Chardonnay in Burgundy : Polar opposites and everything between

Pinot may be the historic grape of Burgundy but Chardonnay is the modern calling card of the region. It’s by far the most planted grape in the region and it also is its calling card, especially in foreign markets. Chardonnay represents 70% of the wine production in the region.

Chardonnay_Moldova

Chardonnay is a versatile grape in the way that it can thrive under diverse climates, soils and weather conditions but, before all, because it lends itself very well to a variety of wine-making techniques and styles. In fact, the grape itself is pretty neutral; it gets character from the soils, climates and work of the winemaker. This dependence on growing conditions makes it well suited to Burgundy and its thousand terroirs.

In some ways, Chardonnay is the anti-Pinot Noir, it’s pretty easy to grow and it doesn’t need the constant care and attention Pinot craves. The fact that the variety can grow under a wide range of climates doesn’t hurt, and neither does the multitude of clones of the grapes that can be used to emphasize certain traits. Basically, Chardonnay can take whatever form the terroir and winemaker combine to give it.

To make things a little simpler, let me just give you the two extreme styles of Chardonnay you can find in Burgundy

–          The bone-dry, mineral wines from Chablis, in the northern part of the region are a good example of a “less is more” approach to wine-making. In their purest expression, these wines have no oak in them, no barrel fermentation, no frills, just Chardonnay. A common description of these wines is “flinty” which gives an idea of the mineral character they can have. Chablis usually are very clear in color, with high acidity. Some higher end Chablis Grand Crus are different, they have been oaked and are rounder, but the basic Chablis fits the previous description.

–          The rounder, fatter wines of the Cote de Beaune that usually grow in oak barrels and undertake a secondary fermentation process, usually by leaving residual yeast called lees in contact with the wine (“sur lies” in French). These techniques result in richer flavors such as butter, honey or hazelnut (or even Marzipan). There are eight Grand Crus vineyards in the Cote de Beaune that make white wines. The famous Grand Crus are the Montrachets: Batard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet, Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Criots-Batard-Montrachet, and the Cortons :  Corton and Corton-Charlemagne

corton charlemagne

A look at the prices for one of these eight vineyards can make me cry like a baby. I had a Corton-Charlemagne 4 years ago and I still think about it sometimes. Sometimes I wish I had run away with it to live our love in a quiet place, far from the world,…

Em, anyway ! Now that you have the two ends of the scale, you can populate it with everything in between. Depending on the terroir and the wine-making approach you can end up with a variety of outcomes for your Chardonnays, everything between bone-dry and extremely round and full.

Value for money : Hahn Winery Pinot Noir

Hahn Winery Pinot Noir 2011

Region: Central Coast, California, USA

Grape: 100% Pinot Noir

Price: around $12 online

I went to a friend’s new apartment last weekend and we had some wine while touring the new place. A California Pinot was one of the options, and considering I’ve been writing a lot zbout Burgundy recently, I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare Burgundian Pinot Noirs to their surfer-dudes cousins. On theory alone, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of growing Pinot in California. In my mind Pinot comes from miserable, rainy weather (i.e. Burgundy). Nothing says Burgundy in the wintertime better than frozen mud. New Zealand? Sure, it rains, there are clouds, it makes sense. The Pacific Northwest? No problem, it rains all the time, Twilight takes place there, it’s miserable all right. Sunny, warm, easy-going California? That makes less sense, let’s investigate.

hahn

Eye: clear, surprisingly intense for a young Pinot Noir but still light to medium ruby with a hint of garnet at the rim

Nose: Clean, medium intensity, aromas of dark berries, riper and darker than a young Pinot from Burgundy would give you. The nose gets a little heavier after a while with some “fall” aromas, a mix of spices and light smoke, very entertaining.

