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Sarah Heller MW on Chardonnay and consistent greatness

The current thinking is that to belong to the upper echelons of grape royalty, a variety must be site- and vintage-expressive but unmistakably itself. So what about Chardonnay, asks Sarah Heller MW

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Photography by Xavier Young

The Collection

In one typical question in the Master of Wine examination, candidates are presented with a flight of wines based on a single variety, asked to identify the variety and, implicitly, explain their thinking. If that variety is Chardonnay, the best you can usually do to identify this chameleon is to say that the wines display ‘neutral fruit’, ‘a broad spectrum of ripeness’ and ‘a clear emphasis on winemaking’. To a field slightly scornful of human intervention and obsessed with varietal identity and (above all) terroir, this hardly sounds like the stuff that vinous dreams are made of.

In this branding-obsessed era, we are constantly told that, to be successful, a brand must be distinctive. It therefore seems ironic that Chardonnay should be one of the most successful wine ‘brands’ – a variety with an identity so fluid that even its greatest advocates, myself included, would be hard pressed to pin it down. Yet anybody who has experienced world-class Chardonnay, be it Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne or Kumeu River’s Maté’s Vineyard, can be left in no doubt that it is a grape of limitless potential. The question remains wherein the greatness lies.

Technically skilled winemakers in Australia became known for making ‘reductive’, flinty Chardonnays that became ubiquitous, says Heller

The current thinking among wine elites is that to belong to the upper echelons of grape royalty, a variety must be site and vintage-expressive but always remain unmistakably itself. Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Riesling thread this needle, while even grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc get dinged for their dominant personalities. Others – like Merlot, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Sangiovese – are accused of malleability to the point of anonymity.

With Chardonnay, the lack of consistent varietal character seems so extreme that you have to ask what the variety being ‘unmistakably itself’ would even mean. Conversely, there is no question that Chardonnay reflects its growing environment, ranging from greenish, steely and almost serrated in the vins clairs of Champagne, to golden, plump and jellied in the gentler climes of Sonoma and Margaret River.

Do we love Chardonnay simply because it provides a blank canvas on which to project our desires, values and even identities? I’d argue it’s more than that

Certain European winemakers and their followers may have overplayed the terroir hand, suggesting – if not overtly claiming – that certain flinty, ‘mineral’ aromas (note the use of a word that subliminally signals terroir) were a product of place rather than the skilled application of certain winemaking techniques. Since they were less easily explained than the sweet spice notes of oak, it didn’t take a huge imaginative leap to connect these sulphurous aromas to something environmental.

The moment of truth arrived when international winemakers – particularly the savvy technologists of Australia and New Zealand – cottoned on, and ‘reductive’, flinty Chardonnays became ubiquitous. Michael Brajkovich MW of New Zealand’s Kumeu River is one of the most skilled practitioners; his wines possess a lifting dose of these aromas that enhances rather than dominates. One too many new-wave Chardonnays, however, seems to have been made according to the principle that if some is good, a lot is better. The ensuing stinkiness has led many producers to set these techniques aside entirely, since wildly funky Chardonnay, though catnip to many critics and sommeliers, leaves the general public cold.

Penfolds' premium Chardonnay, Yattarna, doesn't conform to the fashion for terroir-driven renderings, by being a blend of different sites

Even so, yet another feature of great Chardonnay had apparently been exposed as a product of winemaking rather than something deep in the soil of grand cru sites. It didn’t diminish such wines’ allure, however. Though a similar unmasking might have doomed Mosel Riesling or Barolo, white Burgundy and blanc de blancs Champagne continued to dominate virtually every ranking of fine dry and/or sparkling white wines.

Fascinatingly, the wine world’s obsession with concealing the hand of the maker seems almost inapplicable to great Chardonnay. So, do we love Chardonnay simply because it provides a blank canvas on which to project our desires, values and even identities? I’d argue it’s more than that. Chardonnay accommodates rather than simply endures winemaking interventions – a point made evident when similar winemaking is applied to other supposedly neutral varieties. (Witness the use of reductive techniques on various Italian white grapes to ‘enhance their minerality’, a trend I would happily see come to an end.)

Genuinely brilliant Chardonnay, such as those of Burgundy's Leflaive or Coche-Dury, remains relatively far and few between, says Heller

By allowing that humans play a significant or even equal role to the natural environment in creating the wine, great Chardonnay reveals the limitations of Newtonian cause-and-effect thinking. For truly excellent Chardonnay remains comparatively scarce despite there being an acknowledged set of winemaking tools and site and vintage parameters that should produce excellence. Perhaps with an ever more granular understanding of these variables, we will one day be able to produce genuine greatness with absolute consistency. Somehow, I doubt it. And perhaps that gap is where the magic of Chardonnay lies.

club o

This article appears in the new, Chardonnay-themed autumn issue of Club Oenologique magazine, published on September 29, with features, tastings and profiles of white Burgundy, Australian Chardonnay and more