I have long being a fully paid-up member of the alternative ABC club – Always Buy Chardonnay (rather than Anything But Chardonnay) – whether it’s in or out of fashion makes no difference to me. As long as it’s well made, I like all the different styles it comes in – oaked, unoaked, tropically rich or mineral and lean (and that’s without going into fizz).
Here are two which are very different in style – one from a well-known Chardonnay producing area, and another where (still) Chardonnay is almost unheard of!
Hush Heath Estate Skye’s English Chardonnay 2015 (11.0%, £16.50 from Hush Heath Estate)
English sparkling wine is riding high at the moment – more and more producers are being set up and quality is constantly improving. English still wines are still very variable, in my opinion. Many of them are based on less well known varieties which were created to survive and thrive in cool German vineyards, but are less than celebrated elsewhere. Some Alsatian style wines have proved to be very good (e.g. Stopham Estate), but here is the first (still) English Chardonnay I have ever tasted.
Hush Heath Estate can’t claim anywhere near the same continuous history as a working winery compared to Beringer below – the current winery was only set up in 2010 – but the estate was created as far back as 1503when Columbus* was still making his transAtlantic jaunts. Hush Heath make quite a broad range of drinks, including the cider I reviewed here and award winning Balfour Brut Sparkling.
And it’s an absolutely delightful wine! Not at all shouty, it’s gently delicious – in fact with both Golden Delicious and Granny Smith’s apple characters, plus a touch of citrus. I detected a little bit of residual sugar on the finish (a few g/L, though I’m happy to be corrected) which adds to the juicy round fruit character and doesn’t make it taste “sweet”.
As my opening suggested, some people just don’t like Chardonnay, but I asked a friend who is among them to try this and she was pleasantly surprised – “If only all Chardonnay was like this”. Truly a wine for both ABC clubs!
Beringer Founders’ Estate California Chardonnay 2013 (14.0%, €19.99 from stockists listed below)
The Beringer Brothers were pioneers of winemaking in the Napa Valley, now the most prestigious wine region in the United States. Their original winery is claimed to be the oldest continually operating winery in the Napa Valley (since 1876), which is rather notable if the prohibition era is taken into account. In fact, Beringer was the first California winery to offer tours after the repeal of prohibition – inviting A list stars such as Clark Gable might have helped!
From 1971 to 2000 ownership changed hands a few times, until it finally became part of the Australian Fosters Group, twinned with Wolf Blass to become Beringer Blass, and is now the stablemate of other famous Treasury Estates brands such as Penfolds and Wynns Coonawarra.
The Founders’ Estate series is a step up from Beringer’s Classic range and “offer[s] concentrated expressions of the most popular varietals, steeped in quality that comes from Beringer’s history of crafting great wines from all over California for over 130 vintages“. So how does the Chardonnay taste? Like a well-made Californian wine! Which should be no surprise, really. The fruit is ripe and tropical, with a little bit of juicy red apple and pear. There’s some oak here, but it’s not overbearing at all. This isn’t Chablis but neither is it an oak monster. Would be great with creamy chicken dishes.
Stockists: Clontarf Wines, Dublin; O’Driscoll’s, Caherciveen, Co. Kerry; Salthill Off-Licence, Galway; Hole In The Wall, Blackhorse Avenue, Dublin; Kellys Wine Vault, Clontarf, Dublin; La Touche Wines, Greystones, Co. Wicklow; Sweeneys, Glasnevin, Dublin; McHugh’s of Kilbarrack & Artane, Dublin; Amber of Fermoy, Co. Cork
Apple or pineapple? The choice is yours!
* The Explorer, not the Harry Potter Director / Producer
Disclosure: both wines kindly provided for review
**Click here to see more posts in the Make Mine a Double Series**
Due to personal circumstances I didn’t have a big birthday bash this year, so instead our New Year’s Eve party became the opportunity to try lots of fizz!
Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV
The kick-off wine at the Wine Society’s 2014 Dublin tasting proved to be a worthy opener again. Made by the Californian offshoot of Louis Roederer from four of their top vineyards, it is definitely made to the high standards of its Champenois maison mère.
Full bodied like the Brut Premier at home, it does, however, reverse the house blend of around two thirds Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, instead being 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.
As well as bready characters from time on the lees this also has depth from reserve wines which have been aged in oak. This is probably the finest Californian fizz I have tasted to date.
Donini Prosecco Frizzante NV
A fairly simple Prosecco brought by a guest, it was pleasant enough not to be passed over, and considering I didn’t have any Prosecco open myself (damn, not again!) it was a nice contrast to some of the bigger names.
Lightly sparkling (a Frizzante with a screw top, no less) with gentle apple and grape flavours, it’s a wine to enjoy rather than contemplate. For some reason it does really well in the Netherlands!
Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs NV
I bought this own label 100% Chardonnay from UK supermarket Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago when there was a double-bubble promotion on. It’s actually good enough at full price but I couldn’t resist stocking up.
