Thursday, November 06, 2014

Andrew Jefford on Chardonnay

04 November 2014 - by - De Wetshof

Andrew Jefford, award-winning wine writer and passionate advocate for site-specific wine production, was the guest speaker at the 2014 Celebration of Chardonnay event held at De Wetshof Estate. Here is his motivational speech on the greatness that is Chardonnay 

Five months ago, on what was a very warm June afternoon in the northern hemisphere, I was standing with a small group of wine students in a vineyard.

Apart from the fact that it had a wall surrounding it, the vineyard didn’t look particularly special. It had a gentle slope; the soils were dark brown, but scattered liberally with white stones. There was a slightly steeper vineyard above it, and another flatter one below it, on the other side of a road. Two-hundred metres in distance, top to bottom; three vineyards in total.

I’ve tasted a little wine from those three vineyards. Not often, sadly, but on a few memorable occasions. The top vineyard can produce pungent, stony, mouthwatering, athletic white wines with floral aromas. The bottom vineyard produces much plumper, more softly contoured wines which seem to hint at cream and nuts. And the middle vineyard produces subtle, deep, dense and driving wines of banquet-like complexity, sometimes with a note of wild mushrooms and sweet meat stock.

They are, as I’m sure many of you have already guessed, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet and in the middle, Montrachet itself.

I was standing there with micro-négociant Mounir Sawma of Lucien le Moine. He then poured two samples out of two unmarked bottles. One was flinty and searching, with grapefruit flavours; the other flamboyant, gratifying, peachier, more of a peacock. The Montrachet vineyard is, in fact, shared by two villages.

The searchlight sample, it turned out, came from the Chassagne end of Montrachet, while the peacock sample came from the Puligny end of the same vineyard.

These subtle differences between wines whose vines are grown in close proximity here has been noted -- by those lucky enough to taste them regularly -- for 300 years or more. So, too, has their quality. That’s why they produce some of the world’s most expensive white wines.

And the grape variety? Chardonnay, of course.

Yes: familiar Chardonnay, so familiar that Anglophones often shorten its name to Chard or Chardy, as if it was a pet dog.

It’s the same grape variety which fills hundreds of thousands of bottles every year with white wine which feels as familiar and as comfortable to many of its drinkers as an old jumper, or a pair of slippers.

We’re all here to celebrate Chardonnay – and the word ‘celebrate’ has at least two meanings: to make widely known, and to extol or to praise. We needn’t to do the first job; no grape variety could be more widely known than Chardonnay.

But familiarity does indeed erode and belittle Chardonnay’s reputation, which is why we’ve got work to do in extolling and in praising Chardonnay. We shouldn’t forget, after all, that this is the grape which produces the greatest white wine in the world. (No matter what the Riesling fanatics might claim.)

Today it’s the fifth most widely grown variety on the planet, with almost 200,000 ha in total, planted in just about every wine-producing country. Only one white grape variety is more widely planted – and that’s the Spanish brandy grape Airén. Airén plantings, though, dropped by 35% in the first decade of the C20 while Chardonnay plantings increased by 37% over the same period. So it’s likely that by 2020 Chardonnay will be the most widely planted white grape in the world.

Genetically speaking, it’s the daughter of Pinot Noir, its mother being the now-rare variety Gouais Blanc, mainly grown today in Switzerland. That makes it the sister of Aligoté, of Gamay and of the Muscadet grape Melon.

Its origins almost certainly lie in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, where a village called Chardonnay has existed since Roman times; the first mention of a variety of that name, though, comes in 1685. It’s possible that it was used at an earlier date in the Côte d’Or under the synonym Beaunois.

There isn’t a more important grape variety in Northern France than Chardonnay. Indeed if you look at the ways in which it expresses itself through the vineyards of northern France, you’ll have a perfect illustration of its ability to reflect its growing conditions with often dramatic fidelity.

Let’s begin at 48.56° North, on chalk soils, in the vineyards of villages like Avize, Cramant and le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Chardonnay carpets the hillsides up here, but if you make a dry white wine from those grapes, that wine is so acidic, so tart and so fleshless as to be virtually undrinkable.

