The steep, westward facing Le Montaillant, Côtes de la Charité
planted with Chardonnay
I am increasingly convinced that as a general rule grape varieties show their best when the local climate means that in most years they are picked in the middle/latter part of September or early October in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern this would be March/April.
Most fruits are most flavoursome towards the limits of where they can be successfully ripened. The longer hang time allows the full flavours to develop.Scottish raspberries are a good example. Grown at the northern limits they are rightly famous for their quality. This is, of course, a fine line – go beyond the climatic limits and your fruit will not ripen or only in exceptional years.
In the last quarter of the 20th century there was a widespread belief that the way to raise quality and to please the consumer was to plant the fashionable varietals – including Chardonnay but also Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
This is not, of course, an anti-Chardonnay post nor an anti-fashionable varieties. No grape variety is ideally suited to all climatic conditions. Furthermore ‘native’ grape varieties tend to be better adapted to the local climatic conditions. In the heat of Sicily and Calabria, for instance, Chardonnay tends to be picked in early August whereas the local varieties aren’t ready until September giving them substantially longer hang time. I’ll admit to never having understood the attraction – apart from commercial recognition – of planting Chardonnay or indeed other cooler climate grapes in hotter climes. Perhaps over many years a Sicilian version of Chardonnay, adapted to the island’s climate will emerge.
Since Chardonnay is a cool climate variety it is hardly surprising that it is is most successful outside Burgundy in similar conditions such as Limoux, especially from Haute Vallée, or The Casablanca Valley or other similar sites close to the Chilean coast or alternatively grown at altitude. There are many other examples aorund the wine-making world.
It is good to see that there has been a move away – a welcome rebalancing – from the panacea of planting international varieties towards valuing indigenous grape varieties. What would be good is to have a balance and a diversity of flavours, although many consumers may well prefer the security of a grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, that they know rather than wonder whether they are likely to enjoy Arinto, Antao Vaz, Minella Bianca or Carricante. Consumers, however, appear to welcome the explosion of different craft beers and rapidly increasing selection of gins.
Chardonnay in the Loire plays a minor role beside Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. I can well understand the pre-eminence of Chenin Blanc – the long established local variety – in the Western part of the Loire. What I need to explore is why it was that Sauvignon Blanc replaced Gamay and Pinot Noir in the early part of the 20th century after the ravages of phylloxera and not Chardonnay. After all Chablis is only around 100 kilometres from Sancerre – probably slightly less for a GPS savvy pigeon….
Apart from significant plantings of Chardonnay in the Pays Nantais where it used to make IGP Val de Loire whites, the majority of Loire Chardonnay is used in the production of Crémant de Loire and Saumur Mousseux. The best Loire Chardonnay I know is Les Pénitents from the Côtes de la Charité, previously called Coteaux Charitois, made by Alphonse Mellot in Sancerre. I first came across these wines when the vineyard and winery was owned by a group of keen amateurs in La Charité-sur-Loire. The domaine was then called Caves des Hauts de Seyr.
It is possible that our distinguished editor will object that the Côtes de la Charité is administratively in Burgundy – thus outside the scope of this series. However, Côtes de la Charité gets its name from La Charité-sur-Loire, so I can cite its Loire connections.