MOST ASKED QUESTIONS AT CARO’S #4
Remember when every Chardonnay tasted like essence of heavily buttered toast? It was the 80’s and everything was just bigger – the flavours, the lunch bills, the aspirations of economic growth without end. Only men’s ties were sometimes more petite… and leather.
While some aspects of the 1980s might be cool again, few have remained popular – to say the least. But one thing that never faded is the ‘old school’ style Chardonnay. Fat and loaded with rich flavour, it is typified by a heavy dose of tropical and stone fruit (from very ripe grapes), almost no acidity (also from very ripe grapes), a buttery and yeasty richness (from malolactic fermentation and yeast contact), and most classic of all – so much oak in each glass that you feel like you are sucking a plank of wood.
Chardonnay legend Tony Bish from Sacred Hill is long enough in the tooth to remember those days well. He loved the bold personality and “brash charm” of the 80s Chardonnay. But the oak profile was aggressive and ‘planky’. Tony reckons this is partly because in those days, most oak was seasoned for only two years. These days oak is generally seasoned for three. (Here ‘seasoning’ means leaving the wood in open yards to weather, prior to making barrels). So 1980s wood was literally fresher and more ‘sappy’, whereas oak today is a touch more elegant and restrained. Though to some this ‘elegance’ is lamentable: fewer wines have a major oak hit (at least not powerful enough to transport us back in time to the 80s).
There is much chatter in wine spheres – mostly from people who make wine, or market it – about changing ‘customer trends’ toward more ‘mineral’ and less oaky Chardonnay. But as retailers, honestly, we don’t know many of these customers. While we appreciate all styles and accommodate all customers, we could count on one hand the number of punters in a month asking for un-oaked, ‘fresh’ or fruity Chardonnay. For most people, Chardonnay is still synonymous with richness, creaminess and oak. Because of all grapes Chardonnay has such a famous harmony with oak – a match made in heaven.
Or rather it is a heavenly match made in the winery – because Chardonnay is specially suited to manipulation by the winemaker. It’s neutral, non-invasive fruit characters (delicate citrus, ripening toward white stone fruit and gentle tropicals) is a beautiful blank slate on which to lavish oak, yeast and the buttery characters of malolactic fermentation.
Malolactic or second fermentation is a natural process that most wines go through, including reds. But it is identified with Chardonnay because, ironically, of this fruit neutrality – which allows such a subtle note as butter or cream to occupy centre stage. Likewise when the yeast lees go through autolysis (breaking down) it brings a bready, mealy layer of richness to both the flavours and the texture.
The final building block of the Chardonnay winemaker is oak. This can be either ‘new oak’ (and hence will impart bigger, fresher oak flavour) or it can be ‘old oak’ – which is sometimes also called ‘seasoned’ (by wine, not weather). Such old oak will impart oak texture but less flavour, having already held one or multiple vintages of juice.
Ant MacKenzie is another hugely experienced winemaker with such names as Dry River, Te Awa and Villa Maria. According to Ant the level of oak being used these days is much less. Under a decade ago, ambitious producers may have put their top Chardonnay in 100% new oak – whereas today 45% would be a lot. And likewise ripeness: most Chardonnay used to be harvested at 14 percent or more of potential alcohol, while today levels are much lower on average. So the trend toward elegance certainly exists. Perhaps experts (including winemakers) got sick of too much alcohol and wood ‘masking’ our increasingly prized and perfect fruit flavours, so they created a culture of dialing back the winemaking intervention. Or maybe new oak just started seeming too expensive. But to describe that as a customer-led trend is, well…a stretch, shall we say.
In any case, all’s not lost for lovers of rich Chard – far from it. At Caro’s we have certain personal predilections, so are always sure to give big Chardonnay drinkers no shortage of delicious options. In fact, for any retailer the ‘on the ground’ reality is heaving demand for the rich stuff – so producers, whatever they may say about style, have had to find new and better ways to deliver this richness in the glass.
