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Five great Chardonnays from around the world

Following a comparative blind tasting in London last October, we bring you five great Chardonnays from five great wine-producing nations.

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Important to the quality of Chardonnay is not just the range of flavours, but how well they knit together

What makes a great Chardonnay? This is something we have often debated at the drinks business during our large-scale Global Chardonnay Masters competitions, and it seems that top-end Chardonnay needs to have the following: ripe yellow fruit balanced by a fresh lemon-tasting finish; a slightly oily palate weight, but a total absence of sugar; complementary – not dominant – vanilla and toast flavours from fermentation and ageing in high quality French oak, and a salty, sometimes smoky element, that provides added complexity.

Important to the quality of Chardonnay is not just the range of flavours, but how well they knit together, along with the balance – no one character should overwhelm, and structurally, it’s important that Chardonnay, even if made in a rich, ripe and textural style, refreshes the palate.

Finally, the characters in the wine should linger in the mouth long after the wine has been swallowed, and the Chardonnay should have the potential to improve with age.

While many of the Chardonnays we recommend on thedrinksbusiness.com stem from our Global Chardonnay Masters, where Masters of Wine select the best wines blind from a sample of more than 200 wines from an extremely wide range of locations, for this list, we bring you five wines that are meant to be the best Chardonnays from their respective countries: Australia, France, South Africa, Italy and the US.

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The Chardonnays were served blind to buyers and somms at Asia House in London on 5 October

They were chosen by Jackson Family Wines for a Chardonnay Masterclass hosted by this company and ourselves, and the Chardonnays were served blind to around 50 of London’s top wine buyers and sommeliers at Asia House in London on 5 October.

All of the wines were from the 2013 vintage.

The aim of the blind tasting was to present Capensis – a joint venture from Jackson Family Wines and Graham Beck with one goal in mind: to make South Africa’s best Chardonnay.

For more on Capensis and the masterclass see the December issue of the drinks business. Over the following pages you can read the tasting notes on the wines in the order they were presented, or click here to see the list of wines that featured. Approximate UK retail prices have also been included. 

1. Cullen, Kevin John Chardonnay, Australia, 2013 (£70)

crop-to-label-2013-kjLovely nose, though delicate, with stone fruit and grapefruit, some vanilla oak-derived aromas, and a touch of smoke – it also has a freshly-struck-match sulphidic* character.

The palate is slightly oily, there is some yellow fruit, along with a delicate oak influence – shown by vanilla and popcorn flavours – and then the wine finishes with a salty, citrus freshness. Just a touch of alcohol warmth. It is the lightest Chardonnay of the five, and the only one sealed with a screwcap.

This wine comes from Australia’s Margaret River region, and was named after Kevin John Cullen, who, with his wife Diana, established Cullen Wines in 1971. All the Chardonnay grapes come from Cullen’s own biodynamic vineyards where the vines are more than 30 years old.

(*Wine contains sulphides, which at low levels can add a desirable smoky smell to Chardonnay)

2. Domaine Leflaive, Les Pucelles, Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru, France, 2013 (£220)

image_535680_fullWonderful and intense aromas of toast, smoke, chalk and citrus.

The palate too is wonderful and intense, with lemon, pink grapefruit, toast and a gently smoky character. It is very youthful, giving a straight, taught impression, and a lifted refreshing finish. The flavours go on and on. Delicious and perfectly balanced, but still tightly-wound.

From the Les Pucelles appellation, where Domaine Leflaive – Burgundy’s most sought-after white wine producer – takes grapes from three parcels, the oldest of which contains vines planted in 1954.

3. Capensis, South Africa, 2013 (£90)

capensisToasted marshmallow, vanilla, citrus, and an appealing gently sulphidic note, which, like wine 1, is similar to a freshly-struck match.

The palate has the same delicious combination as the nose, with layers of toast, smoke, wood sweetness, a touch of butter, citrus, white peach, then a balanced, long, fresh, slightly salty and youthful-seeming finish. A touch of warmth from alcohol, but not enough to diminish the wine’s appeal.

Capensis is a new South African wine brand developed as a partnership between Antony Beck, the Kentucky-based owner of the Graham Beck wine estate (where Capensis is vinified), and Jackson Family Wines chairman Barbara Banke.

