Unexpected Chardonnays: 2 Wines Full of Surprise
A Premium Wine Wanderings Newsletter
It is always unexpected to be surprised by wine. Following my article this year, “The ABC’s of ‘Anything But Chardonnay’: 7 White Wine Alternatives,” my mail was jam-packed with notes from Chardonnay fans wondering if I even like the grape! I actually love a well-made Chardonnay, but that article encouraged white wine drinkers to break out of their rut 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 certain desired characteristics. For instance, the Chardonnay from France’s Chablis region expresses racy minerality, 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, various Chardonnay genetic clones exist that can offer their own unique aromas.
Saintsbury 809 Chardonnay: Surprising Floral Aromas
In the past few years I was exposed to two fascinating Chardonnays. During a trip to the Carneros Region of Napa Valley, I revisited one of my favorite wine producers, Saintsbury Winery. My surprise was in tasting their Dijon Clone 809 Chardonnay. I am a fan of heady, aromatic, floral dry wines in general, so 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 researchers 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 selections is the “809” clone (they are all released by number). “809” is part of a subset of Chardonnays 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 comparison to the 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 the Musqué clone is gaining popularity. Visit the Saintsbury winery and experience its “open kitchen” layout allowing you to see day-to-day operations, and find the Musqué clone 809 Chardonnay at $58.
Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay: A High Altitude Wine
The annual TEXSOM Conference, site of the filming of the movie SOMM, is a conference that draws 1000 attendees with 40+ Master Sommelier’s and Masters of Wine instructors each year (with 2020 being an exception due to the pandemic). Of the eight years I have attended, one breakout session really stood out to me: High Altitude Wines. I expected to see Rieslings, Torrentes, and other well-known high altitude grape wines featured. But I 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, of course, well known for its highly rated Malbec wines. It was unexpected to hear that they also make Chardonnay wines from vineyards with elevations as high as 4,800 feet. The Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay expresses the limestone and fossilized bones found in the remnants of a river that used to pass through the region. These are expensive wines to be sure ($104), but can be among the world’s best, rating 98 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 how the high altitude can protect heat reduction, yet ripen the wine.
Look for New Expressions of Chardonnay
Find an unexpected, handcrafted Chardonnay that can exceed your expectation. Treat yourself to one of these extraordinary wines. Whether oaked or unoaked, steely or fruity, whether mineral-laden
or lush, Chardonnay is a popular and versatile grape that can represent the best of the land and the skills of 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.
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