Wednesday, August 8, 2007

WBW #36: Unoaked Chardonnay

It’s Wine Blogging Wednesday again. This month’s consortium, celebrating the third anniversary of WBW, is being hosted by Lenn Thompson at LennDevours. The theme for the month is Chardonnay, straight up, no chaser – Naked Chardonnay, if you prefer (I don’t, but that’s another story…). Perhaps uNoAKED Chardonnay would be a happy medium. In any event, the idea is to go out and select a Chardonnay based wine that saw no oak during its wine making and elevation regimes. Price and place of origin for this episode were both without restriction.

Though I had originally thought it might be fun to write-up two wines, comparing and contrasting new world and old world examples, time constraints forced me to settle for one. When it comes to Chardonnay – just as with Pinot Noir – I reach for Burgundy nine times out of ten. Whether it’s from Chablis or the Chalonnaise, Beaune or the Maconnais, it’s more likely to grace my glass than Chardonnay from any other part of the world. Oak, along with acidity, balance and a sense of place, is one of the many factors that tend to drive that decision. Don’t get me wrong, oak barrels play an important role in Burgundian wine making. Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne would not be the wines they are today without the use of barrels during fermentation and aging. When utilised correctly, oak plays a supporting role to the underlying structure of the wine. A rich or powerful wine can often take oak or even benefit from its influence. Lighter, crisper and more aromatic styles can easily be overshadowed. In either scenario, oak, particularly in the form of small, new barrels, does not tend to be used as a human signature in Burgundy with anywhere near the frequency and intensity shown in California, Australia, Chile, and New World production areas in general.

If you’re reading between the lines, you may be starting to understand why I’m not a fan of the term “Naked Chardonnay.” Sure, it’s cute and can appeal to a consumer base hungry for something different. It suggests, though, that Chardonnay is somehow incomplete, sophisticated as it is, without its oak clothing. It suggests that undressing it is something new and daring, somehow risqué. It’s not. It’s been done for ages in Burgundy and other parts of Europe. It’s just that winemakers have rarely seen any reason to call attention to it – or to barrel aging for that matter. That’s why, just to be a contrarian, I selected an Old World wine, a white Burgundy, where the producer chooses to point out his wine’s “nudity.”

The Winemaker: Gilles Corsin
Gilles Corsin is a fanatic in the cellar. He works as a Courtier, a business he took over from his father 15 years ago; as such, he sources fruit on behalf of some of the largest and most influential négociant producers in the Maconnais: Verget, Jadot, DuBoeuf. In his rounds working for these merchants, he tastes and assesses thousands of Macon-Villages, Saint-Vérans, Pouilly-Fuissés and other regional wines every year. Needless to say, he’s developed a good palate and a tyrannically critical technique. At his family estate, working along with his vineyard man and brother Jean-Jaques, Gilles takes a methodical, critical and fastidious approach to making his own wines. He may rarely be happy with them himself but they’re unquestionably among the highest quality, most expressive yet simultaneously subtle wines of the region.

M. Corsin could be thought of as a modernist in at least one sense: he micro-vinifies. The fruit from every vineyard parcel, no matter how small, is vinified separately with the idea of being able to isolate the unique qualities of terroir of every inch of the domaine. The idea, though, is not to produce scores of micro-bottlings and limited edition cuvées; in most vintages, he produces only four wines, only in extraordinary years adding a special version or two of Pouilly-Fuissé. Rather, it is to be able to identify qualities, both good and bad, of each lot with an eye toward then creating a blend that marries those good qualities into the best possible representation of the typicity of the appropriate AOC. His Saint-Vérans, as such – like them or not – can be viewed as benchmark wines. He makes only two. The fruit for both comes from the same collection of sites, undergoes primary fermentation together and is blended in the same manner. In effect, they begin their lives as the same wine. Prior to undergoing malolactic, the wine is split in two. One half is destined to be moved to barrels for secondary fermentation and a modest aging cycle. The other half goes naked, eventually becoming the bottling called “Tirage Précoce,” which literally translates to “early pulling.” Both wines are perfectly viable expressions of the traditions of Saint-Véran. For the oak aged cuvée, which is simply labeled with the AOC name, he prefers barrels of one-year which support the wine without obscuring the qualities of his fruit. The unoaked wine is finished in steel cuves.

The Wine: Saint-Véran “Tirage Précoce,” Domaine Corsin 2006
Pale, straw and green apple colors show in the glass. Aromas at this early stage of development are subtle but hint again at apples and a definite stoniness. A slight hint of the primary flavors of fermentation remains on the palate, no banana at all but a light, floral yeastiness. Not to sound redundant, but the apple fruit continues in the mouth, along with hints of pear and other orchard fruits. Acidity is bright yet easily born by the gentle, medium-bodied textures of the wine; its alcohol level is 13.5%. The stoniness mentioned earlier persists on the palate, not intensely mineral in the way of Chablis, rather hinting at the polish of cold, rushing mountain stream water. Though quite pleasurable now, I think the wine wants for another three to six months in the bottle before it will fully begin to shine. It should pair wonderfully with simply prepared white fleshed fish and, not surprisingly, with butter and herb roasted chicken.


Brooklynguy said...

Hi David - I learned a lot from this piece - great description of the wine maker and his practices. Did you visit him to learn this?

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the feedback, bg. I wish I could say yes to your visit question but I haven't been to Corsin's estate -- yet. I work with a guy who has, though, and I take every opportunity to sponge up knowledge gained from his travels. It's one of the side benefits of working with a small group of people who are passionate about the world of wine.

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