To round off Chardonnay Week, I think it's only appropriate that we take a closer look at my favourite grape variety. Chardonnay can be used to make still and sparkling wines and it is favoured by winemakers and consumers alike due to its malleability. Chardonnay is often called the winemakers grape because it responds well to different treatments in the winery. First we will have a look at what can influence how Chardonnay tastes and then the processes in the winery that can influence the wines flavours and finally some recommendations.
So what can influence how a wine tastes? First up is climate. To put it very simply, grapes need sunshine to ripen and to change sour acids into sweet sugars. If a grape is produced in a cooler climate with less sunshine then less of the acids will be turned into sugar resulting in a wine with a lighter body, higher acidity, lower alcohol (less sugar= less alcohol) and lighter flavours. In a Chardonnay those flavours will be more zesty- lemon, lime and green apple- like in a Chablis. If a Chardonnay is from a warmer, sunny climate it will have riper, more tropical fruit flavours to it with a fuller body, more moderate acidity, higher alcohol and often more intense flavours.
Where Chardonnay can really shine is the winery. How it is handled can have a huge influence on how the resulting wine tastes. One process used to influence the flavours, acidity and texture of Chardonnay (and many other grape varieties) is malolactic fermentation or MLF for short. My chemistry and biology is extremely basic but I will attempt to explain. After the initial fermentation, the one that changes sugars to alcohol, winemakers can allow MLF to take place. During MLF, harsh malic acid is transformed into lactic acid which is softer tasting. It changes the wine so it is may seem fuller bodied, with a more rounded, creamier texture, reduced acidity and with more complex flavours- those buttery notes so common in Chardonnay.
Another wine making trick to add complexity is using the lees. These are a deposit of yeast cells (dead and alive) and fragments of grape skins and cells found at the bottom of the barrel or tank post fermentation. Leaving the wine in contact with the lees helps create more complex flavours (toasty notes) and improve the texture. The lees can be stirred to enhance the flavours.
Oak barrels can be used as vessels for fermentation and for further ageing. Fermenting wines in oak has become more popular in recent years as research has shown that the oaky flavours are better integrated if the wine is fermented in oak barrels rather than just aged in them. In Chardonnay delicious vanilla, sweet spice, butter even coconut and caramel flavours come from the use of oak. The size of the barrel, the length of time spent in it, the toast level and the origin of the oak also influence the type and intensity of the flavours that develop in the wine. Oak barrels are the best way to create these flavours but cost is large factor in choosing which method. Oak barrels can be very expensive and there are other methods such as inner stave treatment (big stick in the vat with oak staves attached) or oak chips which come in a variety of toast levels.The flavours in the resultant wine might not be as well integrated but these are much cheaper methods or adding oaky notes.
Last but not least, Chardonnay is one of the three grape varieties permitted in Champagne (the others being Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, both red) and it is allowed in Cava and many other sparkling wines. It is favoured in Champagne for adding acidity and biscuity flavours. A Blanc de blanc champagne is made using only Chardonnay. In Cava production, it’s use was pioneered by Cordoniu and is still a little controversial. Chardonnay is used to make traditional method sparklers all over world from England to India. The method to produce Champagne is called the traditional method. Following an initial fermentation, the wines which are about 8% abv and very acidic are bottled then a mix of sugar and yeast is added to kick start the secondary fermentation. This gives the wine its bubbles and then ageing on lees adds yeast, biscuity flavours. This is the most expensive and labour intensive method of production but is also the most highly regarded. It is used to produce the highest quality sparkling wines.
These are the main factors that can influence how a Chardonnay will taste but other factors such a the individual vineyard site can play a role too. A really interesting and helpful book if you enjoy this type of thing is Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird. He’s a chemist, an MW and he writes very well, in language sciencephobes can understand.
Now onto the fun stuff, some recommendations.
If you enjoy the unoaked, cool climate style of Chardonnay give Domaine de Vauroux Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre a try. Racey acidity, refreshing citrus, greengage and granny smith apple flavours. Drink it now or keep it for a few years, it will develop in the bottle. Available by the single bottle.
For something with a bit of lees stirring, Bogle Vineyards Chardonnay is just the ticket. It’s a warmer climate so we have some pineapple alongside our appley notes with a creamy mouthfeel and delicate buttery notes. Available by the bottle.
Concha Y Toro Amelia Chardonnay is a lovely example of an oaky Chardonnay with rich toasty, nutty flavours with some tropical fruit. This is my absolute favourite style of (still) Chardonnay and is such a treat. Available by the single bottle.
Finally a fizz. I’ve had a soft spot for Champagne Jacquart Blanc de Blancs ever since I had some in a Champagne bar on holiday in Berlin. Creamy yet refreshing with apple, brioche and toasted hazelnut flavours. Go on, treat yourself. Available by the single bottle.
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