The Quaran-Vine Papers #1: Chardonnay
Seeing as many of us will have a bit more down time for a stretch, I thought I’d send out a few deep dives that I’d normally reserve for summertime. Nice to fill the mind with things that aren’t current events or tiger collectors. We begin with one of my favourite grapes: Chardonnay.
I was talking to a friend with young kids about their schedule, working from home, and he noted that he had to allow for his kids to have at least one meltdown per day, it’s just baked into his routine. I barely remember that. My kids are pretty much grown, so daily crying (them not me) isn’t a part of my life anymore, but I can’t quite pinpoint exactly when it stopped. That milestone wasn’t properly observed.
I also can’t remember the last time I had to defend Chardonnay to somebody – at some point I stopped having to but I’m not sure when that was. The majority of fine wine drinkers have come to appreciate this noble white grape for what it is: a versatile variety that serves as a conduit for terroir and, most importantly, a grape for which there are no short cuts. One cannot hack Chardonnay, the price reflects the processes and vineyard quality, you absolutely get what you pay for and I think that everyone gets it now: gone are the days where I’d recommend a Chard for food pairing and it would elicit a furrowed brow, like I’d just suggested that they pair their salmon with tuberculosis.
Will Chardonnay again reach the heights of popularity it enjoyed in the 1980s? No, and it shouldn’t. A lot of the top brands from that era were cheap, oak-chipped fruit-bombs that tasted like Eau De Marmalade stirred with a hockey stick – those “short cuts” I was talking about – and their ubiquitous middling quality is what helped bring about the backlash that we’ve only just emerged from. No, Chardonnay feels right remaining as a premium wine, consumed by those in the know and enjoyed as a visceral opulence. Let Pinot Grigio be the Boy Band, this grape plays Jazz.
I have been… collecting a few mind-blowing Chardonnays (using the term “hoarding” isn’t as pleasantly absurd as it was in, say, February) and I’d like to share them with you today, starting with:
Catena Zapata 2016 White Bones Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina
Turns out that while few of us were paying attention, the Catena family started quietly producing some of the best Chardonnay in the New World, all because of the magic bullet in their arsenal: the Adrianna Vineyard, sitting at 5,000 ft. elevation. About a decade ago, the family started to parcel out that vineyard into specialized bottlings (it used to all go into the Catena Alta tier) according to what was in the underlying soils. “White Bones” refers to the soil underneath the carefully selected rows in Block 1, teeming with calcareous deposits and limestone as well as fossilized animal bones from when the site was under a river. This is lightning in a bottle: full bodied Chard with electric tension from Adrianna’s 20-C diurnal shift, partially aged under a “flor” (floating layer of yeast that allows micro-oxidation), showing stone fruits, saline, jasmine, pineapple and chalk, all before a finish longer than The Irishman. Chardonnay this good from France would be $500 at a base level, this feels exciting and zeitgeist-y. 98 points Decanter, 98 points James Suckling, 97 points Robert Parker, 3 wooden 3-packs available, $150.98 +tax
Fitz Blanc de Blancs 2014/2015, Okanagan Valley, B.C
Do y’all remember Greata Ranch? It’s that little pull-out off of Hwy 97 with all the condos beside it, in the terra incognita between Peachland and Summerland? Gordon Fitzpatrick sure remembers it because it’s the part of Cedar Creek that he didn’t sell to Mission Hill a few years back, changing the area’s output to focus mostly on sparkling wines. The now-tiny winery admittedly flew under my radar for a few years before scoring Gold/95pts at the Decanter Wine Awards in London (for the 2014 vintage, the equally good 2015 will be submitted in May), the same score that Moet & Chandon got for MCIII (BC price approx. $530). This 100% Chardonnay (from the wee Greata estate) has gorgeous bubbles, a fresh yeasty nose of lemon and acacia with a beautifully complex delivery (3 years on lees will do this) and a streak of cold-climate acidity. 95 points Decanter (2014 vintage), 12 bottles 2014 available, 6 bottles 2015 available, $43.98 +tax
Francois Mikulski 2017 Meursault, Burgundy, France
A lightning bolt of clarity and precision, Mikulski always pulls off that most Burgundian of tricks: wielding intense concentration whilst seeming lighter than air. The road Francois took towards winemaking could fill a miniseries, his father escaped occupied Poland and found himself fighting alongside the British in the Free Polish Forces, where he met Francois’ mother who was from Burgundy. Francois fell in love with Burgundian wine and in 1992 inherited some plots from his uncle Pierre Boillot, then spent the next 3 decades in the cellar doing the opposite of what his uncle did. Mikulski favours elegance over opulence, and limits his new oak use to 20% to let the dirt shine through, this 2017 Meursault contains a novella on the nose: honey, almonds, anise, caramel, melon – the aromas suggest that a much heavier wine is on the way – then pivots to laser-tag on the palate that you could forgivably mistake for a Grand Cru Chablis, minus the minerality. This guy is famous for a reason. 94 points Decanter, 2 6-packs available, $113.98 +tax
Lou Dumont 2017 Meursault, Burgundy, France
