The Chameleon Grape: A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I call Chardonnay the Chameleon grape because its character is so much more dependent on winemaking than place. Vinify Chardonnay at low temperature and you get tropical fruits; go to higher temperatures for a more classic repertoire. Mature in new oak for smoky overtones or a full-fledged rush of vanillin; use stainless steel for a crisper finish. Push malolactic fermentation for those buttery notes of popcorn; avoid it for sharp, citrus flavors. (Yes, I know that Chardonnay shows wonderful nuances of place in Burgundy, most notably in Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault, but that does not counter my argument, since there is a commonality to winemaking in Burgundy.)

Dependence on winemaking becomes even more evident at lower price levels, where yields are higher, and vineyard origins rarely feature as determinants of style. The significant impact of the hand of the winemaker was brought forcefully home to me by two mid-priced Chardonnay’s consumed on successive days. The first was the L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State, enjoyed (if that is the right word) on American Airlines between New York and London (The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet). The second was Domaine Mont d’Hortes from the Languedoc, enjoyed with dinner at Galvins Bistro in London (Review of Galvin Bistrot de Luxe), the day after. American Airlines did not think vintage was important enough to state, but the Mont d’Hortes was the recent 2010 vintage. The American wine retails around $17 per bottle; the Languedoc Chardonnay is about half that price.

The L’Ecole No. 41 comes from Washington’s Columbia Valley. According to the producer, it comes from two vineyards, Schmitt Vineyard in Yakima Valley, “which provides tropical fruit,” and Evergreen Vineyard, “which contributes crisp acidity and minerality.” I buy the producer’s claim that these are cooler vineyards, because I could taste slightly herbaceous flavors in the wine, which I took to represent unripe grapes, although the harvest Brix of almost 26 (producing more than 14% alcohol) might rather suggest over ripe grapes. I can’t say that I could see the wine as “finely balanced between richness and minerality,” because for me it seems more to have a phenolic brutality to the finish, which did not exactly complement the food.

The Mont d’Hortes Chardonnay comes from the Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue, a minor Vin de Pays in the Languedoc, not far north of the Pyrenees. This is a somewhat warmer region, but the nose shows a tang of citrus, quite fresh with just a touch of phenolics on the finish. The palate is quite full, with a fairly rich impression. There is not a huge amount of flavor interest, and once again I found the phenolics to be a little too evident, but a decent balance allowed the wine to complement the food quite well. As evident from the price, this wine sees no oak aging, in contrast with the l’Ecole No. 41 which apparently was matured in two- and three-year old barriques.

I suspect the oak is the culprit! For a wine to carry any significant exposure to oak, the fruit has to have a certain concentration and intensity; otherwise the oak just sits on the surface in a disjointed way. Given the coast of oak barriques, it is awfully hard to justify their use on wines around the $15 level (the cost of a new barrique would amount to around 20% of the retail price, which is to say close to half of cost). I suspect my problem with the L’Ecole #41 was just too much strength coming from the oak relative to the fruit. My issue with the Mont d’Hortes was a bit different: there just didn’t seem to be any character to it that said “Chardonnay.” It is a perfectly reasonable quaffing wine, well made for the price, but I had the feeling the same wine could have been produced from any number of grape varieties with very little difference in the results. Southern heat did not show directly in high alcohol (which was stated as a moderate 13%), but it might be fair to say that it muddied the flavor spectrum. I am not sure that in the case of either wine I really see the point of growing Chardonnay just so you can stick the varietal name on the label, although the wine bears little relationship to those that made the variety famous. Has Chardonnay become a brand or even a commodity rather than a variety?

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The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”