#250 – June 21, 2013

As spring quickly gives way to summer, I am looking forward to a drinking season loaded with crisp and refreshing wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Rose. This week’s newsletter is dedicated to one of the noble varietals which doesn’t get nearly enough attention on these pages, but certainly produces quality wines in Israel and world-class treasures around the globe – Chardonnay.  I recently took a quick look at my “Wine Types” page and was astonished to see that I had never done an in-depth page on Chardonnay.  While I have obviously written about and enthusiastically recommended many Chardonnay wines, the grape itself had never been given its due on these pages.

There are likely many reasons for Chardonnay getting the short shrift, including my desire to introduce folks to the lessor known varietals which they likely have encountered less frequently, and Chardonnay’s position as America’s most popular grape excludes it from that equation.  Additionally, and somewhat similarly to Merlot, Chardonnay has suffered a backlash to its popularity in the 1980s, even inspiring the “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd.  Despite the strong dislike expressed by many a wine lover towards Chardonnay, there is certainly a reason for Chardonnay’s popularity (besides its ease of cultivation which contributes heavily to its surging popularity) and many of the world’s top wines are Chardonnay-based including Chablis (where it is the only permitted grape and one of Chardonnay’s best examples of aging ability), Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Montrachet, PouillyFuissé and other white Burgundy wines (its area of origin).

As indicated above, Chardonnay originated in France’s Burgundy region but has evolved to become the world’s most widely planted white grape varietal, grown across the world.  One of Chardonnay’s primary characteristics is its flavor neutrality, allowing it to assume hugely varying profiles based on the terroir in which it is grown, the oak in which it is fermented and/or aged and the winemaking techniques utilized to vinify it.  This attribute is behind the mass number of different styles of Chardonnay produced across the word from the crisp and mineral laced wines of Chablis to the buttery wines of California laced with gobs of tropical fruit.  That said, Chardonnay certainly seems to be at its best when grown in chalk and limestone, which grant it a mineral attribute that counters the fruit and can be incredibly refreshing while potentially remaining quite complex.

As Chardonnay ripens it rapidly loses its acidity, which is one of the reasons that Israel’s Chardonnay (which grows in a relatively hot climate) is somewhat lackluster, especially with respect to the crisp acidity typically required to counter the lush fruit, oak and buttery notes from undergoing malolactic fermentation (a second fermentation in which tart malic acid (the acid found in green apples) is converted to creamier lactic acid (the acid found in milk)).  Wines which have undergone malolactic fermentation tend to be rounder with creamier texture but somewhat lower acidity levels.  While most Chardonnay grown in Israel and California is subjected to barrel aging (and many of the French versions are oak-free), there are exceptions to every rule with Binyamina’s unoaked Chardonnay being a successful version (in some vintages) of this philosophy.  Many folks are surprised and often turned off upon drinking unoaked Chardonnay for the first time, being completely unfamiliar with the combination of heavier body and green apple & citrus notes unencumbered by the buttery and oaky notes they are accustomed to.

It was an oak-aged California Chardonnay that made much of the noise during the Judgment of Paris in 1976 – Chateau Montelena.  While California winemakers initially imitated their Burgundy peers with lean and more mineral-laced versions, starting in the 1970s, California Chardonnay started to grow bigger and bolder with ever-increasing doses of oak, alcohol levels and ripe tropical fruit, in many cases resulting in wines that are better on their own than with food.

Given Chardonnay’s pliability, there are a number of factors which contribute heavily to the resulting style of wine.  In addition to the terroir, utilization of oak and malolactic fermentation mentioned above, whether fermentation temperature, the wine undergoes [initial] fermentation in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks and whether the wine “ages on the lees”.  These tools have contributed to one of Chardonnay’s monikers – the “Winemaker’s Grape”.  Other aspects include the type of yeast used, harvesting time and other common factors in winemakers, all of which have a substantial impact on a grape as malleable as Chardonnay.  It is Chardonnay’s malleability that results in a lack of varietal characteristic, akin to Gewürztraminer’s spicy and lychees notes, Sauvignon Blanc’s cut-grass (or “Cat’s Pee”) characteristics or Viognier’s aromatic nose.

