Chardonnay

In the spirit of learning about Champagne and all of its deliciousness, I thought a great place to start would be the grapes. Yes, history of the region is also a good place to start, but without the grapes, there'd be no wine! Champagne can be made from three different varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. I've already done a grape series on Pinot Noir, which you can find here, and I felt that Chardonnay was a natural next place to go. It's recognizable, accessbile, and even if you don't like or are unfamiliar with Champagne, you may be Chardonnay fan!

Chardonnay

Key Facts for Chardonnay:

  • It is the most planted white (or green) grape in the world.  
  • Chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France.
  • The grape is more neutral in flavor which is why it tastes so incredibly different depending on where or how it is grown and/or the winemaking process (oaked vs. unoaked). 
  • Unlike Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is fairly easy to grow and is very adaptable to different growing conditions.
  • Wines you may not know are Chardonnay: Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Chablis, and White Burgundy.

As I mentioned above, Chardonnay is a grape whose flavor ranges widely. Flavor depends on the ripeness of the grape, which is linked to the region it is grown in. In colder climates where the grapes don't get as ripe, the flavors tend to be more crisp like lemon and green apple. In warmer climates, the flavors can become more tropical with notes of pineapple or peach. When researching, I came across these other, more unexpected flavors: Beeswax, smoke, saline solution, and wet rock.

What's with the buttery Chardonnays?!

Buttery and oaky Chardonnay has to be the most polarizing wine. Totally love or hate with that one. The vanilla and oak flavor is imparted from... well, oak. Oak barrels, to be specific. The buttery and creamy texture that is often paired with oak comes from malolactic fermentation (MLF). I've discussed it before in this review of Ramey's Chardonnay, but to recap, MLF is a secondary fermentation with a different kind of yeast where the tart malic acid is transformed into a "creamier" lactic acid. This produces diacetyl which is the chemical compound that causes the buttery flavor. Love buttery Chardonnays? Be on the lookout for wines that have gone through MLF... a good wine professional will be able to point you towards those, but Napa Valley Chardonnay is well known for these types. Hate it? Maybe look toward Old World Chardonnay (specifically Chablis) or Australia, as wines from that region have minimal to no oak aging. 

Chardonnay Pairings

Chardonnay is very versatile when it comes to pairing with food and is a great white if you're uncertain what to do. Keep in mind that the style of Chardonnay, mostly whether it's oaked and buttery or unoaked, will be the most important factor in deciding what to pair with your food. Oakiness can overpower lighter fish dishes, while the acid and citrus notes of an unoaked Chardonnay would work great with shellfish (ex: oysters). Oaked chardonnay would work very well with poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.), especially when roasted or more bold in flavor. But what have I always said? Drink what you want with what you want! 

France: Where to start?

Where to start? That is the question I have been asking myself for at least a year now. If you've been around for a bit, you know my love and appreciation for Old World wines has grown so much over the last year, mostly due to the wine education classes at Corkbuzz. But ever since my eyes have been opened, it's also been so overwhelming. Why?

To start, here's a map of the wine regions of France:

Source: forgetburgundy.com Different Wine Producing Regions in France

Source: forgetburgundy.com Different Wine Producing Regions in France

I mean, look at all of that color! TWELVE major regions. If that doesn't seem so bad to you, the French AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegee) system ends up subdividing the regions into tiers and has specific laws for each of these, restricting what people can and cannot do with their grapes and their wine. It is never ending, let me tell you. France has the grapes we've all heard of (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), but it is also home to hundreds of indigenous grapes you've never seen before. I'll never forget when I read on Wine Folly that if you wanted to try a new French wine every night, it would take you over EIGHT YEARS to taste them all. Crazy, right?

So how am I going to start? I'm debating between Champagne and the Rhone Valley. Champagne is a classic region that everyone has heard of (plus I love my bubbles!), but Rhone Valley and its Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (known as GSM) blends have quickly become a favorite red of mine to drink. Now, I know that learning about France may not appeal to masses, but isn't everyone looking to learn something new? Anyone? Bueller? 

Help me decide! Champagne or Rhone Valley... leave a comment below and tell me which you'd rather hear about, or follow me on Instagram at @the.green.grape and leave a comment there. Cheers!

