One of my favourite wine stories is that of the woman who exclaimed to her friends “I don’t understand why the young all want to drink Chardonnay! Give me a nice dry Chablis any time!” Her friends were too polite to tell her that the grape in Chablis is Chardonnay.
I like it because it reminds me how easy it is to make a fool of yourself talking, or writing, about wine; and because it raises so succinctly the most interesting question you can ask about a wine – what makes it taste like this? How is it that wine made from the same grape, using similar methods, in Puligny-Montrachet, just 125 kilometres to the south of Chablis, tastes so different? Chablis is like steel compared to Montrachet’s butter.
If you were to eat a chardonnay grape raw you’d find it doesn’t taste of much at all; it’s not a table grape. However, it contains all the ingredients that can eventually taste so glorious. How that taste turns out depends on the soil, the depth to which the vines roots have grown, the climate, especially how much sun and rain there has been, the height above the water table, how many grapes have been allowed to grow, and how ripe they are when picked, how they are handled and fermented, whether they are matured in oak barrels, and for what length of time, how long they have been in the bottle, and even how long it is since the bottle was opened. And those are just the basics.
Now comes the interesting bit: it’s the huge controversy at the heart of the wine world and especially at the heart of the Old World versus New World wines contest. Should a wine taste of its grape or grapes, or should it taste of its terroir? By terroir I mean all the factors, and more, that I have listed above that lead to the difference between a Chablis and a Puligny-Montrachet. The French lead the way in saying that the grape is relatively unimportant, it’s all about terroir. And they would wouldn’t they? They sit on more famous wine terroir than the rest of the world put together. On the other side of the argument, I’ll never forget my first taste of a Hunter Valley Chardonnay from Australia back in the 1980s, that pungent flavour so strong you could hardly taste the fish you were eating with it. I remember saying something silly like “this is the flavour that has been there in all those other Chardonnays but always veiled as though they are afraid of it…”
Where do I stand? I’d like both types of wine making to continue. But if I had to choose I’d say that I don’t want all Chardonnay to taste the same. I love the fact that every good French wine is unique. So I’m a terroir person. As for the question, ‘what does Chardonnay really taste of ?’ There is a definite Chardonnay flavour; it’s fruity, buttery, melony, vanillary. The question is, do you like those flavours to be ‘in your face’ or held back enough to allow more subtle and variable flavours through? Or is there room for both? It’s all Chardonnay.
Categories: Andrew Polmear