Referment that acidic wine, though, and leave it with the charge of richness which the Champagne method or traditional method implies, and suddenly the nobility and expressiveness of the variety comes to the fore. Suddenly Chardonnay becomes a stealthy vehicle for expressing a sense of place. It makes a beguiling contrast, for example, to Pinot Noir Champagnes grown on the Montagne de Reims, or Pinot Meunier in the Marne valley.

Let’s now head a little way south, to 47.48° North, [-- that’s 1.08° S of Avize --] to a little town called Chablis and a river called the Serein, which means ‘serene’.

If you grow Chardonnay here on the local fossiliferous Kimmeridgean limestones, you can make a still dry white wine which is indeed balanced and palatable, though it’s still fresh, quick and mouthwatering. Chardonnay here is notable for picking up what are often perceived to be mineral flavours: there’s a stoniness, a kind of deliciously saline austerity, to its Chablis profile.

Off we go south again, to Puligny-Montrachet on the Cote d’Or: we’re now at 46.56° north [-- so 2° S of Avize --], and the soils are limey clay and marls with limestone pebbles. The weight in the mouth has changed again: the wine is richer, fuller, denser. The cream, nuts and wild mushrooms I mentioned earlier now swing into the frame.

But you’ll still find Chardonnay further south: Pouilly-Fuissé lies at 46.16° North, [or 2.4° S of Avize] on richer clays at the southern end of the Mâconnais. The wine is now round and cushion-like, doughy and vanillic, even before it has spent any time in a wooden barrel. The curvaceous silhouette of Pouilly-Fuissé or St Véran is completely different to the waif-like slenderness of a Petit Chablis or a still white Coteaux Champenois.

I’ve only talked about classic French Chardonnays so far, but one of the remarkable qualities of Chardonnay is that it loves to travel and it travels with great success. By success, I mean that it retains its agreeable varietal character, yet can also derive complexity, intrigue and singularity from local growing conditions. It’s also able to adapt itself to a wide variety of climates without getting flustered or losing its intrinsic balance.

It works well, for ex, in the cool conditions of Canada’s Ontario, in Tasmania or New Zealand’s South Island, yet it also flourishes in the much warmer climates of Western Australia or parts of California. We’re about to see how well it performs in contrasting regions in the Cape.

The only other variety which seems able to match this breadth of range and site sympathy is Syrah.

Winemakers like to work with Chardonnay, because it rewards craftsmanship in a way that isn’t true to the same extent of Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Remember that Chardonnay is not an aromatic variety like those two rival whites, so its intrinsic character tends to need drawing out, pitching and framing.

Much of the pleasure of Chardonnay lies in its secondary aromas, its textures, and its development in bottle. These are all areas in which sensitive winery work with various degrees of barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and lees contact or exposure can bring intricacy.

At the same time, the great lesson of the global Chardonnay revolution of the last 30 years is that any lack of subtlety or excess of ambition in one’s approach to Chardonnay will be mercilessly punished. The reason why ABC came to stand for Anything But Chardonnay was the garishness of lavishly ripe and heavily oaked Chardonnay. The skill in Chardonnay craftsmanship always lies in restraint.

I don’t want to over-stress craftsmanship, though, because it’d be dangerous to do so. You can’t decide to make great Chardonnay, or achieve this through a triumph of the winemaking will. What you can decide to do, and indeed all you can decide to do, is to find a site where Chardonnay is happy, and ideally a site where no other grape variety could grow more valuable grapes or make more exciting wine. In the early days, that’s often a judgment call.

IF you then put eight-tenths of your year’s efforts into growing the best grapes possible, one-tenth into fermenting the wine with sensitive restraint, and one-tenth into sourcing an attractive bottle, designing a tasteful label and selecting a secure and reliable closure, then you’ll have done all you can. Nature and the market will then decide, over three or four decades, if you’ve made a great Chardonnay.