The Chardonnay comes from three vineyards spread across Stellenbosch, the Overberg and Robertson regions, selected with the help of internationally-renowned South African consulting vineyard manager Rosa Kruger.

To find out more about Capensis click here.

4. Gaja, Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, Italy, 2013 (£200)

gaia-rey-chardonnayNo overt oak aromas but a buttery nose, combined with ripe apricot.

Palate shows pear and white peach, some toast and almond, with a gently tannic, slightly drying sensation on the finish; there is also a peach-stone sourness refreshing the palate. Interesting, textured, ripe style of Chardonnay with a slightly grippy phenolic* finish.

From famous Piedmontese producer Gaja, this wine comes from Chardonnay vines that were planted – controversially – in Barbaresco in 1979. It is named after Angelo Gaja’s daughter, Gaia, and his grandmother, Clotilde Rey.

(*Phenolics, or, essentially, tannins, are more commonly associated with red wine, but can also be present in whites, and come from the skins of the grapes. If these tannins are fine and ripe, they can bring a desirable dry, mouth-watering effect to Chardonnay).

5. Kistler, Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay, California, 2013 (£150)

kistler-vineyard-chardonnaySlightly sweet smelling with vanilla, butterscotch, and some peach.

The palate is intense, peachy, with a touch of dried apricot, butter, and toast. Long, smooth, ripe and delicious, but also a bit viscous, sweet and warming on the finish from seemingly quite high alcohol level. Despite the warmth, this is a very good Chardonnay – a ripe and creamy style, but not without brightness.

This wine hails from the original Kistler vineyard, and has been produced since 1986 from a site almost 1800 feet in elevation on the western edge of the Mayacama mountains in Sonoma Country. The vines, which are more than 30 years old, are dry-farmed and grow in deep red volcanic ash.

And finally… the five wines that featured in the tasting

1. Cullen, Kevin John Chardonnay, Australia, 2013 (£70)

Lovely nose, though delicate, with stone fruit and grapefruit, some vanilla oak-derived aromas, and a touch of smoke – it also has a freshly-struck-match sulphidic* character.

The palate is slightly oily, there is some yellow fruit, along with a delicate oak influence – shown by vanilla and popcorn flavours – and then the wine finishes with a salty, citrus freshness. Just a touch of alcohol warmth.

(*Wine contains sulphides, which at low levels can add a desirable smoky smell to Chardonnay)

2. Domaine Leflaive, Les Pucelles, Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru, France, 2013 (£220)

Wonderful and intense aromas of toast, smoke, chalk and citrus.

The palate too is wonderful and intense, with lemon, pink grapefruit, toast and a gently smoky character. It is very youthful, giving a straight, taught impression, and a lifted refreshing finish. The flavours go on and on. Delicious and perfectly balanced, but still tightly-wound.

3. Capensis, South Africa, 2013 (£90)

Toasted marshmallow, vanilla, citrus, and an appealing gently sulphidic note, which, like wine 1, is similar to a freshly-struck match.

The palate has the same delicious combination as the nose, with layers of toast, smoke, wood sweetness, a touch of butter, citrus, white peach, then a balanced, long, fresh, slightly salty and youthful-seeming finish. A touch of warmth from alcohol, but not enough to diminish the wine’s appeal.

4. Gaja, Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, Italy, 2013 (£200)

No overt oak aromas but a buttery nose, combined with ripe apricot.

Palate shows pear and white peach, some toast and almond, with a gently tannic, slightly drying sensation on the finish; there is also a peach-stone sourness refreshing the palate. Interesting, textured, ripe style of Chardonnay with a slightly grippy phenolic* finish.

(*Phenolics, or, essentially, tannins, are more commonly associated with red wine, but can also be present in whites, and come from the skins of the grapes. If these tannins are fine and ripe, they can bring a desirable dry, mouth-watering effect to Chardonnay).

5. Kistler, Kistler Vineyard Chardonnay, California, 2013 (£150)

Slightly sweet smelling with vanilla, butterscotch, and some peach.

The palate is intense, peachy, with a touch of dried apricot, butter, and toast. Long, smooth, ripe and delicious, but also a bit viscous, sweet and warming on the finish from seemingly quite high alcohol level. Despite the warmth, this is a very good Chardonnay – a ripe and creamy style, but not without brightness.

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The five wines that were served blind at the tasting, starting with the Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay from Margaret River in Australia

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