Wine Basics: Wine Structure

If you've ever watched Somm or Uncorked or heard a wine buff describe wine, it seems like they inevitably use the words "balanced" or "structured". I always want to say, "What in the world are you talking about?" If you're in that boat with me, I hope this post will help you with two things... I hope it helps you understand what the heck those wine buffs mean and I also hope it helps you understand more what characteristics you like and dislike in a wine. The ultimate goal of learning about wine is to be able to accurately describe what you like, right?

Wine Structure

The four traits that comprise a wine's structure are:

  • Tannin
  • Acid
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol

Tannin

Way back in the day, I wrote a short post on tannin and what it was. You can find that here. Tannin seems to always be associated with the word "astringent", but basically it's referring to the compound in wine that dries out your mouth and seems bitter. It can also be described as the "biting" sensation that hits the sides of your tongue and back of your jaw. Tannin is a product of the contact between the seeds, skins, and stems and the grape juice during pressing and/or fermentation. High tannins can typically be found in varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. 

Acid

Acid is easier for most people to understand because we're familiar with acidic things like citrus fruits, coffee, and soda. I always hear acid described as, "Think about taking a bite of a lemon." For me, my mouth immediately begins to water as I imagine the tartness. This is the key difference between acid and tannin... acid makes your mouth water where tannin causes your mouth to dry. Acidity is typically felt as a zing on your tongue and is commonly found in wines grown in cooler temperatures. A great example of a wine that is commonly thought of as acidic is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Sugar

Residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation is what causes wine to be sweet. Sweetness is identified by the tip of your tongue. It is common for people to confuse sweet and fruity since we typically associate the actual fruit with sugar and sweetness (think of a ripe strawberry). You can truly tell if a wine is sweet by holding your nose and trying the wine... if you can still taste the sweetness, then the wine is actually sweet. Otherwise, it's likely just fruity. Rieslings, especially nice German Rieslings, are often on the sweeter side of the scale and low in alcohol.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a byproduct of yeast eating sugar. Therefore, low alcohol wines tend to be sweet given the residual sugar left in the juice. Low alcohol wines are usually less than 10% ABV while a wine is typically considered a high alcohol wine when it's over 15% ABV. I'd say you probably see that most wines have a 13.5% ABV, which is considered "medium-high" alcohol. High alcohol can be a result of several things, but examples of wines that are commonly high in alcohol are Australian Shiraz and California Zinfandel.

The goal with the traits above is to get them in balance, or rather to not have one that stands out. An unbalanced wine that has too much alcohol will likely burn when drinking and not be pleasant. Or an unbalanced wine whose tannins are out of whack may taste bitter, and who wants bitter wine?! Balance is key!

What do you look for in a wine? 

 

Wine Basics: What is wine?

For a long time, wine was simply a tasty drink I enjoyed at the end of a long day. I never really thought about what it was or where it came from, nor did I care really. I think it was my first trip to Napa that really made the whole wine making process interesting to me, and that's really where I learned what wine was. I always knew it was fermented grape juice, but the process, while simple at the core of it all, is much more than that. So, how does it work?

  1. Grapes, specifically Vitis vinifera, are grown.
    There are a bunch of factors that contribute to the success of the vines, including but not limited to climate, soil, and weather patterns. Some varietals are easier to grown than others, but overall, it honestly seems like a stressful process.
     
  2. Grapes are harvested.
    When grapes are harvested affects how the grapes will taste. Timing of the harvest can affect sugar levels (among other things) in the grape, which then affect the amount of alcohol after fermentation.
     
  3. Grapes are pressed for their juice and fermentation begins.
    This process is actually different depending on if you're making red or white wine. Red wine is typically pressed to break the skins and then fermented with the skins, seeds, stem bits, etc. This mixture is called "must". All of that stuff is what gives red wine its color and flavor. Once the wine is fermented, the must is pressed to get the flavorful juice. On the other hand, white wine is made from grapes that are pressed and separated from their skin before fermentation. For both, fermentation is caused by the yeast eating the sugar in the juice producing alcohol and CO2. The yeast is found naturally on the vines, but sometimes winemakers add particular strains to help control the process.

