My experience (which admittedly could be peculiar to me) is that trying to drink Chardonnay within the Western parts of the United States has consistently shown with it a kind of prejudice. It is commonly the case that people I’ve met that are interested in, but only lightly knowledgeable in wine, have assumed Chardonnay to have a very determined, fruity and oak-y narrow band of flavors; a band of flavors they don’t appreciate. As a result, many of these people tend to avoid Chardonnay in general.
The truth of Chardonnay, however, is that it is what we could call a remarkably neutral grape with its flavors arising predominately from the environment in which it is grown, and the way it is produced following harvest. As a result, then, Chardonnay actually shows itself to be incredibly varied in the bottle. It is true that certain regions in which the grape is produced tend towards particular cultivation, and wine-making practices, thus producing (semi-)predictable flavors. But looking at Chardonnay world-wide shows a broad range of styles and flavors.
Chardonnay is a grape that truly has spread world-wide, thanks to its reputation as a rather agreeable agricultural project. It is known to adapt to a wide range of conditions, and respond readily to varied cultivation practices. Interestingly, it is also considered to be a kind of wine growers’ rite of passage–that is, it is a less challenging grape to grow than many, and yet still demands significant viticulture knowledge and ability to complete a successful chardonnay harvest.
It is understood that the green-skinned fruit originated in the Burgundy region of France, as a cross between two (now) uncommon grapes, where it grows predominately in chalky, or limestone soils. These contribute to a mineral rich body of flavors, with lighter fruit qualities than other areas of the world. The Northern portions of Burgundy, known as Chablis, also offer cooler temperatures, which further encourage a less fruit-driven, more acidic consistency.
Drawing on the effects of these conditions, the Chablis AOC is associated with stricter practices for how the grape is treated than in other areas of the world, the goals of which are to preserve the fruits own steely flavors. Most chardonnay producers from the region today ferment the grape in neutral stainless steel vats. Some short oak influence is found occasionally in Chablis wines, with such practices being more common in premier cru varietals of the region. By contrast, other locales that produce Chardonnay based wines will often ferment the product in oak barrels for more extended periods, allowing tannins from the (younger) wood to bring their own flavors and preservative qualities into the wine.
Historically, Chablis’s wine practices utilized older oak barrels that, due to age, failed to impart flavors to the wine from the wood. Because of difficulty in protecting the wine from various types of flaws when using this older wood, the shift to stainless steel vats became common. However, more recently, young oak barrels have been introduced to the wine-making practices of some Chablis wine makers. This change is considered controversial because of how it goes against the cleaner, neutral style of the juice made without oak usually associated with the region. Still, those that do use oak in Chablis do so only lightly in comparison to the more heavy institutionalization of wood barrels in much of North American Chardonnay production.
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Chablis Premier Cru is a designation given to vineyards with higher quality soils, and (generally) greater sun exposure than those of the standard Chablis designation. The premier cru vineyards are generally found on kimmeridgean clay ground, a type of soil that is believed to impart a very well-balanced, and well-structured quality to the grapes, while also maintaining a rather light fruit flavor. One of the finest qualities named for a Chablis Premier Cru wine is a firm balance between the wine’s minerality, acidity, and fruit flavors.
The Grossot’s “Les Fourneaux” offers exactly this sort of balance with subtle hints of star fruit, and lime peel, plus a subtle richness of pear, dancing alongside a sea-air type mineral flavor, and a pleasing acidity. This wine is both rich in the mouth and delicate in flavor, showing a long, happy finish. It also carries a pleasingly light, and glassy-smooth mouth feel. Further, the premier cru chablis of this domaine undergo a full malolactic fermentation, reducing any tartness sometimes associated with chardonnay.
The sea mineral flavors of this wine would pair beautifully with lightly flavored white seafoods, or shellfish. We ate it with a nicely brain-wrinkled Valencay cheese that turned out to be a much smarter pairing than originally anticipated. The light, rich flavors of the goat cheese, with the flinty tastes of its charcoal dusting matched the qualities of the wine beautifully–definitely recommended.
Interestingly, the Grossots focus deeply on what they describe as sustainable viticulture practices. As examples, they thoroughly prune their vines in order to allow space between grapes, and a resulting reduction in various ripening problems such as mildew. Such pruning reduces the need for any synthetic, or outside interventions to protect the health of the grape. Grossot then uses the pruning as a natural heating supply for the vineyard buildings.
Grossot’s wine making carries an international reputation of quality. He offers two other premier cru Chablis, and a standard Chablis AOC. I look forward to tasting and reviewing them in the future.
If you’re in the Arizona region, check out the new cheese shop Bonne Lait in historic downtown Cottonwood. The boutique focuses on a small, but excellent selection of high quality cheeses from around the world. The employees are knowledgeable about their cheeses, and will gladly make up a small tasting platter of their various offerings for only $5. They also carry local handmade chocolates, and a selection of vintage items. The valencay that accompanied our Chablis was found during a break in a Northern Arizona wine tour. It was a welcome, and friendly respite in the midst of our tasting extravaganza.
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