It is always unexpected to be surprised. Following my article this year, “The ABC’s of Anything But Chardonnay” my mail was jam-packed with notes from Chardonnay fans. I actually love well-made Chardonnay, but the article was encouraging white wine drinkers to break out of their ruts and try something new.
As a wine writer, I have the privilege to taste samples of wines from around the world. Chardonnay is a grape that takes on the world with a sense of place or terroir* of a region. It also is a wine whose “canvas can be painted” by the winemaker to have desired characteristics. For instance, the Chardonnay from France’s Chablis region expresses racy, minerally, and crisp green apple and lemon notes. Conversely, a Sonoma County Russian River Chardonnay can smell and taste like ripe apricots, butterscotch, cream and vanilla. In addition to terroir influence, Chardonnay genetic clones exist and can offer their own unique aromas.
In the past year, I was exposed to two unexpectedly charming Chardonnays. During a tasting in the Carneros Region of Napa Valley, I revisited one of my favorite Chardonnay producers, Saintsbury. My surprise Chardonnay tasting was their Dijon Clone 809 Chardonnay. As I am a fan of heady, aromatic, floral dry wines, I asked their co-founder, David Graves, to explain what is happening with this wine.
“Chardonnay – what could be new? Let’s go back to its origin with researchers from ENTAV – the French researchers who are in charge of France’s viticultural patrimony. The researches in Dijon are well known for their work on Pinot Noir but they have also worked on Chardonnay. One of their less well-known and more recent selection is “809” (they are all released by number.) “809” is part of a subset of Chardonnay’s known as Chardonnay Musqué. These are selections that produce elevated levels of terpenes… those fragrant chemicals that are responsible for the distinctive traits of Muscat, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer…. Elevated, of course, in selection to their non- musqué [Chardonnay] cousins. 809 is like other Chardonnays but with delicious floral lift in the aroma and on the palate.”
– David Graves, Co-Founder, Saintsbury.
What an unexpected joy to find a Chardonnay this floral and aromatic… Lush notes of nectarines, jasmine, Meyer lemon, chamomile and peaches with a long layered finish. I have discovered that just a few other winemakers make these wines, and they are gaining popularity. Visit the Saintsbury Winery and experience their “open kitchen” layout allowing you to see day-to-day operations and find the Musqué clone 809 Chardonnay at $48.
The TEXSOM Conference, site of the filming of the movie SOMM, is a conference that draws 1000 attendees and 40+ Master Sommelier’s and Masters of Wine. Last year, I attended a breakout session on High Altitude Wines, where the grapes are grown in marginal conditions and make unusually distinct wines. I expected to see Rieslings, Torrentes, and other exceptional high altitude grape wines and was pleased to find some crisp Chardonnays from the Alps- Alto Adige in Italy and from the Andes Mountains – Mendoza region. Bodega Catena Zapata is well known for their highly rated Malbec’s. They also make Chardonnay wines from vineyards at heights of up to 4,800 feet. Catena Zapata White Bones and White Stones Chardonnays express the limestone and fossilized bones found in the remnants of a river that used to pass through the region. These are expensive wines ($63 – $90), but can be among the world’s best, rating 94 to 95 Wine Advocate points over the last several vintages. The nose shows an excellent mélange of citrus and white fruit notes with vanilla. The mouthfeel is rich and concentrated, showing ripe pear, apple, and apricot flavors with salty notes. The finish demonstrates a bright acidity reflecting the high altitude growing conditions.
Find an unexpected, handcrafted Chardonnay that meets your particular palate, whether oaked or unoaked, steely or fruity, minerally or lush. Chardonnay is a popular and versatile grape that can represent the best of the land and the winemaker.
*What is Terroir? Terroir is a French term representing the special combination of climate, soil, geography, elevation, and growing conditions that are unique to a vineyard that can impart characteristics to a wine. Does this wine express the aromas, body, and flavor unique to its terroir? Does this wine have a “sense of place”? The good ones often do.