The Burgundy Effect is a chapter in Oz Clarke’s book, The History of Wine in 100 Bottles, and also a post on the Imbibe website entitled Beyond Burgundy. I intend to borrow the sentiment of each of these excellent articles from Oz and Matt Wall for my own view on how “The Burgundy Effect” is influencing a number of vineyards in England. Specifically the issue is about getting the best from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir through the vines, the terroir and the winemaking process. I have already written about the Pinot Noir issue and will add my thoughts here about Chardonnay.
I remember the first time I tasted an Australian Chardonnay, it was in a wine bar somewhere in Birmingham and I was with a group of colleagues from a financial services company. It was 1989 and probably the peak era of the wine swilling hooray Henry’s who worked in The City of London and occupied city wine bars from 5pm until late. At that time I was predominantly a lover of fine clarets, those long lived red wines of Bordeaux and I had quite a taste for the classed growths. It was Heather, whose round it was, who ordered a bottle of Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay, now subsumed within their Diamond Label range, and my mouth is actually puckering as I think of it. Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy we called it, copying the album title from The Who. It had so much oak in it I was almost spitting splinters, with vanilla flavours and high alcohol content. Sunshine on a stick!
The Australians had decided NOT to try and emulate the Chardonnays of Burgundy, but to “obliterate” them with something quite different, and it worked …. for a time, until winos around the world formed their own ABC club, anything but chardonnay! And so, as the sales of Prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio rocketed, the poor old Chardonnay declined under the onslaught. Time for those winemakers who had planted acres and acres of Chardonnay to think again! Back to the basics ……. of ….. Burgundy! But how?
“It’s no doubt that New World Chardonnay, in its previous guise, kickstarted a wine revolution,’ says Ronan Sayburn MS of 67 Pall Mall. New World Chardonnay arrived and offered rich, ripe sunshine-in-a-bottle, that was inexpensive and easy to understand. With pictures of surfboards and beaches on the labels rather than old castles, they offered accessible and fun wines without pretension.” The revolution mentioned by Roman Sayburn however was actually AWAY from these bold, oaked high alcohol Chardonnays.
“Just after WW2 Americans who had returned from Europe and tasted Burgundy’s glorious white wines set out to recreate them, starting with Hanzell winery in Sonoma County, California. They couldn’t replicate the soil or climate, but they could use the same barrels, cultivate the same yeasts, and install temperature and humidity systems to to mimic Burgundy cellar conditions.” (Oz Clarke)
The revolution for Chardonnay was therefore different from that of Pinot Noir. The latter involved finding the right terroir for the stubborn vines to grow followed by a minimalist intervention strategy in the winery. For Chardonnay, much easier to grow and ripen, the strategy was ALL about winery intervention, specifically less oak and something called malolactic fermentation.
This is a secondary process that takes place in the original fermentation tanks and can be either kick-started or prevented by the winemaker. It converts malic acid (the acidity you will taste in apples) into lactic acid (what you will taste in dairy products) giving a creamy and buttery flavour. The chemical compound eventually formed as a by-product is called Diacetyl.
I seem to have a very low detection limit for Diacetyl and can taste malolactic fermentation in chardonnays if it has occurred. I opened a bottle of Guinevere Chardonnay from the Boot Hill climat of Gusbourne Estate and within seconds experienced the smell of vanilla and some coconut which often comes from oak ageing. It wasn’t overpowering like those Aussie wines I mentioned above, just a hint. But on tasting I immediately knew there had been malolactic fermentation as I experienced a rounded, creamy sensation so typical of many wines from Meursault in Burgundy. I was actually quite shocked to think that an English Chardonnay could make my brain think I was drinking a wine from that famous Burgundian village, and so I wrote to Dan Grainger at Gusbourne who was naturally delighted to have their wine compared to a Meursault. He replied:
“You are correct in your thoughts on both malolactic fermentation & oak, the wine sees 100% malolactic conversion as well as spending 9 months in French oak, 20% new 80% old with regular battonage. The clonal variations selected for Guinevere are both Burgundian, 548 & 95, and the block is from our Boot Hill vineyard planted in 2007.”
So, there you have it, the Burgundy Effect comes to England in the first English chardonnay I have tasted. That is quite an achievement in such a short time and shows the determination of our English winemakers in their drive for quality and sustainability. I have now added the Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay to my collection, slowly replacing the Meursault I already have. Not cheap at £25, but almost half the price of a Meursault bought from the winemaker in France and a heck of a lot less than those imported and sold in high street wine merchants.
You might like to peek at my recent book , not technical, but it WILL encourage you to learn more about wine from your own experience. Available through your own country Amazon store.