Palate: dry, medium to high acidity, bordering on the high, light tannins, light to medium body, medium finish

Pinot Noirs from California have a reputation for straightforward fruitiness (in a good way), especially when compared to the Burgundy red my early wine education relied so much on. This wine is a good illustration of that stereotype, lots of fruits, mostly dark cherries, very ripe, very fruity and also, very smooth. I didn’t get any hints of the “heavier” aromas I got on the nose, what I called the “Fall” notes which are to me a staple of Pinot Noir. It is straightforward and fruity but it’s also very, very smooth. I was surprised by the ripeness of the fruit; it was like the wine was happy to see me! It’s something you rarely get from Old World Pinots Noir and it was refreshing! I didn’t mind the wine getting a little familiar and California like with me. Had it called me “brah” I would have drawn a line but the inherent classiness of the Pinot gave it that much restraint at least.

Food pairings: I had this wine without any food, a conversation wine if you will. It served that purpose well. It would go well with lighter meats like veal of chicken, nothing too spicy. I think the good acidity would help it deal with sauces though.

Overall opinion: Go back to the top of the page, check the price, then come back down, I’m not going anywhere. Good? You’re back? Great. $12 for a more than decent, smooth Pinot Noir, I call that great value for money. It’s an unpretentious wine that works on its own and could accommodate a wide range of dishes, I’d stock up on it a little bit.

There is such a thing as too old wine

Did you know…that the oldest bottle of wine in the world is almost 1700 years old ?

The Speyer 1700 year old bottle

The Speyer 1700 year old bottle

A bottle found in 1867 in a Roman tomb near the city of Speyer in Germany was scientifically dated to 325 AD. It’s now on display in a museum in that city. According to scientists, the content of the bottle is still liquid. The bottle was sealed with olive oil to isolate the wine and wax to close the bottle. However they are concerned that it could not stand the shock of contact with the air and that “it would probably not bring joy to the palate”.

A reminder to drink your wines before they age beyond the point of enjoyment. I’ve seen that happen, it’s terribly sad.

The wine & food pairing challenge

A colleague of mine (at my normal, pay the bills job) recently learned that I was taking wine tasting classes and asked me for wine recommendations. I decided to make a game out of it and told her to send me a list of dishes and I would come up with a wine for each entry. The idea was to limit myself to wines I’ve tasted recently (and for some of them, wrote about). Here are the results. I’ll try to get feedback on how it worked out. What do you think? Also, feel free to give me some more dishes to match, it’s one area I’m trying to get better !

Veal MarsalaCostamolino Vermentino di Sargegna, Sardinia, Italy

Eggplant parmesan (red sauce) : Vignole Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy

Chicken Broccoli Ziti (white sauce) : Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Dry Riesling, Barossa Valley, Australia

Baked/broiled Salmon (with veggies)Raats Family Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Roasted Chicken : Nicky Pinot Noir, Hahn winery, Central Coast, California

Baked TurkeyPine Ridge Dijon Clones Chardonnay, Carneros, California

Curried/Thai Chicken : Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc & Viognier, Napa Valley, California

Beef Stew : Gnarly Dudes Barossa Valley Shiraz

Steak & mashed potatoesRib Shack Red, Western Cape, South Africa

Lamb chops : St Supery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California

I know what I’m talking about ! Maybe, somewhat, a little…

I learned yesterday that I passed the wine exam I took last month.

I have officially received the WSET Level 2 Wine & Spirit Award. The classes focused on the major grape varieties and wine-growing regions on the theoretical side and an introduction to serious tasting methodology on the practical side. Basically we study the basic characteristics of varieties and regions and then taste a few examples to illustrate the lesson. For instance after a lecture on Pinot Noir, there’s a tasting of Pinots from Burgundy, California and New-Zealand to illustrate the differences in style.

Certified_LEVEL2_W&S(286)OL

I was happy to realize I did better than I expected on the exam. It was a 50 questions multiple choice answer questionnaire and I got 43 questions out of 50 right. I remember finding the exam much harder than I expected so this came as a nice surprise.

I want to take the Advanced, level 3 class next year if I can afford it. It should be a lot more intense with actual tasting exercises at the exam, not just theoretical questions. A good challenge is always nice. A good challenge that gives you the opportunity to sample more wines and learn a lot is always great.

So there you go, I’m certified now ! Does that give more value to what I’m writing ? Not sure about that but it definitely can’t hurt, right ?

