Chardonnay still brings this to most minds:
Butter. Cloying, yellow richness in a glass. But is it the grape’s fault?
Once alcoholic fermentation is finished, winemakers can add lactic acid bacteria (e.g. Oenococcus oeni, and Lactobacillus and Pediococcus species) to wine. Tart malic acid (think apples) converts into softer lactic acid (think milk). Winemakers employ this malolactic fermentation to soften reds and whites. Yet byproducts ensue.
Diacetyl is one leftover of malolactic fermentation (headache-inducing hystamines are
another: see my article). You may not realize it, but diacetyl is already a familiar friend. Margarine, popcorn and the worst-jelly-beans-known-to-humanity would taste bland without the chemical. Chardonnay also tastes fairly neutral alone. It tends toward green fruits and citrus in cool climates, white melon in moderate climates, and pineapple in the warmer. Because it can grow in most wine regions, it has a prestigious Burgundian past, idiots can pronounce it, and it is malleable to blending and oak aging, chardonnay became the world’s second most planted grape (behind Spain’s airén).
Branded as buttery, chardonnay rose in popularity with the 1980s, replaced other vines throughout Australia, California and South America, and fell with Bridget Jones wallowing her misery in a big glass of yellow.
Born into this trend, I also grew tired of drinking butter. But we only had ourselves (and wine-critics) to blame. We bought the butter; and wine makers made more. Now, producers heed our turn to pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, cutting oak and malolactic to varying degrees. This has spawned a panoply of relabeled chards: “unoaked“, “oak free“, “sans oak”, “virgin chardonnay”, “naked chardonnay”, “acero”, “inox”, “un-barrel fermented” et cetera. Brands are desperate to win us back and save acres of vine investments.
Hamilton Russell Vineyards ignores fickle fashion.
Since 1975, Tim Russell -followed in 1991 by son Anthony-aims only to perfect South Africa’s coldest site: Walker Bay.
Their vines grow in a valley behind the old fishing village of Hermanus. The maritime summer rains slow ripening: ideal for chardonnay. It gains undeniable acidity and avoids flabbiness. The soil is stony, Bokkeveld shale, with clay, from which old, low yielding vines extract strata after strata of minerality: akin to a Burgundy from Meursault.
Since Anthony took over in ’91, there have been no reserve or entry-level lines to corner differing demographics. He also narrowed the brand to one chardonnay and one pinot noir. Why? Place and time. Through research, replanting, hand-havesting and other obsessive attentions (even barrels and bottles are local), each vintage tastes only of what its 52 hectares provide and what the weather allows for.
With 2005’s growth, Hannes Storm has made their wine. His 2008 chardonnay shows skill.
Anthony once said, “If you cut corners on your barrels, you will ultimately diminish the quality of the wine.” Well, this chardonnay bows before the altar of oak. There is little malolactic and even less butter to be found. Instead, toasted almond and burnt vanilla take you into the woods.
Burgundy was inspiration for the barrel. But here, Hamilton Russell’s chard tastes distinct: diametric edges of precise lemon, lime and asparagus cut against smoke, mineral and toasted nut. Golden delicious apple fills the core.
The length is endless and saliva inducing. It begs for food. Roquefort cheese, fried tofu in hoisin sauce, grilled, even smoked salmon or duck would all mesh meaningfully with this wine.
Best thirty bucks I’ve spent in a while.