By Celia Strong
This week’s wine is not your everyday chardonnay, but, maybe it could and should be. As soon as we go through our learning steps, you’ll understand why. That means we have to get into our “traveling” mode, or, more accurately, pick up our traveling glasses. Wine glasses, you know.
We’re in France this week for one of their great grapes — Chardonnay. This variety is the white grape of the Burgundy region, where it makes some of the best and most expensive white wines in the world. Chardonnay is considered to be a fairly neutral grape, easily influenced by the exact type of soil it is grown in and whatever fermentation style and barrel treatments are used in its wine making. The whole mystique of white Burgundies reflects this. But, none of these are our wine for this week. Burgundy is not the region for our wine, either, but it will come back into our discussion in a bit. So hang on.
An area called Ardèche (ar desh) is the growing spot for our Chardonnay. This area is in south central France, named for the Ardèche River. Humans have lived here since at least the Upper Paleolithic Age. The Ardèche River is the largest canyon in France, and there are caves all along it, in the cliffs that form the canyon, that are full of ancient drawings and relics of flint knives and arrowheads. This area is also called Vivarais, named for the coat-of-arms from Viviers which was the ancient capital city here of one of the Gaul tribes. The history of the area was tumultuous over the years until the early 10th century when economic stability saw the building of many Romanesque churches. The medieval county of Viviers, Vivarais, was part of the Kingdom of Arles that was formed in 933, by Rudolph II of Burgundy. Rudolph III bequeathed the Kingdom to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1032, and, from this point on, the church played an important part in the development of the area. The French crown gained control of Viviers in 1229. In 1305, Phillip IV of France made the bishops of Vivarais accept the sovereignty of the Kings of France over their temporal domain. And, in 1308, the area was granted to France. For years, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants continued in the Vivarais. It was only after the French Revolution that the Protestants here were recognized as citizens. Economically, industrially and socially, the area has never quite found its peak. In 1861, the population was at its highest ever, 388,500.
But, geographically, the Viarais has one particular strength — the soil and climate that can grow good Chardonnay grapes. There are five natural regions. The mountains to the west, where the Loire River has its source. The plateaus with green forested crests and milder weather with summer rains. Third, the Bas-Vivarais where the Ardèche River flows as far as the Rhône River. Here, the climate is warm and drier, almost a Mediterranean climate, and the soil is calcareous limestone. (Sounds like Chardonnay country to me!) Then, the plateau of the Coirons, with its extreme climate, including snow, and rich fertile soil for growing wheat, oats and potatoes, and raising goats and beef. And, finally, the valley of the Rhône. And, yes, there are vineyards here, but we have to stay with our Ardèche wines, so the Rhône will have to wait for another visit.
In 1979, our producer for this week’s wine started growing Chardonnay vines in the clay and limestone-based soil of the Ardèche. Domaine Louis Latour is one of the biggest and best producers of wines in Burgundy. (Told you we’d get back to Burgundy for a bit.) This is, and has always been, a family run company since it was founded in 1797. Currently, the seventh Louis Latour is its manager. But, there are over 200 years of Latour history as wine growers, all with integrity, tradition and innovation. Domaine Latour has the largest Grand Cru (the highest legal level for Burgundy wines, red and white) property in the Côte d’Or with more than 71 and a half acres. In total, they now own about 125 acres of vineyards. They are based in the town of Aloxe, at Chateau Grancey. Their winery was built here in 1834, the first building built in France with the intention of it being a winery. The winery is known for its great ingenuity — five levels which means gravity can be used to help in crushing the grapes gently and running the juice into its tanks. Latour wines are handled very carefully, with the climate and terroir specific to each growing site being evident in each wine. Their winemaker believes that 80 percent of a finished wine’s quality is the result of what is done in the vineyards.
So, Latour was the first Burgundy producer of their stature to go outside the official Burgundy area, into lesser ranked soil so the wines could not be called Burgundy. In fact, some of the original Chardonnay rootstock that the company planted in the Ardèche area was from their Grand Cru vineyards in Corton-Charlemagne. Because of the soil and climate in the Ardèche, Domaine Latour thought the area was well suited to grow high quality Chardonnay. When they harvest these grapes, only the ripest grapes are used. (The Chardonnay wines that Latour made from Ardèche grapes were so successful, they subsequently went into the nearby Var area and did the same thing with Pinot Noir. Excellent wines, just not officially red Burgundies.)
There are two Latour Ardèche Chardonnays. Ardèche and Grande Ardèche. The latter is not our wine this week, but worth tasting. And, maybe one week it will be our wine. It is a bit more barrel aged, in barrels from Latour’s own cooperage, so a bit fuller bodied.
The Latour Ardèche Chardonnay, our wine, comes from vines that are an average of 25 years old. It is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for about 10 months, also in stainless steel. That makes it a no-oak Chardonnay. But, thanks to a complete, 100 percent malo-lactic fermentation (remember, this changes the wine’s acidity from crisper apple acid to softer milk acid) this Chardonnay is nice and smooth in our mouths. No zingy acidity like some no-oak Chards. Its nose has hints of white flowers and perfume, with apples, lemon zest and herbs. The flavors stretch out the aromas, with the smooth texture of this wine, into a long finish. Delicious!
And, now for a piece of special news. The Latour Ardèche Chardonnay comes in a large, liter and a half size bottle. A double, literally. Usually this large bottle costs us $19.99. But, not this week. For as long as it lasts, try some for $15.97! Not your everyday Chardonnay? Not yet, anyhow. Enjoy.