Chardonnay - to oak or not to oak!

Chardonnay. One of the most ubiquitous, versatile and revered of all varietals. Its homeland is Burgundy, France where it is at the heart of some of the most famous wines in the world. From the crisp, steely expressions of Chablis to the prestigious, full-bodied, age-worthy Grand Crus of the Côte-d’Or, Chardonnay produces some of the most sought-after whites on the planet. It is also one third of the holy trinity of Champagne, the other two being Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

And yet, though this grape has the capacity to impress in the right hands, it is still viewed with suspicion by many. I regularly have conversations with drinkers who will curl their lip and shudder at the thought of Chardonnay, although they will often mention their adoration for a Chablis or a Mâcon in the same breath. Much of this has little to do with the grape itself, but the style in which it is produced.

The fact that consumers will swear their aversion to one wine, whilst expressing their love of another (even though the exact same grape is used to create both), is extraordinary. It is a testament to Chardonnay’s ability to produce entirely different wines depending on location, climate, soil type and method of production.
Chardonnay’s characteristics and taste profiles are many and various. A cool-climate Chardonnay tends to be lighter in body with that characteristic crisp, acidity. It may express flavours of green and citrus fruits as well as that confusingly, difficult-to-describe hint of wet stones! A Chardonnay which hails from warmer climes, however, will likely be more full-bodied, will lower acidity and peachy and even tropical fruit flavours.

Climate and geology are not the only factors at play. A winemaker can use all manner of tricks to bring out different facets in Chardonnay’s repertoire. Malolactic fermentation can soften acidity, whilst lees contact develops bready or biscuity notes.

Then there’s oak. Chardonnay’s affinity for barrel fermentation or maturation is one of its more significant attributes. A bit of time in oak can impart vanilla and nutty flavours as well as adding body and depth. Of course, all these techniques are in delicate balance. And it is only in the most skilled hands that Chardonnay achieves its full potential.

Many reservations about Chardonnay have their origins in the over-oaked, New World expressions from Australia and North America that flooded the market in the 1980s and 1990s. Fortunately, the trend for such ‘butterscotchily’ cloying wines is now at an end. These days, producers often favour inert fermentation vessels such as stainless steel or concrete to allow more refreshing fruity characteristics to come to the fore. Oak maturation is now used far more sparingly, if at all. Areas such as the Limari Valley in Chile are producing some brilliant cool, coastal Chardonnays. Things have also changed ‘Down Under’ with some great examples from Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Margaret River.

That’s not to say that oaked Chardonnay equals bad Chardonnay. Far from it. When done right, oak can lend subtle flavours and depth. There are still many drinkers who prefer a dash of caramel. I was speaking to just such an individual the other week. Two wines immediately sprang to mind that extol the virtues of oak.

Clos du Val Carneros Estate Chardonnay 2018 (California, USA)
Founded in 1972, Clos du Val is one of my all-time Californian favourites. Known for their impressive Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, they have a well-deserved reputation as a top producer. But it is their Carneros Estate vineyard with its loam soils that is responsible for this exquisite Chardonnay which is 100% barrel fermented and spends 10 months in oak before release.

Tasting note:
Toasted salty caramel aromas combine with crunchy appley characters. Mouth-watering with poise and fine texture. Fresh green pear, peach and apricot fruit flavours balanced with nutty oak. This is an elegant and complex Chardonnay with well-balanced oak and a long finish.

Vallet Frères Auxey-Duresses 2016 (Burgundy, France)
If we’re thinking of something a little more ‘old school’, this Auxey-Duresses from Vallet Frères certainly won’t disappoint. No artificial yeasts are used in this elegant white Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune. Exposure to fine lees add depth of flavour, whilst a minimum barrel-ageing period of 18 months delivers richness and sophistication.

Tasting note:
With aromas of fresh almonds and earthy blossom, this wine is very supple and nicely balanced with good length. This wine has great complexity and will benefit from decanting before serving.

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