Spotting this gap in the market, Tony Bish recently started sourcing fruit to release wines under his own label. His ‘Fat and Sassy’ Hawkes Bay Chard is exactly what it says on the label – and grew out of demand for this style. It is 1980s Chardonnay in a ‘modern take’. This means that the fruit is ripe – but not overripe. And while the oak is satisfying it is elegant and – a key word for Tony – ‘integrated’. That is, the oak brings texture and a touch of flavour to beautifully poised, polished waves of stone fruit and delicate butterscotch.
As Tony points out, the 80s were a different world – restaurants were few and far between (hard to imagine, but true). These days we’re infinitely more classy and cosmopolitan, with international food and wine on every main street. The new Tony Bish Chardonnays – which also include a Gisborne offering and two outrageously serious upper tier wines – celebrate the old school Chardonnay while sophisticating the genre to a level worthy of today’s high expectations.
Ant MacKenzie has spent many years as a wine consultant. And it has been his job – among other things – to make Chardonnays rich and round without too much expense and oak. His $20 Theory and Practice label of Hawkes Bay Chardonnay is the fruit of this effort – and insane value. Ant calls this a big rich Chardy “ín check”. It has an immensely generous mouth-feel – rich but smooth and sophisticated, mealy and subtly oaky – and provides ample satisfaction for a stupidly low price. Despite all that, it tastes impeccably classy and expensive.
While Ant’s label looks modern – and the value is state-of-the-art – it tastes this way by methods that could almost be called ‘traditional’. They would in fact would have been unavoidable for much of Chardonnay-making history. For Ant – like Tony and some of the best Chardonnay-makers – it’s about getting a developed (aged) feel into the wine before it’s released. Ant achieves this not by an industrial and uniform tank/barrel system, but by techniques that are more random and perhaps ‘natural’: 1) fermenting in a mix of small and large format oak; 2) using ‘wild’ or indigenous yeast for complexity and subtlety; 3) allowing malolactic fermentation to happen naturally, sometimes as late as the following Spring; 4) not stirring the yeast lees but leaving the wine undisturbed as long as possible (so yeast will still make its full presence felt, but only after 9 months in barrel when the yeast cells breaks down); and 5) working at warmer temperatures – not in a chilled barrel hall – so the microbiology gets a chance to move along.
In Ant’s process, sulphur is not added until very late – so the subtle processes of texture and flavour, compounds and chemistry are allowed to occur in good time. Anyway, whatever he’s doing – it works!
We must mention our other high-achievers – we have so many! For example Nelson is an area that is delivering amazing Chardonnay lately. Boutique producers Blackenbrook are on the same Moutere clay as the legendary Neudorf, though in a much more moderate, coastal position. Here they lovingly make rich, ripe and full-oaked styles: the top Family Reserve is an oak-lover’s dream, while the standard estate Chardonnay is perhaps the star – with opulent stone and tropical fruits balanced nicely against generous lashings of oak and butter.
But Chardonnay is a funny, paradoxical creature. Give a someone a fine, elegant Chardonnay and many will feel they’ve consumed a full, rich drink. For example take the wonderful Astrolabe Marlborough Province Chardonnay. Fresh, mineral and mealy – but with a solid, medium-bodied core of concentrated Chardonnay fruit – it is ‘technically’ a Burgundy style, yet so many of our classic Chardy drinkers love it.
And in the end, that’s the double nature of the rich Chardonnay drinker.
On the one hand, more is more – more creaminess, more texture, more…yum! (Slurp). On the other hand, the wine must have harmony and balance above all. The flavours themselves are so neutral, you see, that even the most hedonistic drinker may unknowingly enjoy a slightly fresher, finer style – so long as it’s a Chardonnay – and so long as it’s good. At least they will for a while. And then after some time, once again, they’ll hanker for that boosted oak-and-butter bomb we know and love so well.
Oh big oaky Chardonnay, thank goodness you’re still here!