Two years later on and the citrus freshness is still there, but additional bottle age has brought a bit more body and complexity. It could still serve well as an aperitif but with more richness it could accompany roast chicken.
I wonder how many bottles bought at the same time made it this long – not many I’d wager!
Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut NV
Méthode Cap Classique is the South African term for traditional or Champagne method, and Mr Beck helpfully puts “Chardonnay . Pinot Noir” on the front label for those who aren’t sure. Graham Beck is renowned as one of the best producers of fizz in the country
On the nose this had a slightly spirit quality, as though there was a trace of stronger alcohol in there. It wasn’t apparent on the palate which was sophisticated and dry – one of the driest New World sparklers I’ve tried – with creaminess and richness from the lees. A very good effort, especially considering the relatively modest pricetag.
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007
The first significant quality producer of English sparkling wine goes from strength to strength. 2007 was one of the first vintages seen from start to finish by head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and husband Brad Greatrix, elevating the already serious quality to a higher plane.
So how does this bottle taste? Apple pie! No, seriously – amazingly intense apple flavours backed up by pastry notes from the lees and then bottle ageing. Seriously delicious!
Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2004
Non vintage Möet didn’t fare very well when tasted double blind in the previous Glasnevin Fizz Fest, but as I’ve enjoyed the house’s prestige cuvée every time I’ve tried I’d, I thought I’d give the middle ground of Möet Grand Vintage a go.
Being a vintage Champagne it was guaranteed to have a longer minimum period on the lees (36 months v 15 for NV) and this came through on the palate. However, the fruit behind it wasn’t good enough to support the yeastiness – it tasted as though there was a hole in it, if a drink can said to have a hole in it!
Most people preferred the Sainsbury’s own label fizz, which tells you all you need to know!
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
Widely acknowledged as their best vintage yet, Nyetimber’s Champagne Blend from 2009 had showed well previously. Perhaps context is more important than we think, because tasted straight after the Möet Grand Vintage this was fantastic, even better than I expected.
The 2009 Classic Cuvée blend is 55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier. The Pinots are more obvious with soft red fruit on the attack, but then the Chardonnay’s citrus and soft stone fruits follow closely behind. It’s very elegant and polished, and should continue to develop over the next decade and more.
Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
The Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on Champagne’s Côte des Blancs is the source of Krug’s famed single vineyard Clos du Mesnil. Whereas that tends to retail at £600 or more per bottle, the village’s co-operative makes an excellent Blanc de Blanc that retails closer to £30 – a twentieth of the Krug price!
I had snapped up some magnums of the 1999 vintage a few years ago in a bin-end sale – and what a bargain they turned out to be!! Champagne (and wine in general) matures more slowly in a magnum than in a regular 75cl botle, but authors such as Tom Stevenson also content that sparkling wine matures better in the larger format. Without a comparative tasting for myself I will take Tom’s word for it, but the evidence provided by these magnums is definitely in favour of the argument.
Somewhat yellow in the glass from ageing, the wine is full of yeasty, bready characters on the nose. This follows through onto the sumptuous palate, with citrus and soft stone fruit playing a supporting role. A very long finish makes this an excellent fizz – what a shame I’ve only got one bottle left!
Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rosé 1999
Context rears its head again – and not in a good way this time. Tasted among the other sparklers this appeared somewhat flat. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a different type of drink.
I hope to try it again in 2015 to see how it shows then.
Cloudy Bay Pelorus Marlborough 2009
Cloudy Bay’s NV and Vintage sparklers are probably the best value wines in their range, especially considering the extra work that goes into making fizz. Unlike its compatriot Lindauer or Australia’s Jacob’s Creek Sparkling, they are serious wines make with great attention to detail. We served Pelorus NV for the toast at our wedding in 2009!
As you’d expect in a serious offering from Marlborough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the grapes used, and like vintage Champagne it gets at least three years maturing on the lees. There’s apple, citrus and bready notes on the nose, followed by a creamy palate with more apple and then roasted almonds. It’s only a youngster so there’ more to come!
Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV
The last bottle opened before we moved onto some reds was this Blanc de Blancs Crémant d’Alsace from one of the region’s best co-operatives. They produce a wide range of still wines and several sparklers – this was my favourite when we visited in 2013. Not widely known outside France, Crémant d’Alsace is actually the second most popular source of sparkling wine in France.
The blend is supposedly a secret but I remember 100% Chardonnay being whispered at the tasting counter. Perhaps because it’s not seen as an Alsatian grape? It’s not permitted in still Alsace wines, but is allowed in Crémant, sometimes with Pinot Blanc and other varieties.
As is the norm in Alsace, this displayed more primary fruit than flavours from lees ageing. We’re talking citrus, apple and quince here, so more of an aperitif style, but very enjoyable nevertheless.
