The European Connection - Part Two
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling
© by John Juergens
Continuing with my discussion of the best wine grapes, let's take a look at three noble varieties that account for a major amount of the white wine production in the world.
What is it about Chardonnay that has made it the most popular white wine in the world for decades? It has become so popular and ubiquitous that Chardonnay has become the Frigidaire of the wine industry being generically synonymous with the term "white wine." It is almost an absolute necessity for any winery, particularly in the new world, that aspires to commercial success to have at least one Chardonnay in its product line. The answer lies largely in the versatility of the Chardonnay grape, which can be grown successfully in all but the most extreme limits of the wine growing regions of the world. In addition, it lends itself readily to a wide range of styles from crisp Champagne and sparkling wines to rich, sensuous, and supple fruit bombs that one person referred to as the "Elizabeth Taylor of wines."
Today's Chardonnay grapes are descendants of a couple of ancient grape varieties grown in France long ago. It is the best known white wine producing grape throughout the country, and it is widely planted in Burgundy and Chablis regions, where some claim it makes wine better than any other place in the world. But then the French say that about all their grapes
More than most other grapes, the wine from Chardonnay reflects the conditions under which the grapes were grown and processed. In cool climates such as in Chablis the grapes tend to retain a dry crispness with cleaner fruit flavors and aroma of apples, citrus, lemon, flint, and nuts. However, in warmer climates the wine will be richer and more complex. If fermented and aged in oak barrels the wine will pick up flavors of oak wood, vanilla, and spice. A secondary non-alcoholic fermentation process called malolactic fermentation will add creamy, buttery components to the wine as it turns malic acid, which is responsible for the tart apple flavors, into lactic acid, which is what gives the wine a buttery taste.
New world Chardonnays, those from California in particular, generally are the biggest and richest in the world, but lots of examples of leaner styles with greater finesse can be found in all of the new world wine producing countries. The Carneros region of California is notable for such wines, and some remarkably good Chardonnays are coming out of Washington State, Texas, Virginia, New York, and even Michigan. New Zealand produces Chardonnays like nowhere else in the world that range from light and lean to rich and elegant, and South American exports a lot of value-priced Chardonnays that continue to improve.
About the only way to know what style of wine you are getting is to know a little bit about your wine geography and the growing conditions, much of which you can get off the label. Cooler climates and less oak aging mean a leaner, crisper wine, and warmer climates, extended oak aging, and malolactic fermentation mean a bigger, richer, heavier wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is another one of the important noble grapes, but it doesn't get as much respect or attention as Chardonnay. This is because it tends to have less complexity, and with its substantial acidity it is more of a food wine than a cocktail wine. It also has a tendency toward tangy grassy or vegetal aromas and flavors if the leaf canopy is not managed carefully.
The grape originated in the Loire River of northern France and is closely identified with the Sancerre and Pouilly Fume regions. It is also grown in abundance in Bordeaux, but the wine lacks the pungency of Loire wines, and the wines tend to be bracingly acidic, very dry, and a bit dull. As one of my wine mentors described a Bordeaux Blanc made of Sauvignon Blanc grapes, "It tastes as if it has been filtered through the Sahara Desert."
However, the grape is very important as a blending partner for other grape types such as Semillion, Sauternes, and Barsacs to freshen them up a bit by providing additional acidity.
As the Chardonnay grape, Sauvignon Blanc has migrated all over the world, and has adopted certain personality characteristics from its new regional digs. In California, you can find wines that are distinctly grassy, herbaceous, or asparagus-like with strong grapefruit characteristics in southern Napa Valley and in most of Sonoma Valley. Northern Napa and the North Coast region tend to produce wines with more melony and tropical fruit flavors.
Robert Mondavi started the trend toward a bigger, rounder style with oak aging that makes the wine lean toward the Chardonnay style. I have tasted such wines that were indistinguishable from Chardonnay. This style has been picked up by many wine makers and promoted as a substantially cheaper alternative to Chardonnay because Sauvignon Blanc grapes cost only a fraction of what Chardonnay grapes sell for. Good examples include Mondavi Fume Blanc, Beringer Founders Estate, and Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc.
Mondavi is also responsible for introducing the term "Fume Blanc" for his brand of Sauvignon Blanc, which has caused all sorts of confusion for wine drinkers. If you take nothing else from this article, just know that Fume Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc wines made with the same grape: Sauvignon Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc has flourished in Australia and New Zealand, where the wines can be very supple and loaded with tropical fruit flavors. However, they can get a bit flabby and soft if the acidity is allowed to drop too low. One of the most striking characteristics of wines made from down under, especially those from New Zealand, is a unique aroma and flavor of gooseberries. I'm not sure how to describe this, so you will need to get a bottle and check it out. Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc is a good example and available locally. And don't be put off by the cutting edge screw cap. It is trés chic!
As for food, I believe Sauvignon Blanc is the absolutely best thing to serve with salads with vinegar based dressings and other tart foods. The acidity in the food counters the acidity in the wine and you are left with an explosion of fruit flavors from the wine, the spices in the dressing and the flavors of the vegetables in the salad.
The final white wine grape I want to discuss is the misunderstood, mispronounced, and under-rated Riesling (pronounced Reesling).
This is the national grape of Germany and Alsace, and has been said to be to white wine as Cabernet Sauvignon is to red wine. It is under-appreciated in this country because, in my opinion, so many people associate it with only those sweet, unctuous German wines in tall green, blue, or black bottles. Make no mistake, there are some very elegant wines in some of those bottles, but the image unfortunately has been set by famous or infamous wines such Liebfraumilch and Zeller Schwartz Katz. Although these were excellent wines at one time, the producers decided to cash in on the popularity of the names rather than maintain a quality product.
I'm not going to go into all the obsessive-compulsive labeling of German wines, but just remember that for them the critical issue is the degree of ripeness of the grapes, which results in both complexity and a certain level of sweetness.
The grape can take all manner of personalities, but the most traditional style of the great Rieslings is just slightly sweet with a steely or mineral backbone of acidity, which is absolutely essential to balance the sweetness. However, dry varieties made in the style of Sauvignon Blanc are gaining in popularity. Aromas frequently are referred to as rose petals and pine, and occasionally you will get what has been referred to as an oily petroleum aroma that really is not unpleasant as it might sound. Ripe apples is also a common descriptor. The Rieslings of the Alsatian region take on a very floral, spicy character and have intense rose petal aromas, and some of them can be very dry.
The grape has been successfully propagated in the new world; however, it tends to take on a much less lively personality, and it can be a bit of a dullard. The wines tend to be soft and a bit too sweet because they lack the balancing acidity. And don't get confused by the terminology. Some wine makers refer to the grape as Johannisberg or White Riesling, but it is all the same grape. One of the better examples of an American Riesling is made by Jekel.
A twist to the American style is to allow the grapes to stay on the vine to become over-ripe, which then produces a wonderfully exotic and seductive wine that usually is called "Late Harvest Riesling." The best example of this kind of wine is Hogue Cellars in Washington State, and I highly recommend it as a reference wine to serve as a dessert or to go with very spicy foods.
The best way to appreciate all the differences in styles I have described for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling is to try two or more types of each side-by-side. At least this is the excuse I use to open multiple bottles to share with friends.
Feb. 3, 2003
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