 

 

You stay classified Burgundy

One of the first things you learn when taking a wine class is how to read. Really, that’s the first thing you learn, how to read a label. You’d think it would be easy enough, I mean, you’ve been reading for years, right? The problem is, as it always is, the French. Like many aspects of French life, wine production is heavily regulated in France and the information on a label must obey specific rules. The confusing part is that these rules vary from region to region based on the way their wine production works. For instance, for terroir-focused Burgundy, wine labeling is structured by a system of territorial appellations.

Basically, every vineyard in Burgundy has an appellation based on its location. The acronym you’ll see on the bottles is AOC which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin). There are around 150 AOCs used in Burgundy, some are very wide, some cover very small areas but luckily, they are organized in levels to make a little more sense.

There are four levels of appellations, the smaller the covered area, the higher the quality (and the higher the price…). To be able to put the name of an appellation on the label, all the grapes used to make the wine must come from within the same appellation, if not you will have to use a wider (and thus supposedly not as good) appellation level on your label.

At the bottom you have the regional appellations that cover wide areas. The basic appellation is Bourgogne Rouge (Red Burgundy) for which the grapes can come from all over Burgundy, and there are sub-regional appellations like Hautes-Cotes de Beaune or Hautes-Cotes de Nuits.

Bourgogne Rouge

The second level is Village appellation. Grapes for a Village appellation wine must come from a variety of vineyards within the village territory, or a single unclassified vineyard from this village. The label will carry the name of the village (Pommard, Ladoix…) and sometimes the name of the individual parcel the wine came from. Village wines account for 36% of the production withing Burgundy.

bourgogne village

Above Village is the Premier Cru appelation (1st growth), they are produced from specified vineyards within a village that are supposed to be of greater quality than those used for the Village appellation. The label will show the name of the village, the Premier Cru status and, if applicable, the name of the individual vineyard: Ladoix, Premier Cru, Les Joyeuses. Premier Cru wines account for 12% of the production in Burgundy.

bourgogne 1er cru

Finally, the top-most level for Burgundy wines, the Grand Cru appellation (Great Growth). To label a wine a Grand Cru, all the grapes must come from a single Grand Cru vineyard. These vineyards are recognized as the best in Burgundy and there are only 43 Grand Crus accounting for 2% of the surface of Burgundy and 1.3% of its production. The label will show the name of the vineyard and the Grand Cru status, not the Village name: La Romanée Grand Cru (from the Vosne-Romanée Village).

la-romanee-liger-icon

Basically, the higher the appellation level, the rarer the wine, and the more expensive too. Aging potential also usually goes up for Premier Crus and especially Grand Crus. It can make for incredibly pricey bottles but I managed to sneak in a Grand Cru tasting once and it was life changing. I think I briefly saw God. If God was a wine, he’d be a Grand Cru.

Tasting Notes : Summer afternoon in a glass

Raats Family Chenin Blanc 2009

Region: Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa

Grape: 100% Chenin Blanc

Price: around $23 online

raats

I had a friend over last week and I decided to flex my cooking muscles with a jambalaya recipe, I love Cajun food and I always wondered about wine pairings for it. Basically the recipe calls for rice, ham, chicken sausage, green bell peppers, onions, green onions, celery, tomato sauce and spices. It turned out really well, but, as I was cooking I wondered which wine I should serve. On a hunch I decided to take out that Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It’s from Stellenbosch, the premium region within Western Cape and it’s made by the Raats family winery which has a good reputation (or so the Internet tells me). The grape is Chenin Blanc, a white variety which is widely used in South Africa (where it is known as Steen). My knowledge of the grape comes from wines made in the middle Loire Valley in France (Anjou and Touraine). Wines from Chenin Blanc can be dry, as the Raats is, but it can also be used to make sweet and/or sparkling wines such as Vouvray. It has a reputation of being a fairly versatile grape. So basically, I knew nothing going in

Eye: medium to deep lemon with hints of green (also, it might be the lousy lighting in my apartment…)

Nose: Clean, medium intensity, citrus fruit, green fruit (mostly pear) and white flowers aromas. I can’t possibly tell you which white flowers, sorry… I mean seriously, I don’t even know what most flowers smell like, I should get one of these “wine aroma” boxes. I also got hints of something heavier like honey.