    Did you know? White wine can be made from red grapes. Grape juice is mainly clear whether it's from red or green grapes, so it's actually the skins that transfer color to the wine. For example, Champagne is usually made from Pinot Noir grapes.
     
  4. Wine is moved to barrels to age.
    Once fermentation ends, the wine is moved to oak barrels to age. This time can vary widely, but oak is almost always used. Oak helps develop the wine's aroma and flavor, as well as softens the tannins, mostly due to oxygen reaching the wine. 
     
  5. Wine is bottled.
    Once the winemaker is satisfied with the aging (if any), the wine is bottled. The bottles provide a sterile and neutral environment where the wine can continue to develop flavor, but only by mixing with itself since oxygen can no longer get to the wine (assuming the cork is good). The winery may choose to age the wine in the bottle for an extended period of time before releasing. That's why you can get 2012 vintages coming out in 2015.
     
  6. We get to drink it.
    My favorite part!

Here are some other wine terminology you may hear when discussing the process of making wine:

  • Viticulture - The process of growing grapes
  • Vinification - The process of wine making
  • Racking - A method of removing particles in wine. These particles settle to the bottom and winemakers transfer the particle-free liquid to different aging barrels.
  • Fining - Another method of removing particles. This method adds agents to the wine that cause the particles to coagulate and fall to the bottom, leaving the particle-free liquid on top.
  • Sulfites - Ah, the infamous sulfites. You'll see "Contains sulfites" on most bottles in the USA. Sulfites are sulfur dixoide, a compound that naturally occurs during fermentation, but is also added by winemakers. It acts as an antioxidant and preservative.  Despite popular belief, they do not cause the "wine headaches". 

As you can see, the process, at its core, is fairly simple. However, there is a lot of artistry within the steps that can make a wine great or not so great. For example, when do you pick the grapes, or how long do you age the wine? My favorite part about going to wineries is to hear the story of their wine making and hopefully understand the decisions they make and to see how it shows through the wine you taste.

Have you ever visited a winery that had a great wine-making story? If so, please share!

What's the deal with Chablis?

I feel like I’ve mentioned Chablis a lot recently, so I thought it’d be nice to go into a little more depth about the region.

Chablis (pronounced shah-blee) is the northernmost region in Burgundy and Cote d’Or. Here is a map that helps you get an idea of where Chablis is in relation to the rest of France.

This region produces white wines from 100% Chardonnay grape and the wines are known for their dry, mineral, steely, chalky flavors.

There are four “levels” of Chablis:

  • Petit Chablis - These use basic quality Chardonnay from outlying land. The least expensive.
  • Chablis - "Generic" village wines. These wines have the most variability between producers and vintages.
  • Chablis Premier Cru - 40 high quality sites.
  • Chablis Grand Cru - There are 7 Grand Cru vineyards located on a single hillside near the town of Chablis.

These wines, especially the basic ones, are typically aged in stainless steel as opposed to oak which provides for the crisper flavor and lighter body than the New World expressions of Chardonnay. There are some producers that will age in oak, but these are mainly found with the Premier Cru and Grand Cru levels. Also, because Chablis is in the northern part of France, the climate is cooler which produces wines with more acidity.  The chalk and mineral notes come from the Kimmeridgean soil in the area which is composed of limestone, clay, and fossilized oyster shells. Other Chablis aromas to note are citrus, honeysuckle, and green apple. Premier Cru and Grand Cru are known to have a different set of aromas such as mushroom, honeycomb, dried apricot, gingerbread, almonds, and candied ginger.

If you think you do not like Chardonnay because you find them too buttery and oaky, I recommend you try out a Chablis! I’d stick with the Petit Chablis or Chablis levels at this point because they tend to have the least amount of oak. If you're intimidated by Old World (i.e. European) labels, here is a good post from none other than the trusty Wine Folly that will help guide you. Otherwise, always be open to asking recommendations from the employees of wherever you buy your wine! Recommended food pairings include the more obvious oysters, shellfish and white fish, but they also include southern fried chicken, sushi, and fish and chips. I hope you enjoy this new found region (for me) as much as I do!