Chardonnay – the winemakers grape

Is a wine made in the winery or in the vineyard?

That wasn’t a question on one of my MW exams, but it could well have been. The argument about whether a wine is made in the vineyard or in the winery is long-lived and, in truth, there is no single answer to the question. Like every exam question an MW student has to answer it requires considering multiple differing, even polar opposite, opinions and illuminating them with real-life examples from vineyards and wineries worldwide.

This particular subject was brought into sharp focus at a tasting I attended recently where four cool-climate producers from different countries each discussed their philosophies when making Chardonnay. Winemakers or representatives from Domaine de Malandes in Chablis, Casas del Bosque in Casablanca, Chile, Philip Shaw from Orange in Australia and Jordan from Stellenbosch in South Africa all gathered in London to show two Chardonnays each.

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator, representative from Domaine des Malandes, Gary Jordan from Jordan,  Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw, Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator; representative from Domaine des Malandes; Gary Jordan from Jordan; Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw; Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

On the surface we had one old world producer and three new world, but all from cool-climate regions and all presenting Chardonnay – so how different could their winemaking techniques be? Quite, it turns out. Whilst there were indeed some similarities, these were eclipsed by the differences.

First up was discussion on what made these producers cool-climate. For Domaine de Malandes it was the northerly latitude of Chablis, whereas for Philip Shaw it was the altitude of vineyards at 900m above sea level. Casas del Bosque benefits from their proximity to the Southern Ocean with its cold Humboldt Current – resulting in fog and cold winds to temper the daytime temperatures. And Jordan has a combination both of altitude up to 400m and cooling influence from the Southern Ocean. All cool-climate, but all for different reasons.

Onto the winemaking. Grant Phelps, winemaker at Casa del Bosque, started his discussion by talking about his love for skin contact, with 100% of their Chardonnay undergoing skin contact for 5 days before pressing. He believes this extracts texture and flavour into the wine. In contrast, Gary Jordan doesn’t use any skin contact in his Chardonnay as he worries it could result in too high pH in the wine – meaning the wine could taste flabby and not age well. In his words “a few months on skins in the vineyard is long enough”.

Whether to use inoculated yeast or wild yeast was the next subject to be debated. Although Casas del Bosque have experimented with starting fermentation with wild yeast, they do inoculate in order to make sure the wine ferments to dryness – to avoid a so-called ‘stuck’ fermentation. In contrast, Philip Shaw use 100% wild yeast as they believe it gives more complexity and texture to the wine. And although Jordan do inoculate, Gary did point out that using wild yeast shouldn’t necessarily give a stuck ferment.

Malolactic fermentation – whether to convert the harsher, green malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid – was another topic where opinions differed. For Domaine des Malandes 100% MLF is necessary due to the cool climate without the high sunshine hours found in the new world. Softening the high levels of malic acid is important in order to create a palatable wine. In contrast, Philip Shaw only does 20-30% MLF and Casas del Bosque don’t do any at all.

Onto the oak regime, and surprise surprise here were yet more differences in opinion. For their basic Chablis, Domaine des Malandes don’t use any oak – the wine is aged 100% in stainless steel tank. Even for their premier cru Montmains, they only use 20% oak and a mix of new, 2nd and 3rd year. Contrast this to Casas del Bosque where their Gran Reserva is aged for 11 months in 100% oak, 35% of which is new. Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay sees even more new oak – it is all aged in oak for 13 months – 93% of which is new oak. In fact probably the only similarity here was that the oak was French for all the wines.

During barrel ageing winemakers can increase the texture of the wine and add rich complexity by stirring the lees (essentially the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation) in the bottom of the barrels. Even here opinions differed. Casas del Bosque use the perhaps more traditional method of battonage – literally stirring the lees with a rod, whereas Jordan use barrel rolling so that they don’t have to remove the barrel bungs: meaning less oxygen contact with the wine.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these differing winemaking decisions resulted in completely different wines. Styles ranged from the steely, intensely mineral Chablis of Domaine des Malandes to the full bodied, fruity and smoky style of Casas del Bosque with Philip Shaw giving textural, delicate wines and Jordan ably walking the tightrope between ripe fruit and bright acidity. Each winery had its own unique signature, a result of considered winemaking decisions alongside each winery’s particular climate and terroir.

It was an enlightening tasting and I just wish I had been able to be a fly on the wall post-tasting as I’m sure the discussions and debate between the winemakers continued after the room had cleared. As with many topics in the world of wine, there is no right or wrong or black or white – winemakers simply have to make the right decision for them based on their grapes, climate, resources and a multitude of other factors. It makes for a fascinating discussion.

Emma

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