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah.) Chardonnay is particularly interesting because of its wide popularity and many styles.
Chardonnay is a green grape that is used throughout the world to make white wine. It is a delicate variety of relatively small, thin-skinned fruit that adapts to and expresses the characteristics of the many regions where it is grown. The flavors of Chardonnay wine are heavily influenced by the terrior (teh-WAHR) and the winemaker.
How the growing conditions, terrior, affect the product can be seen by comparing Chardonnay from a cool climate with one from a warmer climate. Cooler climates yield a lean, crisp wine; moderate temperatures will produce bigger flavors of honey and tropical fruit.
This is most evident in the Champagne region of northern France where the average yearly temperature is barely high enough to ripen grapes. Consequently the characteristic fruit flavors of the often under-ripe Chardonnay grapes, one of three components in the traditional Champagne blend, haven’t developed. Most sparkling wines are noticeably un-chardonnay-like on the palate with Chardonnay’s contribution to the blend being finesse and balanced acidity. That brings us to the origins of Chardonnay.
DNA testing has now confirmed that the Chardonnay grape is a cross between the Pinots and an ancient grape called Gouais Blanc once widely cultivated in Eastern France. Eastern France … hmm. That’s pretty much Burgundy where Pinot Noir is the primary red wine grape and Chardonnay is the primary grape of white Burgundy. Again, white Burgundy wine is, with few exceptions, Char-don-nay.
So all of the great white Burgundies of Montrachet, Mersault, Pouilly Fuisse, Chablis and so on that have been the rage of the wine world for centuries, the most expensive and highly touted as the flag bearers for terrior and French winemaking are the same as Yellow Tail Chardonnay? Yeah, pretty much. But there are more than 30 Chardonnay clones that have been created to maximize suitability to particular growing conditions. Winemakers today can pick the clone that will best adapt to their terrior and provide the characteristics of flavor and aroma they are looking for. And no, Chablis is not a variety of wine as the mass-marketers of 30 years ago would have us believe.
Chablis is a small area of about 7,000 acres lying just southeast of Paris, closer to the Champagne region than the rest of Burgundy farther to the south. The simplistic style of winemaking favored there is reputed to be the purest representation of the Chardonnay grape’s characteristics. Chablis wines are drier than most white Burgundies with a flinty, mineral quality. The emphasis here is on terrior and the cooler climate yields a wine with higher acidity. The wines of Chablis rarely go through the secondary fermentation that gives other Chardonnays a distinctive buttery creaminess. Oak barrel fermentation, which imparts the woody, vanilla, and toasty flavors prevalent in many Chardonnays, is also rare in Chablis. Most producers use only stainless steel tanks for vinification, so by design Chablis is more acidic and biting rather than smooth and buttery.
Smooth and buttery may sound more appealing than acidic and biting but for many, the buttery, oaky flavors of most New World Chardonnays has led to the ABC’s of winespeak—Anything But Chardonnay. True Chardonnay didn’t arrive in California until the 1940s and the initial trend was to emulate the wines of Burgundy. But the climate is different, the terrior is not the same, and warmer conditions produced grapes that were riper at harvest. New oak barrels contributed to bigger wines with more mouthfeel and higher alcohol. This heavily oaked style of Chardonnay took hold in the 1980’s and ‘90’s but is finally giving way to lightly oaked and no oak styles that are lean, crisp and more refreshing on a summer day.
This month’s recommended wine is Far Niente Chardonnay from California’s cool Coombsville region near the city of Napa. Well-drained, gravelly volcanic soils and temperate summer days combine to yield tropical flavors hot, complex aromas, and a wine with bright acidity. There is a hint of toasted oak, but none of the buttery flavors associated with malolactic (secondary) fermentation. At 14.3% alcohol it is not an afternoon quaffer but would go well with dinner off the grill and the company of good friends. The shelf price locally is $53.99. The name Far Niente comes from Italian phrases that translate to “the sweetness (or beauty) of doing nothing.” This “pleasant idleness” or living “without a care” seems appropriate to summer on the lake.
Since the April issue of LAKE hit the street we had the opportunity to revisit the wines mentioned in that column with BR Cohn’s National Sales Manager, Dan Cohn. The Olive Hill Cab, which a month ago three of us found lacking as compared to the Silver Label, was in fact silky and magnificent. We also sampled the ’09 Cohn Chardonnay for the first time and found it to be light, crisp and smooth with almost no hint of oak.
Henry Foy is the owner of Emporium Wine and Café 128 located at 128 Calhoun Street in downtown Alexander City an authorized merchant for Perdomo, Arturo Fuente, and Rocky Patel cigars. He can be reached at 256.212.WINE or at email@example.com. Café 128 serves tapas and wine by the glass Tuesday-Saturday.