Memorial Day Blind Wine Tasting
There is a term “ABC”- short for Anything But Chardonnay. But when it comes to Chardonnay it is not about the grape but rather the style of wine. Chardonnay is a chameleon, not very distinctive on it’s own, but easily changed by soil composition, growing conditions (hot or cold), use of barrels (none, medium, overdone) and other winemaking techniques (stirring up dead yeast cells, use of Malolactic fermentation, etc.)
Chardonnay is an acidic grape, one of the qualities it brings when it is used in Champagne which makes an excellent palate cleanser.
Acid is also what allows a white wine to age (higher acid= better ability to age)
What makes Chardonnays different?
Difference between warm and cool climates…
Wines that are further from the equator (cool climates) get less sun are usually more acidic, lower in sugar and lower in alcohol. Dominant fruits are citrus (lemon, limes) apples, pears.
Wines that are closer to the equator (warmer climates) get more sun and heat so the fruit is higher in sugar and usually riper. Dominant fruits can be more tropical and sweeter in flavor (papaya, mango, pineapple, peaches)
Use of barrels…
Chardonnay can be greatly influenced by the decision to use oak in fermenting and/or aging and how much is used.
No aging– stainless- wine is lean, acidic, light in body and color
Medium oak– low oak influence can make the wine rounder in body, darker in color
Heavy oak– for a brief time, California winemakers were using a heavy hand with oak. Oak can be used to mask flaws but many say (myself included) that using too much oak hides many of the good fruit flavors found in Chardonnay.
The use of barrels are responsible for some of these flavors found in Chardonnay: vanilla, toast, smoke, spices, as well as some sweetness.
There are many but 2 commonly used methods found in Chardonnay are:
1. Malolactic Fermentation– also called “ML” this is a second (non alcoholic) fermentation using a specific type of bacteria that turns sharp (malic) acids into lactic (smooth/creamy) acids. The difference between granny smith apples and milk.
ML is responsible for some of these flavors in Chardonnay: butter, butterscotch, caramel, cream, toffee, lemon curd (yoghurt).
2 . Contact with Yeast? To make alcohol you add yeast to grape juice (which is mostly sugar). The yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. When it consumes as much sugar as it can, the yeast eventually dies. Some winemakers remove the yeast cells immediately, some leave them in the tank/barrel and even stir them (called battonage) continuously for more flavor in the wine.
Presence of yeast cells produce toasty or doughy flavors (especially in Champagne)
Much too complicated to go into this time, but it can be responsible for all non-fruit flavors such as mineral (wet stones), chalk, sea spray, some floral qualities
THE WINES/THE RESULTS
For our annual Memorial Day wine tasting I decided to pick my favorite mother-in-laws, favorite wine, Chardonnay. We tasted the wines blind, the only thing that tasters knew was that one of the wines was VERY expensive. What they did not know is that one was very common and inexpensive. After everyone sampled the wines I then let them know which country the wines were from and some brief “professional” descriptions, listed below, to see if it would help identify them, before the “reveal”.
#1. 2010 Au Bon Climat, Santa Barbara California– $20
Burgundian in sensibility, but with California style, is one way of describing Jim Clendenen’s chardonnays. In the glass, buttery brioche marries with tropical fruits in an irresistible elixir.
Tasters said: This is good, I like this! Probably the highest ranked wine.
#2. 2010 Marques de Casa Concha– Concha y Toro, Limarí Valley, Northern Chile– $22
A fresh, harmonious white, featuring pineapple, citrus and spice notes backed by juicy acidity and creamy texture. Well-integrated, with a lingering aftertaste of fruit and chalk.
Tasters said: “This is good but not my favorite”.
#3. 2011 Hamilton Russell Vineyards Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa– $26
This white cuts a bold swath, delivering flavors of dried Jonagold apple, fig, creamed pear, hazelnut and persimmon. Creamy and lush, held together by a finely beaded spine of acidity, with strong minerality kicking in on the lengthy finish.
#4. 2010 Olivier Leflaive les Sétilles, Burgundy France- $15
Fine balance sets the stage for the apple, lemon and mineral flavors in this white. Stays focused, with the vibrant structure framing the finish.
This is not just any Bourgogne Blanc, this is Olivier Leflaive’s closely guarded secret blend. The resulting wine is the perfect progeny, melding seamlessly Meursault’s fleshy fruit, plump fresh nuts and creamy textures with the driving minerally energy and jasmine scent of Puligny.
Tasters said: “This is lean, acidic…I don’t smell much…I don’t like this one, it is probably French.” BINGO !
#5. Yellow Tail Chardonnay- South Eastern Australia– $7
Rich tropical fruits with a creamy finish. This wine is soft yet fresh with balanced acidity and lingering melon flavors on the tongue.
Tasters said: “I really like this wine.” but others, “This is the only wine so far that I don’t like, actually I can’t drink it”. The most polarizing wine of the day and one that really shows the difference between personal preferences.
#6. 2006 Domaine Louis Latour Corton-Charlamagne Grand Cru, Burgundy, France. $150 retail.
Latour’s estate-bottled 2006 Corton Charlemagne displays lime peel, resin, and chalk dust in the nose; its sappy, pit- and citrus-fruit dominated palate resists the wine’s 100% new wood well; and it finishes invigoratingly with an extended reprise of citrus, resin, and chalk.
Tasters said: “This is probably an expensive wine. It definitely needs food.”
Try this yourself sometime and please share your favorite Chardonnays with me !!