Chardonnay – too young, too old and just right

I think I have more respect than love for chardonnay. Certainly, when it comes to generalisations about love and white wines, nothing has yet threatened to supplant my relationship with riesling. Southern French-style blends with the likes of grenache blanc/gris, maccabeu, roussanne and marsanne come next, I suppose (and I’d include the equivalent South African blends often based on chenin). And chenin itself – both from the Loire and here (I think, for example, that the Sadie Family Mrs Kirsten is one of the great South African wines). And I increasingly enjoy semillon by itself or blended with sauvignon blanc (preferably a minority component…).

It’s not a race or a competition, of course. We’re blessed with all of these and with a myriad lesser-known white grapes. But I’ve actually bought very few chardonnays, including white burgundies – partly because, especially at the pricier level, I buy more reds than whites, partly because – as I said before this dithering started, chardonnay has my enormous respect, but not my love.

Sticking to locals, nothing much has changed. I think that at the top level chardonnay is one of the strongest categories here (and I rather envy those who do love it!). At the blind tasting that I and a few others recently did of the forthcoming CWG 2012 Auction wines, this was pretty well confirmed. Few wines approached my high scores (scores reluctantly given, but they seemed appropriate – now all I’ll say is that all three were near or at 18/20) for the following three, the notes made at the time:

  • Jordan Auction Chardonnay Auction Reserve 2011: Integrated aromas, fine silky texture, fine acid – showing early harmony, subtle elegance. Well done understated oaking. Incisive, subtly forceful.
  • Paul Cluver The Wagon Trail Chardonnay 2010: Great nose, with obvious but convincing oak, plenty of fruit, hints of complexity. Smoky palate, some lightness as well as intensity. Oak needs to integrate, but it might, given the time this wine needs.
  • Ataraxia Under the Gavel Chardonnay 2011. More balanced than integrated – still very young. Powerful, promising, with fruit intensity to allow development. Understated. Oak shows, but will also integrate. Decently dry, sustained finish.

I thought all three of these were superb. I liked the only other chard on show, the Chamonix Auction Reserve 2011, a little less. It came last in the chard line-up, which was unfortunate (and silly of the planners) as it was the most austere of them, with least oak (unusual for Gottfried Mocke’s chardonnays, but I think that was probably the point of difference from his Chamonix Reserves). Really, the rich, easily lovely Jordan should have come last in the line-up – it wouldn’t have suffered, as the Chamonix arguably did.

Anyway. Perhaps because I’d liked the CWG chardonnays so much, that night I was wanting a glass of something white and I decided to see what mature chards I had available in my wine-fridge (of wines kept ready for current drinking).

There was more choice than I expected, but I picked on the Oak Valley 2005. Unfortunately this bottle at least was past its best – rather oxidised. It had never been an intensely-fruited wine, from youngish vines, so I was probably foolish to have waited so long before opening it.

So, on to Ataraxia 2007. I see that I was very enthusiastic about it for Platter (it did get five stars in the 2009 edition) and said it would acquire complexity over five-plus years. Well, it has. The lemony quality is now just so much more interesting, with a savoury earthiness from bottle age – actually it’s bound up with some oxidative hints of bruised apple suggesting to me that perhaps this is the time to drink it rather than wait much longer. A beautifully elegant, fine wine, with its oak support fully internalised as part of a seamless whole; the fine acidity also perfectly integrated.

For the sake of comparison, tonight I opened a bottle of the Chamonix Chardonnay Reserve 2005 which was also in the fridge. This wine, I am now reminded, made Gottfried Mocke the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 2006. Two years older than the Ataraxia, it seems two or more years younger! Chamonix Chard does in fact have a great track record for ageing well, and this will continue to develop for another five years at least, I’d guess.

Chamonix often seems very oaky in youth, but the way that the 2005’s oakiness has wreathed its way around the rich fruit over the past seven years, building really complex, layered flavours, is the justification. Another three or four years should complete the process – the oak is still a bit too identifiable, echoing on the long, long-lingering aftertaste with a flavour something between burnt caramel and burnt earth. It’s a really fine wine this, of world class, but in a fairly modern mode (mostly because of that possibly excessive, though almost certainly excusable, oaking); rich and full, both intense and subtle, with a gratifying acidity. I only wish I had many more bottles – and for someone who still is not quite in love with chardonnay, that’s a serious admission. But if I did, I’d tuck them away for a good few years.

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