But let’s return to those Northern French Chardonnay examples, and simply note two facts about them. Two obvious facts. These facts are so obvious, indeed, as to be widely overlooked by those who draw their inspiration from such wines.

The first observation is that in each of the four regions I’ve described – Champagne, Chablis, the Côte d’Or and the Mâconnais – the best growers wish to harvest fully ripe Chardonnay, and will wait and struggle to do so. Yes, I know that natural alcohol levels in Le Mesnil might be 9.5% abv whereas they could be 13.5% abv in Meursault or Pouilly-Fuissé, but that’s just sugar, and ripeness is much more than sugar.

In each region, in other words, the Chardonnay has passed an entire growing season on the vines, and has travelled the full length of its phenolic journey. The aromas and flavours will be grown-up and resonant, not raw, hard, abrupt or adolescent. That’s a major reason -- though not the only one -- why Blanc de Blancs Champagne has the complexity and the vinous structure it has, despite its intrinsic tartness and austerity.

You could of course decide to make a sparkling wine in a warm site in the Mâconnais, and pick the grapes three weeks early in order to provide a base wine with a Champagne-like balance. If you’re careful about it then I’m sure you’ll make a saleable product, which people enjoy drinking. But it won’t ever rival a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, nor will it fulfil the terroir potential offered by the Chardonnay grape in that Mâconnais location. You could only do either of those things with phenolically ripe grapes.

In Champagne, in Chablis, in the Cote d’Or and in the Maconnais, successful Chardonnay is always picked at perfect maturity, weather permitting. Good growers wouldn’t think of doing anything else. The figures which define perfect maturity, though, are quite different in each region.

Put another way, it means that no two regions have identical definitions of maturity: this is something I believe very strongly, for every grape variety and not just for Chardonnay.

You’ll see exactly the same principle at work if you contrast great Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc with great CS from Napa. Both are ripe; but the style and expression of ripeness in each wine are quite different, because the regions are quite different.

It’s not that Napa Cabernet is riper than Pauillac Cabernet. You could push Pauillac Cabernet to the bottom end of a sunny autumn, and it still wouldn’t resemble Napa Cabernet. The two are just different.

As I’ve already pointed out, Chardonnay is distinguished by having an unusually large climatic aptitude range.

Every region in which it thrives will have a different point at which perfect ripeness is achieved, and the phenolic journey is complete. I believe that every successful site-specific Chardonnay will respect that point of perfect ripeness, wherever it lies, and regardless of the final balance and profile of the wine. You must complete the phenolic journey.

The second obvious observation is in a way linked to the first, and it’s this: good growers in Champagne, in Chablis, in the Cote d’Or and in the Maconnais trust their grapes, and they’re deeply reluctant to alter the constitution of the must in the winery.

This is the golden rule in the creation of all site-specific wines. The moment you begin to alter the constitution of must, you begin to efface terroir. The more you alter that constitution, the more effectively you efface terroir and site-specific characteristics.

Of course, it is very easy to trust good grapes in a Chablis or Chassagne Premier Cru, because you know from the weight of five hundred years of tradition that the results will be appreciated by customers. When you’re growing Chardonnay in a relatively new location, you don’t know that. You may feel underwhelmed by the results at first. They may not resemble your Chardonnay dreams. The temptation’s therefore very strong to try to take your Chardonnay in a direction which corresponds to some model or another.

I’ve lived in France for the last four and a half years, but prior to moving to France I spent 15 months in Australia.

Chardonnay’s an exceptionally successful variety in Australia, particularly in Margaret River, in Tasmania, in the Adelaide Hills and in many regions of Victoria.

Occasionally, though, I would meet a grower in warmer areas such as Margaret River or the lower Yarra, who wanted to make a Chablis-style Chardonnay. Margaret River is as warm a region as the Napa valley, and the lower Yarra is warm enough to grow satisfactory Shiraz.

These are, in other words, utterly different conditions to those you’ll find in Chablis, so in order to achieve something which corresponded to the Chablis ideal, a grower had either to pick the fruit very early, or pick it a little riper and acidify it, or both, and then block the malolactic for luck.

