Wine of the Month: Chardonnay

Welcome to the Sommelier Blog at Sharrott Winery! I’ve been putting it together in bits and pieces for the past year or so, but only now am I able to put the time and attention to it that I’ve always wanted. The first entry, wine of the month Vignoles, was supposed to be the first of many to grace the pages of our website this summer, however, shortly after the upload, I left for a six week sojourn in Southern Africa. Back on track from my travels, I offer for October, that world-famous workhorse of a grape, Chardonnay.

FLASHBACK…I’m having dinner with friends at Caravela, a Portugese restaurant in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana. It is an institution. It’s been there forever at the end of a dusty cul de sac in the center of town behind high walls with only a string of colorful lights visible from the street. After 6 years, I was happy to find my favorite dish—deep fried prawn cakes—still on the menu. We ordered a bottle of Graham Beck Blanc de Blancs, a sparkling wine made using the Methode Cap Classique. Methode Cap Classique (MCC) is South Africa’s version of the methode champenoise or “traditional method”. In this process, developed by Champagne makers in France, wines are forced to undergo a second fermentation cycle in the bottle to trap carbon dioxide, leading to the creation of all those lovely bubbles and certain yeast-driven aromatic elements. Like Champagne, MCC wines are incredibly adaptable to different dishes, but at a fraction of the price.

I drank a lot of Chardonnay this summer. Crisp, unoaked versions that were fruit forward with lots of bright acidity; big, smoky, oaked chardonnays that made me wish for a bowl of hot buttered popcorn and, of course, lots and lots of sparkling MCC. South Africa has a vibrant wine tradition with Chardonnay firmly placed as a popular grape variety. Here in our vineyard, we can say much the same. Sharrott Winery’s Unoaked Chardonnay was the first to bring home major accolades, with the 2008 vintage winning Best Chardonnay at the 2009 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Our Barrel Reserve Chardonnay has also won awards and accolades but, most importantly, it is the declared favorite of Wine Diva Eileen Sharrott, an accolade that may not come with a medal but has a lot more pull than any international wine competition!

Even with all of the wonderful ways that Chardonnay is expressed in the glass, wine buyers worldwide have attempted to shun this noble grape because it is on many shelves and wine lists expressed in a non-descript and none-to-pleasant way. “It’s everywhere,” they say, which is largely because it IS everywhere. You can grow Chardonnay in pretty much every part of the world, in every type of soil and climate. It is an incredibly adaptable grape, a benefit that has become its curse. Chardonnay was thought to have been first planted in the Burgundy region of France where it was brought by the Romans as a cross between Pinot Blanc and Gouias Blanc. It is also thought to have originated from as far afield as Cyprus where indigenous vines were found that had a similar structure to the grape we know today.

In the vineyard, chardonnay grapes have thin skins and vines with a thick canopy of leaves that can grow exponentially if left unpruned. Chardonnay skins have many aromatic compounds giving the resulting wines smells of various tree fruits and a touch of vanilla, even when the wine is unoaked. Although thin skins make it susceptible to rot, it is a fast ripening grape, so it rarely has to hang on the vine long enough to run that risk in sunnier climates. Its adaptability makes Chardonnay’s high yielding vines a perfect addition to any winemaker’s portfolio.

Chardonnay grapes are very juicy. In cooler climates (think Burgundy, France or Casablanca Valley, Chile) the grape pulp has less sugar and higher acidity lending to crisper, more elegant wines with herbaceous aromas and less alcohol. In warm climates (think California or Australia) grapes are riper, with more sugars resulting in rounder, higher alcohol, full-bodied wines. This range of options offers as many opportunities to get it wrong than right.

At Sharrott Winery we make two styles of Chardonnay, an Unoaked Chardonnay that is aged and fermented in stainless steel tanks and a Barrel Reserve Chardonnay aged in American oak. Stainless steel is a neutral container so it imparts no additional flavors to the Unoaked Chardonnay, resulting in a wine that is dry, crisp and fruity with notes of green apple and lemons. The Barrel Reserve Chardonnay, as it ages in oak barrels, undergoes a process called malolactic fermentation, which softens the acids in the wine changing the crisp, biting malic acid that is in the original blend (think green apple acids) to softer, lactic acids (think milk).resulting in a wine that is smoother, with a darker hue, fuller body and fruity elements layered with vanilla and butter along with some of the same aromatics found in the unoaked version. I recently had a glass of the 2009 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay from a split (375 ml bottle) that showed advanced aging characteristics, as smaller form bottles tend to age faster than larger bottles. The wine had developed creamy, caramel aromas and hints of vanilla on the finish. It didn’t have as much oak on the palate as it did when it was first bottled. I am interested to try a 2009 in a larger form bottle to see how much it has developed in the intervening years. Over the summer, while in Johannesburg, I attended the Nederburg Auction preview tasting where I thoroughly enjoyed a 2003 Nederburg Private Bin D270 Chardonnay that had aged beautifully with nice rich fruit, notes of caramel, baked apples and almonds, with a long, creamy finish.

The stylistic adaptability of Chardonnay means that one can be found that would match any meal. There are a range of food pairing options for both the Sharrott Winery Unoaked and Barrel Reserve Chardonnays. The Unoaked pairs well with busy salads that have citrus elements, such as Asian Chicken Salad with mandarin oranges. It is great with roast chicken and fish dishes with lemon butter sauces. In contrast, the fuller bodied, oaky nature of the Barrel Reserve makes it a better match for richer dishes like quiche, macaroni and cheese and the whole gambit of fried foods. Both also pair equally well with a range of cheeses, however, I would stay away from the lighter, softer, more aromatic cheeses in favor of firmer goudas and hearty cheddars.

Both wines are currently available in the tasting room. One great way to pick out the difference made by different winemaking styles is to taste them both at the same time, comparing the aroma of one to the other in order to identify the unique scent of oak and the elements that it can bring to a wine. In my world we call the process of drinking from two glasses at once “double-fisting”, but I am searching for a more elegant phrase.

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