Despite its prominence today as one of the world’s noblest grapes, for a long time folks were unaware of its prominence among a number of the world’s best white wines given France’s custom of labeling wines by region and not varietal.  As with many other aspects of the ever-so-slightly snobbish wine world, Chardonnay’s ascending recognition and surging popularity (somewhat driven by its success in the Judgment of Paris) led to an increase in varietal labeling and Chardonnay was one of the biggest beneficiaries during the 1980s and 1990s (due in part to the ease of pronouncing its name) during which time it became more of a “brand” than varietal.  Much of this was cheap wine that contained some residual sugar to accommodate American’s sweeter taste preferences and was aged with oak chips instead of the more expensive oak barrels winemakers purported to use.

This surging popularity created some serious backlash among the cognoscenti, resulting in the ABC movement mentioned above, coined by Frank Prial – the New York Time’s wine critic back in 1995.  As the wine world’s tastes continued to change and more red wine was consumed, Chardonnay started to fall from favor leaving many vinters and wineries with huge gluts of wine (which typically results in lower quality wines being produced, further exacerbating the downwards cycle).  Another reason for Chardonnay’s downfall was its association with globalization, with famous British wine writer Oz Clarke calling Chardonnay “that ruthless colonizer and destroyer of the world’s vineyards and the world’s palates” due to vinters tearing up many indigenous grapes to plant Chardonnay in response to growing world demand (the United States went from 1,000 acres of Chardonnay in the 1960s to nearly 100,000 in 2003).

Chardonnay was first planted in Israel in the 1980s with both Carmel and the Golan Heights Winery releasing Israel’s first quality varietal Chardonnay wines for the 1987 vintage.  While Sauvignon Blanc is more widely planted than Chardonnay, Chardonnay is still a very popular grape in Israel, although both take a major backseat to Cabernet Sauvignon and other red varietals.  Despite Israel’s location in the relatively hot Mediterranean Basin, perfectly suited for the constant consumption of crisply refreshing white wines, it is only in the last few years that Israelis have started to enjoy and consume white wines en masse, resulting in a ascertainable qualitative increase which bodes well for future releases.  That said, Israel has been producing a few top-tier Chardonnay wines for many years including the “C” from Domaine du Castel and two of my favorites wines from the Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden Series – the Single Vineyard Organic Odem Chardonnay and the impeccable Blanc de Blanc, certainly Israel’s finest sparkling wine.

For this week’s newsletter, I have included some tasting notes of a number of Chardonnay wines I recently enjoyed and hope you will as well.

Bazelet HaGolan, Chardonnay, 2011:  Only 933 bottles of this 100% Chardonnay were made.  It spent nine months in oak which helped to grant it many of the traditional Chardonnay toasty and other notes.  A bright nose of green apple, pineapple, white peaches, toasty oak, vanilla and some minerals is followed through on a medium bodied palate of tropical fruit, melon, stone fruit, more toasty wood, vanilla and chalky minerals; all balanced by good acidity that keeps the oak at bay and the fruit honest.  Rich, round and mouthfilling with a discernible, but in no way overpowering, oaky presence.  A medium finish rounds out this refreshing wine.  Drink now through 2014.

Bravdo, Chardonnay, 2012:  A successful follow up to the delicious 2011 vintage, this wine was in oak barrels through malolactic fermentation before being removed to develop in stainless steel tanks.  A delightfully aromatic nose of tropical fruit, tart apple, pear, plenty of citrus and some viscous minerality is backed up by a subtle hint of spicy oak.  A medium bodied palate has plenty of fruit and citrus with good acidity keeping the wine lively and leading into a lingering finish of citrus and a pleasing hint of bitterness.  Drinking beautifully now and for the next 12-18 months.