Palate: dry, medium to high acidity, full body

All right, I’m still mad at South Africa for stealing the 1995 Rugby World Cup (Derek Bevan, you pathetic excuse of a human being) but that will not prevent me from enjoying this wine. It’s very balanced and structured. It opens with a fresh fruit quality (grapefruit and pear), then moves on to a fuller, heavier, fatter feel that almost gets sweet but not quite, and finally there is a mineral quality to the finish. All three phases: fruit, sweet, mineral, are thoroughly enjoyable. What struck me is the fullness of the body.

Food pairings: Turned out to be a pretty good choice to go with the jambalaya, it had enough body and acidity not to be overwhelmed by the rich dish. I felt that this wine could actually go with a lot of different dishes. The bottle recommends pairing it with oysters which sounds weird to me, I feel like it would be a disaster with that full body and almost fat quality, but maybe I should give it a try.

Overall opinion: Need to try more South African Chenin Blancs. As in the Loire Valley, they are made in a variety of styles and I was definitely impressed with this dry, structured, full-bodied example.  I’d compare this wine to a well spent vacation afternoon : you go to the beach, you take a nap, you go play some tennis, you watch the sunset,… a lot of things happen and they leave you contented.

Did you know : party like it’s 1787

… that the founding fathers knew how to party ?

After writing the US Constitution, the 55 members of the drafting committee had a little celebratory party… The bill was 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and 7 bowls of alcohol punch large enough that “ducks could swim in them”. Once again, 55 members,…

Tasting Notes : Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Pic St-Loup 2010

Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Pic St-Loup 2010

Region: Pic St-Loup, Languedoc, France

Grape: blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache

Price: around $20

PSL

I had my friend who works in the wine industry over for dinner the other night and, since I didn’t have any dessert ready, we decided to have wine as dessert instead. My stock of red wines was limited and I chose the Pic St-Loup because I thought it would be a good conversation wine. Pic St-Loup is a specific sub-region of the vast Languedoc region in Southern France. Languedoc is traditionally known for producing a lot of simple, cheap, easy to drink wines even if recently the overall quality has been rising and smaller sub regions like Pic St-Loup have been established. The region produces mostly red wine and the varieties are centered on the GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) trilogy.

Eye: very deep ruby

Nose: Clean, intense. Well, hello jammy fruit! Plums, prunes and blackberry, I also detected a hint of thyme, very Southern France flavors

Palate: medium acidity, medium body, low tannins, short finish

I’m going to start by saying a very snobby thing, but I promise, if you bear with me, I will explain and it won’t sound as bad once I’m done. Deal? Ok here it goes. This producer exports a significant part of his production to the US, and you can tell he caters to a perception of what Americans expect from a wine. This Pic St-Loup is a very easy to drink, very enjoyable and ultimately very forgettable wine. It has very little tannins, very little structure and almost no staying power at all. From the first sip on, it’s pure fruit, very well rounded, very simple and, I think, very efficient. Languedoc wines can be a little harsh with high alcohol but this wine is very well rounded and goes down easily. A third of the wine is aged 9 months in oaked while the rest is kept in vats and the two parts are then mixed together to produce a smooth, fruity result. By design, this wine is easy to drink.

Food pairings: As I said, this wine was my dessert. I think it would work well with dishes that include herbes de Provence. Lamb chops grilled with thyme come to mind for some reason.

Overall opinion: My friend called it a slut of a wine. It gives you everything right away without making you work for it. Instant gratification that ultimately leaves you not totally satisfied. This Pic St-Loup is enjoyable, but it is not interesting.

 I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, sometimes easy to drink and accessible is what you’re looking for. Ultimately that’s what it comes down to: what are you looking for? If you want a wine that will change your life, challenge you and make you see God, then this is not your wine. If you want to sit back, relax and just have a glass of wine then, by all means, have some of this Pic St-Loup.