OF ALL the world’s grape varieties, no other can match Chardonnay for its geographical reach and stylistic virtuosity. From the great grands crus of the Côtes de Beaune to the “sunshine in a bottle” that represents many people’s introduction to wine, Chardonnay mingles seamlessly with aristocracy and proletariat alike. The flip side of this virtuosity means that, more than any other variety, Chardonnay is particularly susceptible to fashion, making itself loved, derided and misunderstood in equal measures. What better candidate therefore with which to expand The Drinks Business Masters series?
Unsurprisingly for a variety which so often reflects winemaking technique as much, if not more, than any strong sense of place, the results offer an intriguing picture of which regions and producers are getting this balance right. Of course, deciding where that balance lies can prove highly subjective and provoked some lively discussion among judges. The interplay of factors such as fruit ripeness, oak, alcohol, acidity, residual sugar, malolactic fermentation, battonage and oxygen management requires deft decision making by winemakers.
Crucially, however, the end result should not distract the drinker by displaying its vinification too overtly, but rise above the sum of its parts to create a harmonious whole. The hundreds of wines entered into this inaugural Global Chardonnay Masters representing no fewer than 18 different countries demonstrated that winemakers today, from all parts of the world, are rising admirably to this challenge.
“The tasting reminded me why Chardonnay is such a hugely successful grape,” summed up Sebastian Payne MW, buyer for The Wine Society. “Its bouquet relatively seldom shouts at you, unlike Sauvignon or Gewürztraminer or even Riesling, but the flavour is satisfactorily full and rounded, never aggressive or over-acidic, and its wines are splendidly versatile when you eat.”
Meanwhile Justin Knock MW, a winemaking consultant for clients in South America, the UK, Spain and his native Australia, commented on some of the current stylistic trends demonstrated by this competition. As a general observation, he noted: “In my view winemakers in pursuit of less overt ripeness are making better wines.” In terms of vinification, Knock found “oak was generally very well handled”, adding: “I noticed that some viscous, buttery malolactic fermentation characters are making a return – perhaps in view of finding acid balance in earlier picked styles.” Hailing this evolution as a “welcome return”, he argued: “It has a natural place in truly great, complex, textured Chardonnay.”
What’s more, Knock noted the appeal on offer even among more modestly priced wines. “It was great to see that even at entry level prices wines are showing better balance, even when in a more overt and predictable style,” he commented. “It shows that Chardonnay has multiple dimensions and that people are open to a wide range of styles.”
For consultant Richard Bampfield MW, the entries offered a valuable update on what we can now expect from a variety which is so prone to the pendulum swing of fashion. “A few years ago, I think that such a tasting would have featured wines showing more evident development, probably more evident oak and more overt smoothness and roundness,” he suggested. “Nowadays the aim is for a fresher style, almost as if the wines have been blended with some Sauvignon.”
In Bampfield’s view, this evolution marks a positive step for Chardonnay. “I think this is a healthier direction with the proviso that higher levels of acidity also require a reasonable level of ripeness to ensure a balanced result,” he concluded.
The judges may not have known the origin of the wines in each flight, but some regions certainly met their exacting criteria with greater regularity than others. While there were pockets of brilliance from individual producers across the globe, a number of regions stood out for the consistently exceptional quality of their Chardonnay.
Within a strong overall performance from Australia, the Adelaide Hills and Margaret River shone particularly bright. California’s rich, buttery style can divide opinion among European palates, but the judges were quick to reward those achieving elegance alongside generosity. Meanwhile, in South Africa it was the cooler climate regions of Elgin and Walker Bay which impressed judges with the freshness and poise of their Chardonnay. For a while now there have been enthusiastic noises about the underrated quality of New Zealand Chardonnay, so long overshadowed by the country’s popular Sauvignon Blanc.
The entries this year reinforced this impression, showing that Marlborough today has more than one trick up its sleeve. And finally, let’s not forget France. No doubt aware of the contenders seeking to knock them from their pedestal, Burgundian entries made up a relatively small proportion of the wines judged. Of these, many acquitted themselves with distinction; however, Payne used the quality of the competition to warn: “Burgundy, particularly the Côte d’Or, needs to look to its laurels and
Of course, Burgundy is not the only corner of France that understands how to make excellent Chardonnay, a fact reflected in the impressive medal haul from Champagne, whose blanc de blancs continues to set an ambitious benchmark for the growing number of styles emerging in the ever more dynamic sparkling wine sector. In short, the inaugural Global Chardonnay Masters presented a compelling snapshot of this extraordinarily versatile variety, which is capable of offering enormous pleasure in just about every price point and country you care to imagine.
What’s more, Chardonnay producers are not ones to stagnate: this is not only a commercially crucial category, but one that rewards regular reassessment.
|Champagne Taittinger||Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut||Master||France||2005||30+|
|Centre Vinicole-Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte||Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Chardonnay||Gold||France||2005||20-30|
|Champagne Cattier||Cattier Brut Blanc de Blancs Signature||Gold||France||NV||30+|
|Champagne Cattier||Cattier Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru||Gold||France||NV||30+|
|Champagne Gosset||Champagne Gosset Blanc de Blancs NV||Gold||France||NV||30+|
|Centre Vinicole-Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte||Nicolas Feuillatte Grand Cru Chardonnay||Gold||France||2005||30+|
|Edoardo Miroglio||Edoardo Miroglio Blanc de Blancs, Brut NV||Silver||Bulgaria||NV||10-20|
|Nosio||Rotari Cuvee 28 100% Chardonnay NV||Silver||Italy||NV||10-20|
|Champagne Charles Heidsieck||Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires Millesime||Silver||France||1995||30+|
|Barokes Wines||Barokes Bubbly Chardonnay NV||Bronze||Australia||NV||0-10|