Carmel, Appellation, Chardonnay, 2011:  Reflective of Carmel’s ongoing trend toward subtlety, only 50% of this years wine spent six months in oak (down from 75% for the 2010 vintage) resulting a nice, medium bodied and refreshing wine, providing good value, similar to many of the other wines in this series.  The wine has a nice nose of green apple, melon and guava, along with slightly toasty notes of oak, a hint of butter and good acidity which keeps the wine light and refreshing while providing sufficient complexity to pique one’s interest.

Castel, “C” Chardonnay, 2011:  On first attack the nose is heavy on the smoky oak which slightly obscures the generous fruit notes beneath, but give this wine some time to open up and the oak recedes revealing a bright nose of apple, tropical fruits, melon, bright citrus and minerals that follow through onto an elegant and well-balanced medium bodied palate of more tropical fruit, lemon zest, toasty oak, some flinty minerals and a classy and lingering finish laced with minerals.

Covenant, Lavan, Chardonnay, 2011:  Starting with the 2011 vintage, Covenant started switched vineyards to one located in the Sonoma Mountains called Scopus.  After discovering the vineyard during the 2010 vintage during which Jeff made wine for the vineyard’s owners as a side project, he decided to acquire the grapes for inclusion in Covenant’s Lavan to great effect.  A nicely aromatic nose of stone fruit, tart apple, citrus is buoyed by good mineral streak much of which follows onto the medium bodied palate with some toasty oak from the 12 months in oak (40% new).  Crisper and somewhat leaner than the delicious 2010, this wine is more to my personal preference while maintaining Covenant’s characteristic Lavan traits.  Drink now through 2015.

Ella Valley, Chardonnay, 2011:  Together with the previously released 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, this is one of the first wines released by Ella Valley’s new winemaker – Lin Gold and definitely reflective of a slightly more New World approach than her predecessor while retaining the elegance and style I have loved for so long.  A rich nose of stone fruit, apricot, Mayer lemon and some toasty oak (from the 12 months in barrels) leads onto a rich and round medium to full bodied palate with more rich fruit, honeysuckle, fig, flinty minerals and a subtle hand of oak that provides ample backbone for the vibrant fruit and good acidity.  Elegant and delicious.  Drink now through 2014, maybe longer.  As an aside, I recently tasted the 2008 vintage of this wine which had matured beautifully and was a pleasure to drink, showing that there are a number of Israeli Chardonnay wines with real aging ability that are sometimes worth the wait.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Odem Organic Vineyard, Chardonnay, 2011:  This wine has long been one of my favorites and is a YH Best Buy to boot, year after year.  A rich nose of tart green apples, pineapple and a hint of melon accompanied by heavy notes of toasty oak reflective of the seven months the wine spent in barrels and which need some time in the glass to recede into the background.  More smoky oak, delicious tropical fruit and some notes of warm spices follow onto a medium to full bodied palate with hints butterscotch and a pleasing salinity that nicely counters the ripe fruit.  Simply a delicious wine.

Tzora, Neve Ilan, Blanc, 2011:  Easily one of Israel’s most interesting and quality Chardonnay wines, this 100% Chardonnay was partially aged in French oak for nine months Sur-Lie, providing it with great structure and near-perfect balance to the fresh pineapple, apple, pear, brioche and steely minerals on the nose and medium-bodied palate.  Great acidity and an elegant structure maintain Tzora’s stylistic approach and make this a wine I intend to consume all summer long (and well into the winter as well).

Yaffo, Chardonnay, 2012:  A nice nose of guava, melon, pineapple all accompanied by a light overlay of oak on the nose and palate with a nice streak of slightly bitter minerals on the medium bodied palate with more fruit, pear and hints of oak, all of which is kept fresh by a good jolt of bracing acidity.  A round and mouth-filling wine that pleases.