Acidity levels in wine are an important dictator of its taste and the same can be said for oak levels also. Therefore this month the Journal has teamed up with Jacques Scott to find out just how a wine’s acidity and oak levels affect our tastebuds when the wines are enjoyed with food. Four white wines were put to the test while Luca’s excellent cuisine provided the perfect backdrop against which the wines could be measured.
It is a sad fact but there are a great many people out there under the misconception that Chardonnay is only bottled after it has been oaked to death, following the big oak craze of California about a decade ago when US winemakers attempted to emulate the Burgundy style and overdid it, and subsequently made the wine unpalatable to many. The ABC (anything but Chardonnay) moniker of recent years stuck; yet our foray into oak vs. non-oak sampling showed that while unoaked Chardonnay may have paired more broadly, a little light oak is a beautiful thing too.
The Silver Chardonnay (2007) from the Mer Soleil Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County, California (CI$34.99) is an excellent example of a crisp Chardonnay made in the Chablis-style, yet still produces delicious banana and pineapple elements of Chardonnay found in California.
This wine sees no aging at all in oak; instead it sits in stainless steel and concrete vats, thus producing the resulting crisp minerally notes along with the tropical infusion of fruits.
Set alongside this unoaked Chardonnay was the Mer Soleil Chardonnay (2007), also from vineyards located in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellations of Monterey County (CI$39.99). This time the wine has been fermented and aged in French oak barrels in a similar style as white Burgundy. Even though the raw materials (i.e. the grapes) have been harvested from the same location, the result as far as the taste is concerned is stunningly different to that of the Silver. Gone is the steely minerality and in its place a buttery, creamy, rich wine with a pleasing spice nose, that still allows its tropical fruit character to shine through.
“Unoaked Chardonnay lends itself as an excellent pairing with many dishes,” Lee Royle, with Jacques Scott explains, “from seafood to chicken to pasta dishes. Oaked Chardonnay is best paired with rich buttery dishes, but, because it is usually full bodied and full of flavour you can even pair it with roast or grilled meats such as a good fillet mignon. Give it a try – you may be surprised!”
Luca’s chefs presented us with an array of appetisers to test against the wines. An antipasti spread of speck, prosciutto, lardo (yes, it’s mainly just fat), bresaola and a delicious veal pâté lay before us, just waiting to be devoured by the hungry team. The meats were a delicious enhancement to the Silver while the richness of the veal pâté simply cried out for a rich buttery wine such as the Mer Soleil. A delicate vitello tonnato also graced plates and the delicacy of the dish this time needed a delicate slightly less powerfully rich wine, thus the Silver did the job just nicely.
Our instruction continued with a tasting of a highly acidic wine, La Poussie 2008 Sancerre (CI$31.99) from the Loire Valley. Made from 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc, the wine is bone dry, high in acidity and it’s mineral palate reflects the limestone soil in which it is grown, with a taste likened to sucking on a lemon drop your mouth salivates immediately upon the first sip. This was counterbalanced with a low-acid wine, Hugel’s Gewürztraminer (2007) (CI$22.99) from France’s Alsace region, an aromatic perfumed wine rich with the pear and lychee notes of a good Gewürztraminer.
“The Gewürztraminer is much softer on the palate and would pair nicely with Asian foods with a bit of spice,” Lee says. “The Sancerre on the other hand has an acidic bite that pairs beautifully with lemon-based chicken or fish dishes.”
A delicious snapper dish served with a risotto baked into the crust and served with a shaved asparagus salad with lemon and walnuts proved to be an excellent dish to enjoy with the Sancerre, while a chicken encrusted with porcini mushrooms and served with scalloped potatoes and a vegetable ratatouille lent itself perfectly to one of our wines tasted earlier – the Mer Soleil oaked Chardonnay which did an excellent job bringing out the earthy flavours of the chicken.
Showing an interesting versatility, the Mer Soleil also did a great job standing up to Luca’s full-flavoured fillet mignon with roasted potatoes asparagus and pearl onions, as successfully predicted by Lee.
The only dish we had a hard time pairing with any wine was the scrumptious bowl of homemade pasta served in a spicy tomato sauce, the heat of the dish overpowering the Gewürztraminer and clashing head on with the oak in the Mer Soleil and the acidity of the Sancerre. The Silver unoaked Chardonnay was perhaps the best of the bunch here but my choice would have been a nice fruity Chianti which would have hit the spot instead.
While many might simply choose their wines by their colour or their grape, or even their location of origin, it is just as vitally important to appreciate the acidity of the wine as well as how the wine has been aged. Learning to appreciate these finer nuances of tasting will no doubt enhance your wine drinking pleasure and have you experimenting even more.