To many of my clients this will be the first time you are hearing about Dumont but to my Asian clients this may be somewhat of a reunion, as the Dumont wines are hella-popular in Asia but are making their BC debut only now. Japanese Somm Koji Nakada followed his passion for Burgundy to Dijon, where he was taught French by his future wife/co-winemaker Jae Hwa Park, a Korean ex-pat living in France. Together they started a micro-négocient house called Lou Dumont to honour their kids and the mountains of their youth (and also, I’m guessing, to not freak out an agrarian French culture). Kind of a switched-polarity image from the previous Meursault, where the Mikulski is a streak of acid saved by concentration, Dumont is intense concentration saved by a streak of acid. Koji is most definitely not afraid of barrels, but the rich body and toasty nose (imagine hazelnuts, apples and shortbread in a toaster-oven) is balanced by that streak of tartaric freshness that ties everything in a beautiful bow. I love this wine in a surprising and almost sheepish way: rich toasty Burgundies are not what the cool kids are doing these days (not that I’ve ever cared), but Lou Dumont more than pulls it off with ample style and grace. Welcome to Canada, Jae and Koji, I think we’ll get along. 1 6-pack available (I had more but it’s selling already), $91.98 +tax
Domaine Laroche 2006 1er Cru La Chantrerie, Chablis, France
Hey, looky what Jordan did! I found a Premier Cru Chablis for under $50! Things are looking up, world!! I shudder to imagine what they did at the medieval monastery called “Le Obediencerie” back in the day, but they make wine there now cuz that’s where Domaine Laroche has their cellars. This 1er Cru Chantrerie, culled from different 1er Cru vineyards, is a relatively round affair, with intense yellow fruits and chalky notes on the nose and finish. Aged mostly in stainless steel with about 10% in wood, nice generosity and fruit purity, this would be a steal even at $60. 18 bottles available, $43.98 +tax
Jean-Marc Brocard 2016 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre, Chabils, France
Most Chablis lovers (Chablisiacs? Chablisketeers?) can agree that in the very unlikely event that any Premier Cru was elevated to Grand Cru, Montée de Tonnerre would be first in line for the upgrade – it’s directly adjacent to the Grand Cru cluster on the right bank and shares a similar exposition. These are serious Chards with regal structure, and the Brocard expression of the vineyard hues a shade riper than some of the more austere versions: unusual apricot and nectarine notes can be found amongst the expected citrus and granny smith apple. A citrus-rind-ish astringency holds everything together on the very dry finish – this just entered the drinking window and will live here for another 10 years before taking the train to Cheesetown, not unlike a Grand Cru. Gorgeous and, in context, a screaming deal. 94 points Tim Atkins, 12 bottles available, $76.98 +tax
Passopisciaro 2017 “Passobianco”, Etna, Sicily
The Chablis of the Volcano has returned. There isn’t much Chardonnay grown up on the slopes of Etna, and the Chard that is planted is so affected by the high altitude and marine influences that it seldom resembles Chardonnay at all. The saline notes underscore the wine’s more effusive qualities: honeyed apricot, red apple, marzipan, all bound by enough energy to run a time machine. Honestly if you told me that this was a fat little Vermentino, I’d believe you without blinking and then change my license plate to VRMTNO in tribute, but it’s legit Chard under a unique refraction, totally idiosyncratic and totally Passobianco. So glad this is back, I missed it from last year! 92 points Robert Parker, 3 6-packs available, $59.98 +tax
TOR 2017 Chardonnay Durell Vineyard, Sonoma, California
After spearheading the Private Reserve line of Chards and Cabs at Beringer for a quarter-century, Tor Kenward, who studied under Mondavi, André Tchelistcheff and Warren Winiarski, left to make only single-vineyard Chards and Cabs across Napa and Sonoma. Tor wants to focus on the vineyards, not the winemaking, so let’s do that: the Durell vineyard, made famous by Kistler and the top Chateau St Jean wines, lies just west of the town of Sonoma, and favours the Wente clone of Chard, which boasts smaller berries and thicker skins. The intense fruit is well suited to barrels, and Tor spins silk with this 2017 – well off the vines by the time the fires started, if you smell smoke while drinking this you are probably on fire. Gorgeous notes of peach pie, melon and fresh bread on approach, drinks like a cardigan sweater woven out of neck rubs. Exclusive to Everything Wine. 95 points Robert Parker, 6 bottles available, $119.99
Grgich Hills 2016 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
To coopt a phrase originally meant for Keith Richards: We should think very hard about the kind of world we’re leaving for Mike Grgich. When I met him a few years ago (feels like a million in 2020 years) he was shuffling with a walker but still spry and funny for a guy in his early 90s – he still takes part in his namesake winery’s blending sessions, welcome advice I’m sure from the dude who beat the French in the 1976 Paris Tasting. Grigich Hills bottles many varieties but Chardonnay has always his Pegasus, his signature imprint of volatility/depth very present in this overachieving 2016 effort. Indigenous yeasts and lack of Malolactic fermentation bring both funk and zing to the party where orange peel and marzipan are already spinning records; every Grgich vintage is different but the best ones (like this) are vibrant, exciting wines with a welcome overabundance of character. 97 points Decanter, 12 bottles available, $76.98 +taxUntil next time, Happy Drinking!!