|Chardonnay at Ridgeview, East Sussex|
You can’t really answer the question ‘what does Chardonnay taste like’ in the same way you can for Pinot Noir, Riesling or Nebbiolo. It is not a story in itself – it needs context. The trouble is that the sort of contextualisation that gives birth to the nuanced understanding that we have of Chablis or the Côte Des Blancs takes decades (if not centuries) to arrive at. How does a young industry tell a story about Chardonnay?
The solution is sometimes to borrow someone else’s. For us in England, the most obvious one is Champagne. It’s an easy tale to spin – the combination of Chardonnay and (certain types) of chalk in Champagne is almost folkloric, with vignerons from Cuis to Vertus climbing the soil soapbox to extol the virtues of one patch of land over another. The thing is – it works. They have earned the right to do it. When you taste your way around Champagne’s Blanc De Blancs it would be pig-headed to deny the impact of soil.
‘There’s been a tendency with English fizz to plant more Pinot Noir than the geology might suggest. We have planted 75% Chardonnay.’
I really like this statement. What I would add to it is that these critical factors don’t exist independently, but form a delicate equilibrium in which subtle shifts can generate dramatically different outcomes. When we borrow an assumption about soil from Champagne, it comes with all these other pieces of the puzzle firmly attached; the issue is that some of these pieces just don’t fit the reality of English viticultural conditions. Chardonnay is the clearest lens to look through when looking for these mismatches. Here is an example (with thanks to Stephen Skelton MW for making some of these points in comments to previous posts):
- Pinot Noir is often at risk of being weighty by itself, and can lack acid backbone. So:
- Chardonnay needs to be elegant and retain acidity – climactically it is often at risk of over-ripening, especially in periods of drought or very hot weather. So:
- Chalk soils help manage water supply and guard against too much hydric stress, keeping vines in leaf for longer and maintaining acidity. They drain well, but (crucially) they supply well. Fortunately:
- There is a coincidence of interesting chalk soil types within ideal climactic parameters i.e. altitude, exposure and aspect. It becomes possible to talk about the nuanced impacts of different chalk soil profiles whilst accounting for climactic factors in a reasoned, informed way.
- Pinot Noir is rarely weighty or lacking acid by itself.
- Chardonnay is often very high in acid and needs a long, warm season to show its best. It is very rare for it to over-ripen. It is almost unheard of for it to lose too much acidity.
- Periods of drought and extreme heat are rare. Rainfall is often high and vine density is lower – water supply is not usually an issue (although there have been some early-summer periods of drought and it cannot be ruled out). Unfortunately:
- Interesting chalk soil types often correspond with the upper climactic extremes for grape growing in England. It is not easy to find chalk sites that are warm and sheltered, although it is possible. It is difficult at this time to talk about soil’s place in the equilibrium of critical factors in a reasoned, informed way.
1. By Soil
2. By Altitude
- 22% of Golds for Blanc De Blancs since the 2010 vintage have come from vineyards that go above 100m altitude. 23% of sites go above 100m – when they do produce Blanc De Blancs, the higher-elevation sites are not under-performing in terms of wine quality, either anecdotally or by looking at medals.
- 39% of Golds for Blanc De Blancs since the 2010 vintage have come from sites with maximum altitudes under 50m. These represent only 18% of sites – the very lowest sites are over twice as likely to win Gold.
- Four out of five out of the most consistent releasers of Blanc De Blancs (3+ releases since 2010) have maximum altitudes under 60m.
- The median value for maximum altitude for all releases since the 2010 vintage is 60m above sea level.
3. By County
Sussex – 27
Kent – 10
Dorset – 4
Surrey – 3
2012 3 (all from very low, sheltered sites – Gusbourne, Bolney, Woodchurch)
2013 14 (a few more will come)
2014 Many yet to be released – I’d expect 25+
The Absence of NV Blanc De Blancs
|Lowish, Sheltered ‘n Chalky – The Holy Grail? Nyetimber on Chartham Downs, Kent|
The Tiny Elephants In The Room (And Some Caveats)
It’s also worth mentioning that we’re not talking about yield. Whilst there is no evidence to show that producers on higher-elevation and chalk sites are seriously hampered in their abilities to produce Blanc De Blancs, people such as Stephen Skelton MW are known for their views on the havoc such sites can wreak with yields and consequent long-term viability. These effects can be felt independently of the quality of the wines coming from those sites.
Finally I have to point out that I don’t read any of this as an indication that soil doesn’t do anything at all. We know it does. What we can’t possibly know on the back of 18 wines is whether one soil – chalk – out of a number of freely-draining soils found in Southern England is any better than another for pure Chardonnay wines. If we can’t yet see or taste this fundament of Champagne-style thinking, shouldn’t it make us hold back from any grand pronouncements about soil based on the experiences of the Champenois?
The Story is….Chardonnay is Different Here
The numbers back up the anecdotal tasting evidence that those of us who keep au fait *hic* with English Sparkling Wine probably recognise – that there are good wines from all sorts of producers with different soils and sites (and slightly more of them from producers lucky enough to be quite low in elevation). There are very few sites that will produce Blanc De Blancs every year (including for NV) in the same way that there are in Champagne, and there you have the crux of it – weather and climactic factors hold the veto card for Blanc De Blancs production in England.
Where does that leave England in terms of our Chardonnay Story? I’m not sure. I think ‘open-ended’ has to be the answer. I saw the excellent Exton Park (one of the chalkiest sites around) were planting a new field this week – entirely with Pinot Meunier. There are stories out there that we might be able to make our own.