Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Chardonnay - the white grape of domination

Chardonnay; sweet, sweet chardonnay. How we all love you so.
Statistically speaking of course.
So, on day two we went over the fine and the filthy of Chardonnay. Which is supposedly the world's most purchased grape. I don't have a stat for that; it's just what I was told. But it seems believable enough. But why is that? Why are people buying this grape? It's not overly aromatic on its own; it’s generally very neutral over all. Nothing to write home about. It is however incredibly versatile. It can grow in almost any climate and in any number of soils. In the world of grapes it's like Wolverine; (from X-men, don't make the "I don't know what you're talking about" eyebrows. I know you’re just as geeky as me), indestructible and universally cool. Actually it’s probably closer to Mystique, and her ability to transform and shape-shift to her environment. Yeah. Mystique. Totally.

Chardonnay is grown all over the world, but it is best known for is classic regions like White Burgundy, Chablis, Cote d'Or and Marcoconais.  So let's start there.
White Burgundy - this is where you are going to see the most expensive and the best expression of Chardonnay in the world, undoubtedly. What determines the price? Well, that is determined by what's written on the label. Prices vary according to which region, district, village and vineyard the wine is made from.  Specifically we have Chablis; the key to Chablis is to know that it is a bone dry white wine. Which I love. It's a crisp, refreshing, cool climate white. With high acid, austere green fruit and citrus, and notable limestone minerals. And it's got its own rating system - Grand Cru (being the very best), Premier Cru (being exceptional in its own right) and Village Level (which is still a Burgundy wine and still amazing but not as good as Premier Cru).  Then we have the Cote d'Or; there are a few “smaller” regions included in this - we have the Cote de Beane, Puligny - Montrachet, and Mersault. These wines are typically fuller bodied, oaked and are a reference point to most chardonnays on the market. In Maconnais we have the warmest Burgundy climate because it is the furthest south. In here we see the sub regions of Poully-Fuisse and Macon. Because of the warmer climate, we see a larger volume produced and more of a tropical fruit expression - but it's also a bit simpler of a wine. Not necessarily a bad thing because some of these top notch Burgundy wines will cost you well over a thousand dollars a bottle. So selection is good for the non-millionaires among us.
Some other regions where we find excellent expressions from Chardonnay are Australia (Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Margret River), New Zealand (Hawks Bay, Gisborne, and Marlborough), throughout North America in places like California (costal, Sonoma or Carneros), Chile (Casablanca Valley), Argentina (Mendoza) and South Africa (Walker Bay Ward).

Wine making technique plays a huge part in how a Chardonnay is going to taste. It can be tampered with a little or a lot, and its ability to stand up to this tampering is why it’s often called the Photoshop grape. You can take a Chardonnay that is less than what it should be, and makes changes to it after the fact. This can be a good thing, and this can be a bad thing. 
Some of the techniques that we see being used are the use of malolatci fermentation, which creates a buttery cream quality to a wine; it can also be used to soften some of the harsh tannins in a wine from the oaking process. Another one that we see is the Lees. These are the dead yeast cells kept behind after fermentation. These are stirred in to add creamy and savory notes similar to the malolactic fermentation. There is also the (over) use of oak to give wines a toasted, vanilla, coconut, spice flavor. It also adds tannin and gives a wine structure and helps with its age ability. A lot of the new world wines will state the kind of oak they use. A good guideline is that American oak is like American culture – big, fast-acting, sweet flavors that can leave you feeling a bit shocked. And French oak is like French culture – laid back, slow to integrate but generally better in the long term*.

Another thing that winemakers do is ferment in stainless steel and just add oak shavings, chips, dust, and even something called “oak essences”, all of which progressively cheaper then the last. And you can taste the difference. But by using things like oak essence we are able to get bottles of oaked Chardonnay for under 10$.
The above fermentation is seen most often in bulk production for inexpensive Chardonnay, but it’s fairly easy to spot even if you don’t know the price point and have never tried the wine. It’s cheaper to pull grapes from a number of locations than it is to take it from one specific vineyard. However, the areas being sourced from need to be named at least in a general sense. They are often sold as  “South Eastern Australia”, “Western Cape”, “California”, ‘Chile”, or “Vin de France”. Another way that makers cut costs in bulk production is to blend in other less desirable grapes in with the Chardonnay, like Semillon, which adds acidity and citrus notes.
Over all, I imagine Chardonnay to be less like Photoshop and more like one of those play-dough sets in the hands of a 6 year old. Where the medium holds whatever shape the kid gives it. However, you may feel obligated to praise the child for making you this creation, even though you really aren’t sure what the hell it’s supposed to be.

*This is just my being bias to a preference of French oak, so you should try a few and see what you like.

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