A few weeks ago I led a Chardonnay tasting for a private event at Little Brick Café and General Store. I thought I would post some notes from that session. If this type of info interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of Belgian beers on Thursday, April 21, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.
For this event we did a style of tasting that we do a lot with our wine group at work. We call it a semi-blind varietal tasting. This isn’t a technical term, or even a commonly used term… it’s just a name we made up. Three or four wines of the same grape varietal are selected, but they each hail from different, far-flung corners of the globe. They are often of hilariously different price points. Ideally they each represent a different style or tradition. The varietal is announced to the tasters at the beginning of the session, but nothing else is revealed about the wines. Hence “semi-blind”.
After 10 minutes of silence during which everyone evaluates the wines’ appearance, nose, and palate, we compare notes, then everyone has to pick a favourite.
Finally the wines are revealed, and folks have to come to grips with the fact that they preferred, for instance, a $12 blue bottle of Riesling over a $50 bottle from a prestigious, steep, south-facing slope.
This is a really fun style of tasting. Purists insist that tastings should be blind in order not to influence perception and judgement. I think it’s really useful to be able to think about the varietal as you taste.
Chardonnay. For this tasting all the wines were Chardonnay. This grape is originally from Burgundy, France. Nearly all the white Burgundies available to us in North American are made exclusively of Chardonnay.
From Burgundy Chardonnay went on to conquer the world and become one of the most widely planted wine grapes. Why is this? Well, Chardonnay adapts to several disperate climates as far-flung as British Columbia, California, France, and Australia. It is not susceptible to many vineyard pests or diseases. It is realatively neutral in flavour, and naturally high in acid and sugar, which means it produces wines with plenty of alcohol. With acidity and alcohol Chardonnay can form the backbone on which several different techniques can be applied. It is maleable. So, for instance, it could be given a long, cool fermatation and early bottling to produce an aromatic, light style…. or it could get long, warm, barrel fermentation… or it could be made into sparkling wine. Chardonnay is the principle grape in most Champagne.
Chablis. Wines from France, generally, and Burgundy especially tend to be named for the village in which they are made, not the grape from which they derive. In fact, a hundred years ago, the names of the grapes would have been considered a rather arcane fact, only important to vine growers, not wine drinkers. The practice of naming wines by varietal didn’t become common until the end of the twentieth century, and then mostly in the new world.
Famous white Burgundies like Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, and Meursault, are all made from Chardonnay. The idea is that the place where the grapes grow has at least as much to do with the character of the wine as the grape varietal. In the case of white Burgundies, the most important aspect of place is the limestone soil, which gives the wines their famous minerality.
The first Chardonnay we tasted was a Chablis, one of the most classic examples of Chardonnay. Chablis is in the far north of Burgundy. The hallmarks of this style: bone dry, high acid, and a lot of mineral character on the nose, often described as “gunflint,” though I never use that word because it always begs the question: have I ever smelled gunflint? I haven’t. Chablis’ reputation is for an austere, un-oaked style. In reality the matter of oaking is very much the preference of the vintner, and lots of Chablis sees some oak.
This bottle cost around $30 from Devine Wines. It clearly has the distinctive “mineral” quality for which Chablis is famous. Sometimes that mineral smell reminds me of vinyl. Medium plus acid, green apple character, punchy, flavourful, a relatively watery mouthfeel.
Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay. The next wine was Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay, from south eastern Australian. I bought it for about $14 at Jasper Liquor Merchant. I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s here as an example of a cheap, mass-produced, warm-climate Chardonnay. For the price I think it is eminently drinkable.
Mer Soleil California Chardonnay. The last wine was a California Chardonnay. Ostensibly “California Chardonnay” just means a Chardonnay made in California, but it has become something of a classic style in its own right. The classic California chardonnay has been aged in oak and has undergone a secondary bacterial fermentation called malolactic fermentation (MLF). This used to occur spontaneously in oak barrels; nowadays vintners will inoculate their wine with the bacterial culture. MLF affects the wine in many important ways.
- aroma – Aromas of vanilla and butterscotch
- MLF is so called because the bacteria convert malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acid is the principle acid in green apples. Imagine the sharp sensation of biting into a tart Granny Smith. That’s malic acid. Lactic acid is the principle acid in cultured dairy such as yogurt and sour cream. It has a much gentler, rounder character.
- Mouthfeel. One distinctive effect of MLF is that the wine develops a very full mouthfeel; it almost feels viscous on the tongue. The Mer Soleil is a great example of this… In fact one taster found the impression of viscosity so strong, he was reminded of ice wine, and even started to wonder if this wine is sweet. (It isn’t.)
This style was done to death in the 1990s, and there has been a reaction against it in the wine world. The style has become so synonymous with New World Chardonnays generally and California Chardonnays specifically, that producers now label their un-oaked specimens very clearly. Some common examples: Joel Gott Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Kim Crawford Un-Oaked Chardonnay.
I find this one of the more difficult things about wine. With beer, if you buy an IPA, you basically know what you’re getting. Of course some are more or less bitter, and the aroma may be more towards the citrus end of the spectrum, or more towards the evergreen end… but at the end of the day, beer is usually made to a certain style that is stated pretty explicitly on the packaging. This is not true for wine, so if you buy a California Chardonnay, while most have been put through MLF, your bottle could just as easily be an austere, steely incarnation. Tasting notes on labels are basically useless, and ultimately you need to have tasted the wine before to know what you’re getting.
Anyways, the Mer Soleil Reserve, with its fat, full, buttery mouthfeel is a shining example of luxurious oak treatment.
Mer Soleil is from Monterey County, which is on the central coast of California, well south of San Fransisco and Napa. But it is from a part of Monterey that has been branded the Santa Lucia Highlands. It is marketed as one of California’s premier “cool climate” sub-regions. The Mer Soleil still has plenty of the tropical aromas (mango!) common in warm-climate Chardonnay.
Conclusion. So my favourite was Mer Soleil, simply because I love that buttery style of Chardonnay. At $45, I have to admit I would almost never buy it.
#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits
- Some are made from Aligoté. But all the famous, high-quality white Burgundies are Chardonnay.
- There are loads of notable exceptions to this generalization: northern Italy and Alsace come to mind.
- I was not drinking wine in the 1990s….