CHARDON­NAY UNCORKED

Do­minic Rip­pon ex­plains why this adapt­able white grape is so pop­u­lar.

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When for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter John Ma­jor de­clared his wine pref­er­ence as ‘ABC’ – any­thing but chardon­nay – many be­lieved they had heard the death knell for the va­ri­ety. Widely planted in the rapidly ex­pand­ing New World vine­yards, chardon­nay be­gan to at­tract a stigma in the 1990s as ubiq­ui­tous, of­ten clum­sily oaked, plonk favoured by the un­so­phis­ti­cated drinker. But when the Univer­sity of Ade­laide pub­lished the first ever data­base of global vine­yard plant­ings in 2013, it showed that chardon­nay had grown to be­come the world’s fifth most planted grape by 2010. In 1990, it had not even been in the top ten.

Chardon­nay’s coloni­sa­tion of the world’s vine­yards is partly thanks to its im­pres­sive adapt­abil­ity. Easy to grow, it be­haves like a chameleon in the vine­yard, tak­ing on the char­ac­ter of its sur­round­ings – which in warm, high-yield­ing com­mer­cial vine­yards, tends to pro­duce peachy, even trop­i­cal, flavours. This flavour pro­file makes warm-cli­mate chardon­nay the per­fect ini­ti­a­tion to dry white wine. If the grape has a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, it is its un­mis­take­ably rich mouth-feel, of­ten de­scribed as but­tery, which can be ac­cen­tu­ated by bar­rel fer­men­ta­tion or oak age­ing, for which chardon­nay has a well-known nat­u­ral affin­ity.

Al­though chardon­nay seem­ingly makes de­cent wines wher­ever it is planted, there are only a few cor­ners of the world where it re­ally shines, and nowhere more than in the clay and lime­stone soils of its home re­gion of Bur­gundy. It is a fledgling wine con­nois­seur’s rite of pas­sage to de­clare tri­umphantly to a chardon­nay doubter that fine ch­ablis is made from the grape.

At the pin­na­cle of the French wine hi­er­ar­chy, the Côte d’or vine­yard that makes the most ex­pen­sive white wines on the planet, Grand Cru Le Mon­tra­chet, is given over en­tirely to chardon­nay. It grows wines of ex­quis­ite bal­ance, nerve and el­e­gance, es­pe­cially in the hands of leg­endary pro­duc­ers such as Do­maine Le­flaive; a plea­sure which, sadly, pre­cious few ever get to en­joy.

Chalky slopes

The other em­blem­atic re­gion where chardon­nay sets pulses rac­ing is Cham­pagne. In most cham­pagne, chardon­nay is blended with the red grapes pinot noir and pinot me­u­nier, which (un­less cham­pagne rosé is sought) are pressed im­me­di­ately af­ter pick­ing to en­sure that the juice is not stained by the grape skins.

But chardon­nay comes into its own on the east-fac­ing chalky slopes that stretch south from the re­gion’s wine cap­i­tal, Éper­nay, where the Grand Cru vil­lages of Cra­mant, Avize, Oger and Le Mes­nil-surOger are planted ex­clu­sively with chardon­nay. The blanc de blancs cham­pagnes pro­duced from these vine­yards, known as the Côte des Blancs, show

a de­li­ciously fresh min­er­al­ity that de­vel­ops into bis­cu­ity com­plex­ity with age.

Given the Jura vine­yards’ prox­im­ity to those of Bur­gundy (they are now part of the same re­gion, the newly cre­ated Bour­gogne-franche-comté), it is un­sur­pris­ing that chardon­nay made the jour­ney from its heart­land into the Juras­sic hills at some point in the Mid­dle Ages. The grape, which is known lo­cally as melon d’ar­bois, is an in­gre­di­ent in most of Jura’s white wines, in­clud­ing sweet vin de paille; al­though it is ex­cluded from the re­gion’s fa­mous take on dry sherry, vin jaune, which is made from the sav­agnin grape.

Chardon­nay in Jura is of­ten bot­tled as a sin­gle va­ri­etal wine, gen­er­ally giv­ing fresh, flo­ral whites but some­times vini­fied with more oxy­gen con­tact than else­where in France, which adds savoury, some­times nutty flavours, which help it to pair well with food.

Ev­ery­where from Bur­gundy and Jura to the Loire Val­ley (al­though not Bordeaux), chardon­nay lends ap­pel­la­tion d’orig­ine bot­tle-fermented bub­blies – the cré­mants – a touch of the cham­pagne magic; per­haps nowhere more than in cré­mant de Li­moux, from vine­yards that cling to the lower slopes of the Pyrénées, in west­ern Langue­doc.

Chardon­nay is a re­cent im­mi­grant to the Li­mouxin vine­yards, which his­tor­i­cally grew mauzac grapes for the pro­duc­tion of blan­quette de Li­moux, the world’s old­est bot­tle-fermented sparkling wine (it pre­dates cham­pagne by about a cen­tury). But in the early 1970s, chardon­nay was in­tro­duced to add body and fi­nesse to Li­moux bub­blies. At the same time, wine­mak­ers be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with still, bar­rel-fermented chardon­nay, with im­pres­sive re­sults. In 1993, the ap­pel­la­tion d’orig­ine for Li­moux’s white wines was re­vised to in­clude chardon­nay as a per­mit­ted grape, along­side mauzac and chenin blanc.

To­day, the white wines of Li­moux have the pe­cu­liar­ity that they must be fermented or aged in oak in or­der to qual­ify for their ap­pel­la­tion. Jan­cis Robin­son MW has praised Li­moux as France’s “most in­ter­est­ing chardon­nay vine­yards out­side Bur­gundy”, and es­tates such as Château RivesBlan­ques, nestling in the cool, windswept Pyre­nean foothills, show how the grape thrives in these higher-al­ti­tude vine­yards, mak­ing min­eral-scented, but­tery whites that can bear an al­lur­ing re­sem­blance to pricier white bur­gundy.

Chardon­nay’s fa­mous adapt­abil­ity, com­bined with its noble pedi­gree, has earned it a pop­u­lar­ity that shows no signs of wan­ing, even as the fash­ion for less well-known grapes sweeps the wine me­dia. Many drinkers are re­turn­ing to chardon­nay’s var­ied, food-friendly flavours, hav­ing tired of the re­li­ably goose­berry-per­fumed sauvi­gnon blanc or more ethe­real bot­tles of pinot gri­gio. Al­though the choice on of­fer cov­ers the en­tire wine world, for now at least, no other coun­try can hold a can­dle to France’s best chardon­nays.

Do­minic Rip­pon has many years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine mer­chant busi­ness Strictly Wine.

FAR LEFT: Pickers at Do­maine Le­flaive in Bur­gundy har­vest chardon­nay grapes in the Che­va­lierMon­tra­chet

Grand Cru vine­yard; BE­LOW: Wine tast­ing in a Li­moux vine­yard in west­ern Langue­doc

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