Despite its fall out of fashion with the Sauvignon [Blanc] and Pinot [Grigio] set, Chardonnay remains one of the great grape varieties of the world. It is beloved of winemakers who love to use their skills to craft something beautiful, yet it is also a transparent grape when the winemaker lets the terroir do the talking.
Here are a tasty pair of Chardies made in very differerent styles from opposite ends of the earth, northern Burgundy and northern New Zealand.
Disclosure: both of these bottles were kindly provided as samples, but opinions remain my own.
Jean-Marc Brocard Petit Chablis 2018 (12.5%, €22.95 down to €17.95 until 1st Sept 2019 at O’Briens stores)
Regular readers may remember that Julien Brocard’s Chablis La Boissoneuse was the Frankly Wines Top White of 2019; when Julien joined the family firm he was allowed to treat that vineyard as a special project and hence it has his name on. Even though he now runs the whole firm he has left all the other wines as Jean-Marc Brocard, including this organic Petit Chablis.
AOC Petit Chablis is for Chardonnay made from vineyards around Chablis which have Portlandian soil compared to the Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis and its Crus. This is treated in more detail in Rosemary George MW’s excellent Third Edition of The wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois (review in the pipeline) but the difference is not huge.
It may not have the status of a Chablis proper but deserves respect in its own right. If well made (an important qualifier), Petit Chablis is an attractive, unoaked and fruit-driven wine, and that’s exactly what we have here. It’s a fresh, zippy wine but smooth at the same time. It offers lemon, lime and grapefruit notes with a hint of exotic fruit. Definitely recommended!
Man O’War Valhalla Waiheke Island Chardonnay 2016 (13.5%, €32.95 down to €29.95 until 1st Sept 2019 at O’Briens stores and obrienswine.ie)
And now to another hemisphere, a country more famous for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but where Chardonnay makes compelling wines in pretty much every region: New Zealand. The Man O’War winery is based on the eastern coast of Waiheke Island, which is close to Auckland. The legend is that:
It was along this coastline that Captain James Cook came to anchor during his first voyage around the islands of New Zealand in 1769. Upon sighting the ancient stands of magnificent Kauri trees ashore, Cook noted in his journals that they would make ideal masts for the Man O’ War warships of the Royal Navy. Thus the name Man O’ War was bestowed upon this unique land.
Valhalla is a premium Chardonnay in the Man O’War range, made from selected barrels which house grapes from hilltop volcanic vineyards (giving finesse) and some on sheltered clay slopes (which give power).
The grapes are hand harvested and pressed in whole bunches before undergoing a wild yeast fermentation without temperature control. After alcoholic fermentation, malolactic fermentation is blocked to preserve freshness. Maturation takes place in a mix of new and used French oak puncheons – for 2016 this was 36% new and 64% seasoned.
While many wine drinkers expect new world wines to be very similar from year to year, most of New Zealand does experience vintage variation. Just as in Europe, the key is to make the best possible wine each year given the raw materials that nature provides. The alcohol on this wine proves the point: for 2016 it is 13.5% but has been a whole point higher in other years.
It pours quite golden in the glass which gives a good clue as to what you’re getting into. The powerful nose has ripe citrus and pineapple cubes, and there’s no doubt that oak has played a part. The citrus is joined by fleshier fruit on the palate, but still balanced by a streak of acidity. The decision to block malo means there is no butteriness, and while I like that in some wines it would be overpowering and out of place here. At around three and a half years from harvest this 2016 is absolutely singing, but would be enjoyable for several more years to come. Truly a wine fit for a feast with the gods!