Once again, the end result may be liked by both customers and the press, and be eminently saleable, but it’s not a true terroir wine or a site-specific wine. It is a wine of method rather than a wine of place. The method negates the place rather than celebrates the place.

My own view is that wines made in such a way will never carve out a permanent niche in the international fine-wine market. Like the art market itself, that’s reserved for originals, not copies. If you want to make Chablis-style Chardonnay in Australia, you need to work in Tasmania, or in one of the coolest zones of Victoria, or in high-sited Tumbarumba in New South Wales. Even then, of course, the results will be different to Chablis, because the place is not Chablis. It is somewhere different, and the Chardonnay you make should express that ‘somewhere different’. It should be an original, not a copy.

If, in the end, the market rejects such a Chardonnay, and doesn’t remunerate your efforts, then it’s a sign that some other variety would be a better choice, or that a blend of varieties would be a better choice, or even that viticulture is not the best long-term use for that land.

By the way, I say these things in an undogmatic spirit. It may be that there’s a place for a small portion of early-picked fruit in a warm-climate Chardonnay, or that a little, very subtle acidification will improve such a Chardonnay.

In northern France, some chaptalisation of Chardonnay is often necessary, though I should stress that chaptalisation tends to be much less dramatic in its expressive effects than acidification, and that in any case all good growers would prefer not to chaptalise. The more you resort to such stratagems, the less site-specific or terroir-expressive your wine will be.

Most importantly, it will also stand in the way of you achieving a clear understanding of the nature of your own terroir. You’ll also be building your long-term market appeal on methods – which others can imitate – rather than on an expressed sense of your place on earth, which no one else can imitate.

Every grower, though, must decide where he or she wants their wine to be

along this spectrum … from minimum site-specificity to maximum site-specificity. This is not – of course! -- a moral question; it’s a question of wine aesthetics. You have the right to make the wine you want to make, and the consumer has the right to prefer wines of method to wines of place.

But if you want to make site-specific Chardonnay, and allow consumers to enjoy and to judge that, then I believe it’s very important to work with grapes which are both ripe in their vineyard context, and chemically uncompromised by the winemaking process.

I should also point out that there are many other elements to a site-specific identity beyond climate and micro-climate, notably soil, and that these other things also enter into the ‘placeness’ of a Chardonnay. They’ll affect your spectrum of ripeness; and they’ll help characterize the raw materials.

Soil, though, provides the fine detail which helps divide propitious Chardonnay sites into nuances of greatness. That’s the advanced filter. Whereas climate is the elementary filter. In other words, it’s climate which governs the basic economic success or failure of a vineyard, and which conditions the size, the shape and the style of energy of a particular Chardonnay wine. Soil is one of the key elements in helping create the nuances of aroma and flavour -- in ways we are still far from fully understanding.

Let me finish by returning to a celebratory note.

We human beings are lucky to have wine. Used wisely, it nourishes our bodies and restores our spiritual well-being. It can have an extraordinarily subtle range of aromas and flavours; and it undergoes a fascinating maturation trajectory which mimics the human lifespan. Above all, it can reflect the conditions in which it comes into being with astonishing precision, giving us a sensual translation of a season and a landscape. That is wine’s music, if you like.

Of course even the greatest symphony or score is just potential, a swarm of notes written out on a sheet of paper, until the performer comes along. Montrachet, too, was once hidden potential: a scrubby, undistinguished hillside covered in broom and hawthorn. The performer of wine’s music is the farmer who first chooses to clear the land and plant vines, and then all of his successors who later make wine there.

There’s no music, though, without instruments; they are the means by which the music reaches us. And they matter a lot. The wrong instrument can mock a piece of music; the right instrument can reveal its sublimity. And the instruments on which wine’s music is played are grape varieties.

You can have a lot of fun assigning particular varieties to particular instruments; that’s a party game for another time. There’s little music, though, that cannot be played on the piano, and no instrument which interprets a wider range of musical thought with more expressive grace and profundity than the piano does. And wine’s piano, for me, is Chardonnay. We’re lucky to have that, too.

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