A Chardonnay Tasting

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.

 

chardonnayFor 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.[1]

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.[2]

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[3], 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

 

  1. Some are made from Aligoté.  But all the famous, high-quality white Burgundies are Chardonnay.
  2. There are loads of notable exceptions to this generalization: northern Italy and Alsace come to mind.
  3. I was not drinking wine in the 1990s….

Grüner Veltliner and Other Austrian Wines

Some shameless self-promotion:  if the type of information contained in this post interests you at all, I’m going to be hosting a tasting of sparkling wines on Thursday, February 11, as part of Little Brick’s Home School series.

 

Three examples of Grüner Veltliner available from wine shops here in Edmonton.I’ve been meaning to write about Austrian wine for some time.  Years, actually: ever since I wrote this post on Heurigen, which are rural taverns that serve young wine and cider.

Last week the Elm wine group did a tasting of Grüner Veltliner, the national grape of Austria, so I thought I would finally put down some info on Austrian wine.

If you haven’t had Austrian wine before, you’re not a freak or a philistine: there isn’t a whole lot available in North America.  Austria produces almost as much wine as New Zealand[1], but in most generic liquor stores the Kiwis have an entire section, while you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle from Austria.  Boutique wine shops like Devine usually carry a handful.  It seems that the majority of Austria’s wine is consumed by Austrians.

Despite its relatively small amount of exports, the Austrian wine industry has garnered a lot of attention in recent years because of its commitment to both its regional identity and quality production.  The latter sounds like it should be a given, but within most wine-producing countries there are regions that make enormous quantities of mediocre or bad wine, creating surplus, driving down prices, and ultimately threatening the entire wine industry.[2]  The southern-most regions of France and Italy are infamous examples.  By contrast, almost all of the area under vine in Austria is devoted to quality wine production.  Austria also has some of the most stringent regulations for processing and labelling, though admittedly these were put into effect after a 1985 scandal that saw some producers adding diethylene glycol to improve the body of their wines.

It’s always tempting to lump Austria in with Germany, and while the two countries do share some grape varietals and labeling practices, Austrian wines have a lot more in common with those of Alsace than Germany.  They produce mainly dry whites, common varietals being Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Riesling (almost always dry, unlike German examples), and Gewürztraminer (also dry, unlike Alsatian examples).  The most common red variety is Zweigelt, an Austrian native.  As in Germany, wines are sold under varietal name.

Austrian wine production occurs almost entirely in the east end of the country, in the lower regions away from the Alps of the west.  Most of the Austrian wines available to us in North American come from the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), specifically parts of the Danube and its tributaries just upstream of Vienna: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental.  (The suffix “tal” indicates a valley.  The Kremstal is the valley around the town of Krems.  The Kamptal is the valley formed by the river Kamp.)  The most important of these is the Wachau.

Wachau.  The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube west of Vienna.  Much like the German Mosel, the best wines here are labelled by varietal as well as the vineyard or hill that produced the grapes.  Important hills include Loibenberg, Terrassen, and Kellerberg.  These may appear on labels either by themselves, or in conjunction with the name of the adjacent village (eg. Dürnsteiner Kellerberg refers to the hill Kellerberg by the town of Dürnstein).

The Wachau also has its own version of the German “predicate” labelling system, which classifies wines by pre-fermentation must weight, that is, sugar content.  The more concentrated the original must, the higher potential alcohol, and in theory the higher the quality of the wine.  So in Germany Rieslings are classified as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenasulese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing must weight (and by extension increasing prestige and price-point…)

The Wachau sytem is much simpler, and uses final alcohol content instead of original must weight.  The lightest grade is Steinfeder (named for a type of frizzy grass) which is below 11.5% ABV.  Next is Federspiel (named for a bird) between 11.5 and 12.5%.  The highest quality wines are labelled Smaragd (a kind of small lizard native to the region) and are above 12.5% ABV.

A view of the Donau (Danube) from the ruined castle at Durnstein

 

Grüner Veltliner, the most commonly planted grape in Austria, has become a darling of the wine cogniscenti in recent years.  Here’s what rockstar sommelier Rajat Parr has to say about the varietal…

A robust white, it features some of the greenish flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and a hint of legumes, making it the perfect match for green vegetables like peas, asparagus, artichokes, and lettuces. (Secrets of the Sommeliers[3], page 208)

[Grüner Veltliner] has a beany, green, peppery character that nicely offsets asparagus… (ibid, page 115)

It’s ridiculous for me to try and contradict Rajat Parr, but I’ve never, ever picked up “green” aromas from Grüner (despite its name… which I think means “green grape from Valtellina”, but that refers to the colour of the fruit itself, not it’s aromas).  I’ve always struggled to pick up that smell, even in Sauvignon Blanc, so I should just keep my mouth closed.

Getting back to the original point of this post, for our Grüner Veltliner tasting we tried three examples.  Some quick notes follow.

F.X. Pichler 2007 Loibner Berg Smaragd Grüner Veltliner.  Pichler is one of the big family names in the Wachau.  The wine smelled exactly like an old pineapple, and had a viscous mouthfeel.  If the tasting had been blind I would have sworn it was a New World oaked Chardonnay.  It was almost unanimously the favourite of the three wines we tasted, until it was revealed that it was $49.99 at Wine and Beyond.  With that price tag it is not likely be purchased by anyone in the group.

The next day I happened to read this: “Because Wachau’s producers have the ability to push the ripeness envelope, they are tempted to overdo it, as is happening in Germany’s Rheingau.  A few well-known producers have fallen into this trap – F.X. Pichler and Hirtzberger to name two – and for the privilege of drinking their unbalanced wines, you pay a costly premium.  Stick to the better, more proportional wines of Prager, Altzinger, and Knoll.” (ibid, page 115)

Rabl 2014 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois.  This is an interesting one.  Basically no fruit on the nose.  Strong, frankly peculiar aromas that I described as rice cake, toast, and mock orange blossom.  (The tasting notes posted at the place of purchase said, “citrus notes with a dusting of stony mineral”. Go figure.)  It has a sharp, bright acidity, and the flavour of lemon pith.  Quite distinctive.  The Rabl was $21.99 at Devine.

Gritsch 2013 Steinterrassen Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.  The lightest of the bunch.  A nose of wet stone and red apple.  Medium, round, happy acidity.  Short finish.  $22.99 at Devine.

 

#ButtonSoupCellar is a series of posts about wines and spirits

 

Footnotes

  1. New Zealand and Austria are 17th and 16th, respectively on this list.
  2. The Oxford Companion to Wine says that surplus production is “the single greatest problem facing the world’s wine industry”.
  3. Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan MacKay.  Published by Ten Speed Press.