Friday, 13 June 2014

Wines and Spirits Course - Chardonnay & Pinot Noir

It was a sad heart that I missed out on the second week of my Wines and Spirits course, as I was on a work trip to Melbourne.  Luckily, the week that I missed out on was all about grapegrowing and wine production. I have my fingers crossed that my recent 3-month vintage experience will stand me in good stead to understand most of the content.

A combination of missing Week 2 and anticipating the topic of Week 3 prevented me from concentrating at work on Monday.  I just couldn't wait to see the chardonnay and pinot noir wines we would be sampling as we learnt about these two classic grape varieties.  

Until a few years ago, neither of these two wine styles would have held any interest for me.  In my naivety, I would have probably told you that chardonnay was for those who were stuck in the 80's and that pinot was just too watery.  But it is amazing how much your palate can change, adapt and learn over the years.  I remember when I made the conscious decision to first tackle chardonnay seriously - when my husband and I went on our first trip down to Margaret River.  

We knew Margaret River chardonnay was a sought-after commodity, so we figured we may as well try the best to train our tastebuds.  And it didn't take us long to fall in love with the stuff!  After ticking off all the big-name wineries, as well as a few boutiques, we were convinced that this unique grape really did have something going for it.  

As I have learnt more recently, the fascinating characteristic of the chardonnay grape is its ability to thrive in cool, moderate and warm climates.  As was reinforced at Week 3 of the Wine and Spirits course, chardonnay's delicate fruit characters and comparative neutrality mean that it can be 'moulded' to the style a winemaker desires.  I think this is what I love most about it - the versatility.

As a good example, on Monday we tasted two Premier Cru (high quality) chardonnays from the Burgundy region in France.  The styles could not have been more extreme.  The first was from Chablis and had the scent of fresh rain and green fruits.  This wine was unoaked but there was some beautifully integrated creaminess from the malolactic fermentation (something I will explain in more detail in a future post).  

Then came the power hit from the Mersault.  This sub-region of Burgundy is significantly warmer than northern Chablis, smack bang in the fabled Côte d'Or (literally, Coast of Gold).  As such, the fruit flavours move from citrusy through to stone fruits (eg. peach, nectarine).  In this particular wine, the fruit flavours were perfectly intermingled with flavours from the oak (toast, charred wood, nuts).  Strangely, I could have sat there for hours just smelling it!

Onto the pinot.  

I am even more of a rookie with pinot than I ever was with chardonnay.  I have always tried to taste it where I can, but have managed to find more 'misses' than hits, resulting in my previous opinion that it was watery and lacking in flavour.  It was not until a visit to Denmark (southern Western Australia, not Europe) last year that I really started to get the concept of why winemakers go through so much pain to perfect this wine and its expression.

Pinot noir is sometimes called 'The Heartbrake Grape', and for good reason.  Quite the opposite of chardonnay, it is extremely difficult to grow successfully due to its thin skins and susceptibility to rot.  Also, it is very picky about climate:  too warm and the result is a 'jammy' wine, too cool and you end up with 'vegetable' characteristics.

Two excellent examples were up for tasting on this occasion, providing the opportunity to compare a classic Burgundy pinot noir to a 'New World' example from the famed Central Otago region of New Zealand.

Burgundy, France
Central Otago, New Zealand
To be honest, I actually had a slight preference for the Central Otago wine.  It was beautifully savoury with a whole host of flavours - redcurrant, leather, mushroom, smoke.  Every time I tried it, I picked up something new and different.

On the other hand, the Gevrey-Chambertin wine was more acidic and tannic (suggesting longevity).  It had earthiness, plum, red cherry and leather but I just didn't find it quite as complex.  

My conclusion: I will drink more pinot - it's the best way to learn!