The Overall Verdict
This was no professional trade tasting – all samples were drunk and enjoyed – so there’s somewhat less than 100% objectivity here, but my rankings would be:
Liberty Wines are a wine importers based in the UK and Ireland with an exciting range of Italian, Australian, New Zealand and other quality wines which are sold to restaurants and independent wine merchants. As well as the quality of their wines they are renowned for the quality of their service to customers and for the representation they give to the producers.
Although it is difficult to select only a few of their wines – as the average quality level is so high – below are my favourite sparkling wines shown at their February and October tastings.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
If you’ve read much of my blog before you might have gathered that I’m quite a fan of Nyetimber – not (just) for patriotic reasons but because I really rate it as a sparkling wine. And thankfully, I’m not in a minority, as the increasing quality level has been recognised in several competitions – and the 2009 is the best yet.
55% Chardonnay then 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier gives it a balanced assemblage of the classic (!) Champagne grapes. It really is fresh and creamy with a bit of soft flesh behind it. I can’t wait to try the Tillington Single Vineyard bottling from the same year!
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
A relative newcomer to the English sparkling wine scene. 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier. Spent time in old Burgundy barrels – though fairly young so obviously not that long!
Very fresh and zesty lemon flavours from the Chardonnay, with a creamy finish. Would be great as an aperitif but could partner well with white fish and seafood.
70% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar and 30% Chardonnay from the Côte des Bar, Côte des Blancs and Vitry. Only the first pressing juice is used and 20% of the reserve wines were kept in large oak casks. Malolactic fermentation (MLF) was blocked for a third of the base wine to preserve freshness. It spends three years minimum on the lees, more than double the stipulated period. The key tasting note for me was apples – all manner of apples – stewed apple compote, baked apple pie, fresh apples off the tree. Just delicious!
Champagne Devaux “D de Devaux” La Cuvée NV
60% Pinot Noir from Côte des Bar and 40% Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs and Montgueux. This is a more prestige cuvée but still not from a single vintage; at least 35% of the reserve wines was aged in large oak casks. Spends a minimum of five years on the lees then a further six to nine months post disgorgement.
Although a fairly similar assemblage to the Grande Réserve NV this is a step up in quality and is a different style – altogether more sumptuous and rich, decadent almost. Hell, if you can’t be decadent drinking Champagne now and again, what has life come to?
Champagne Devaux Vintage 2004
97% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 3% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar – so this is almosta blanc de blancs. It spent 7 to 8 years on the lees (gives it a lovely creamy character) and then a further year post disgorgement before release (which helps it settle down and integrate properly). Fantastic lemon citrus flavours come through from the Chardonnay.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV
Founded by the original “Champagne Charlie”, this house is now one of the most respected in the whole of Champagne – Tom Stevenson gives them rapturous praise. The Brut NV is one of the strongest on the market this side of luxury cuvées such as Krug. Since coming into common ownership with Piper-Heidsieck (originally founded by an uncle of Charles) a few years ago, quality continues to rise.
40% of the blend is made up of reserve wines (the maximum permitted amount) of up to ten years old. The precise assemblage isn’t disclosed but is undoubtedly Pinot heavy given the richness. Three years maturation on the lees gives some lovely brioche notes.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995
As much as I love the quality sparklers above, mature Champagne is in a different category entirely. This is 100% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs – 4 Grands Crus and 1 Premier Cru village. The nervy acidity it had at bottling served to preserve it as it took on new aromas and flavours over the years. Simple lemon has been replaced with brioche, nuts and candied fruit. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel.
This is a complete Champagne which doesn’t need anything else with it, and in fact is so satisfying that it doesn’t need anybody else with it – I’d want to drink it all by myself!
An Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman walk into a bar….
…sounds like the beginning of a corny joke, but I recently tasted a producer’s wines for the first time that marry England, Ireland and France. “How did that happen?” you may ask.
Wiston Estate in West Sussex, southern England is a relative newcomer to the nascent English wine scene, and like the majority of the quality wines made there it owes its choice of grapes and production techniques to Champagne. The Irish connection is the winemaker Dermot Sugrue, formerly of Nyetimber and with experience of vintages in Bordeaux and Champagne.
Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Camel Valley and now Hattingley Valley are among the top producers of English Sparkling, and as Le Caveau recently added Wiston Estate to their portfolio I jumped at the chance to see how it measured up.
Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV
Very fresh, like lemon sherbet, with tropical fruit notes and creamy bubbles – enough autolysis character to keep it from being lean in any way. This is top drawer fizz; it would be great served as an aperitif or with seafood, but it’s actually very enjoyable just on it’s own. Do I sound like a dipso when I say I could happily polish off a bottle by myself?
Wiston Estate Rosé Vintage 2011
Much rounder in the mouth as you’d expect from a majority of Pinot Noir. Fresh but seductive, strawberry is to the fore with citrus from the Chardonnay in a supporting role. The mousse is terrifically persistent – it just goes on for ages. This is a fantastic effort and another nail in the coffin for those who don’t like sparkling rosé. It won a Gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards, if you’re interested in such things, but if it’s available where you live then you owe it to yourself to try it.