Have you heard of this grape?
If you had asked back in 1990 what were the world’s most widely planted wine grapes, the top five in order would have been: airén, garnacha, rkatsiteli, sultaniye and trebbiano.
Twenty-plus years later familiar names emerge and it goes cabernet sauvignon, merlot, airén, tempranillo and chardonnay.
Sauvignon blanc is in eighth place and pinot grigio does not even make the top ten.
“What is the most widely planted wine grape?” is a question I used to like to stump folks with, as who would reply airén from Spain?
Actually, the acreage is dropping and to be honest, quite a bit of its production is distilled and used to make brandy and so today it hangs on to the top white spot only, but serious wine-lovers certainly should feel comfortable with saying that chardonnay rules.
Not in our little country though, as the ABC group (anything but chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon) has propelled sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio to dominate the white wine scene.
Of course I cannot give up on chardonnay, as it produces such wonderful wine and, rather unlike some whites, it does co-operate with the winemaker and allows itself to be made in such a wide range of styles and flavours. I prefer to think of the “I do not like chardonnay” group as just not experiencing the right one for them yet.
For instance in October I was conducting a rather high-end tasting for a small group in a private home. Our company had donated it as a raffle prize for a much respected charity and for about an hour we had six wines to sip and chat about. I was ready for the chardonnay detractors and they were there. It is fair to say that they were won over by an absolutely brilliant one from Argentina.
The wine was Catena Alta 2014 Chardonnay, from the wine family in Argentina that started the whole modern push towards quality in our world’s highest vineyards.
The colour is an intense green-yellow with golden highlights, and the nose offers up ripe, white fruit aromas such as pears and peaches that are interwoven with delicate citrus and floral notes remindful of jasmine.
The palate shows rich and concentrated ripe pear, apple and apricot flavours with a light note of minerality. The long finish is complex and crisp. Critic James Suckling scores it 94/100 and wine.com 93/100. To quote the latter: “This chardonnay is stunning and delivers balance and structure that is often missing in the new world.” I often write that for me, the hardest goal for a winemaker to achieve is balance and harmony and, without a doubt, this chardonnay exudes both. Now if you would like to notch it up even more, try it with Bermuda lobster or other rich seafood. $30.70.
For a very fair comparison and a good way to understand the different styles let’s spend ten cents less ($30.60) and try a wine of the same age. I suggest Michel Laroche Chablis Reserve St Martin 2013.
Just a gentle reminder, in case anyone would doubt my “same age” comment, that grapes are harvested earlier in the southern hemisphere. In fact, to better understand, one winery in Argentina has just sent me notice that they will close for their summer holidays in two weeks’ time. Also, during the month of August I have to be mindful of blizzards in the high Andes as we ship from Argentina to Chile to fill our containers.
The Catena chardonnay was fermented and aged in French oak barrels, whereas the chablis is fermented for 21 days in stainless steel and then spends more time in steel, sitting on its lees, before being bottled without any barrel ageing.
Herein lies the big difference in style as oak can add coconut, spices, smoke (heating and charring the oak staves that shapes the barrel), vanilla, tea, caramel and cream and, through evaporation, even some concentration. St Martin, a humble monk and the Patron Saint of chablis, died in 397 and his remains reside in the building that is now the Laroche winery.
For this wine they select from their best plots of land that surround the village of Chablis and in this appellation only chardonnay is allowed. The chablis is intense, with hints of ripe white fruit and flowers. and it has a minerality and slate that results from deep soils that consist of sea shells from the Jurassic Period. This winery has recently converted to organic agriculture.
It is not usual for me to only mention two wines, but to buy a bottle of each and then compare them would be a very instructive way to really experience two very good, but quite unlike methods to work with this classic grape. Once you are hooked you will find that we have an abundance of wines from the Chablis District, Burgundy in general, as well as so many new world countries.
•This column is a paid for advertorial for Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. Michael Robinson is Director of Wine at Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 295-0176. Burrows Lightbourn have stores in Hamilton (Front Street East, 295-1554), Paget (Harbour Road, 236-0355) and St George’s (York Street, 297-0409). A selection of their wines, beers and spirits is available online at www.wineonline.bm