By Celia Strong
This week’s new wine will require another trip to France, but this time to a region we almost never visit. And for a grape variety that doesn’t usually come from there: Chardonnay. Surprisingly, a very, very popular grape, but not one we talk about too often. I suppose that’s partly because we each like our own style of Chardonnay. And, with all the styles and price ranges there are in Chardonnay wines, it makes for a really long discussion. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but we don’t want too much talking before we get to the wine.
Chardonnay is green-skinned grape variety that makes white wine. Every country that makes wine has Chardonnays — it’s almost like making a good Chardonnay is the entry fee into that world. As a grape, and despite the multitude of flavors it can show, Chardonnay more than most other varieties can reflect the soil and climate where it is grown (terroir) and its wine maker’s style (oak treatments, secondary fermentations, etc.). This is a very malleable grape. It is almost the widely grown grape in the world, second only to Airen (a Spanish white variety). From cooler climates — such as Chablis, France, and Oregon — these wines are lean and crisp and high in acidity. From warmer climates, they can be honey and tropical fruit-flavored.
The origins of Chardonnay go back to Europe and the Middle East. For a long time, a connection between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc was generally accepted. This was partly because all three of these varieties had similar leaf and bunch shapes and because they all were found close to each other in the regions where they grew. At points, some viticulturists thought Chardonnay could be traced back to an ancient indigenous vine from Cyprus. But, DNA testing helped sort out all the different theories. The Romans brought a variety known as Gouais Blanc with them into what is now France from Croatia. It was planted in close proximity to Pinot grapes in what became the Burgundy region. The vines cross pollinated and Chardonnay was one of the results. To this day, the Chardonnay wines of Burgundy are considered to be some of the best, and, for sure, they are some of the most expensive.
Our Chardonnay wine comes not from Burgundy, but from the other side of France. From the Loire Valley, actually, where it is quite rare. The Loire River runs from the Atlantic Ocean, eastward across France, and ends close to where Burgundy starts. There are 87 AC appellations along the length of the Loire. Their white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscadet (originally called Melon de Bourgogne). This last grape grows around the mouth of the river, at the edge of the Atlantic. In this same area, though, there is also a small bit of Chardonnay grown. It does not, however, make AC level wine.
And, that leads us to our next bit of learning. We have to remember that the wines of France are controlled by their national wine laws. These laws were instituted after World War I, when copies of some wines were being made and sold, and no one knew what they were getting. The wine industry itself was responsible for their laws. Originally, there were four levels of wine; AC wines were the highest level with the toughest controls (which grapes could be used in which regions, how much wine could be made from an acre of vines, pruning in some cases, bottle shapes and colors in some cases, and more). The other levels were VDQS, then Vin de Pays, and, at the bottom, Vin de Table. In 2010, a new category, Vin de France, replaced the Vin de Table level. And, the IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee) category combined and replaced both the VDQS and the Vin de Pays. After all the years some of us have spent learning and remembering the first set of categories, these news ones are a bit of a pain. The only reason I even bother with them is because when a new wine comes along that has a new, and unknown to me, designation I have to look it up. Again. And, that is the case with this week’s Chardonnay.
IGP wines have the origin, where the grapes come from, designated on their labels. Since so much of French wines is about where they come from, there is some comfort in this. I think. So, our wine is a Chardonnay, from the Muscadet area of the Loire Valley, with a Val de Loire IGP designation.
In the Muscadet area, the Couillaud family makes great Muscadet wines at the Chateau de Ragotiere. Domaine de Bernier is the name for the estate where their Chardonnay grows just outside Muscadet. The soil here is a heavy clay with a bit of chalk — actually, great soil for Chardonnay grapes to grow in. This is an estate grown and bottled wine, made from 20-year-old vines. Eight percent of the wine is aged in French oak barrels; the other 92 percent is aged as it lies in glass tanks. You may recognize the “sur lie” aging that is done with the best Muscadets too.
The Domaine de Bernier Chardonnay is 100 percent Chard and this is one of the few Chardonnay wines made in the entire Loire Valley. Because of the growing conditions here, soil and climate, many wine writers compare this wine to a Chablis from northern Burgundy. This wine is crisp, elegant, steely, citrusy, and has a minerality similar to Chardonnay grown in Chablis.
Since it’s not from Chablis, and because it’s not an AC level wine, we don’t have to pay as much for it. So, it might be worth learning the new legal levels of French wines after all. Try this one for $12.99 and maybe you’ll agree. I hope. Enjoy!