South American Chardonnay. It's set out as a panel review to look at, but is primarily a review by Amanda Barnes, albeit blind tasted. It reads very authoritatively and features all the classics. Excitingly, it offers a lot of great Chardonnays at great prices, when compared with other Chardonnays from across the globe.
That's the thing about South American Chardonnay. Time was, it wasn't - in aggregate - all that great. Chilean Chardonnay was your supermarket four-pounder. Argentine Chardonnay was not the Thing it now is. And Uruguay was quite unknown. But, as the article makes clear, the influx of investment, expertise and research has seen a quantum leap in quality. The very best South American Chardonnays have become world icon wines that, in the view of many now, rival the best from Burgundy and California. Catena's White Bones and White Stones, Errazuriz's Las Pizarras, Zuccardi's Fosil ... these are truly word-class wines. And they feature here.
Below that, matters are perhaps more exciting still. The review highlights what many of you us/already knew: for less than £20, you are into Chardonnays of a quality that you could only dream of finding in Burgundy at that same price. And not just Burgundy, I might advance: pretty much anywhere else in the Chardonnay world now ... as NZ, Australia, the USA and even South Africa become more expensive every year.
Of course, many Burgundy fans will not hear of such heresy. I used to be the same: I do like a lovely double-barrelled village name and a fleur-de-lys on my label. But, shop around, cast thoughts of Chilean tat in the supermarket aside; personally, I am quite sure of the value of better South American Chardonnay.
What's also fascinating is the range of styles on offer ... which stems from the diversity of terroirs and climates available. From the leaner crackle of high acidity and green/citric fruits - a la Chablis - to almost the full fatness and ripeness of Napa-style, there's a South American contender to match it.
A note on styles:
I might cautiously make the point here that I feel the review, whilst very good at selecting top and excellent wines, isn't quite so brilliant at describing what sort of Chardonnay you're looking at.
Chardonnay is a famously malleable, 'blank canvas' grape. It's also a brilliant reflector of terroir. There's so many wines available from just this one grape (being one reason why it is so seldom blended...).
Where, I always ask of a Chardonnay, on a spectrum of lean-ness/acidity/citric 'unripeness' to fullness/lower acidity/high fruit ripeness does it fall?
I notionally use a scale from 0 to 10 here, however coarse a tool it may seem. I'd scale a north-facing Chablis in a cool year as a zero, and something like Kistler from California as a 10. Within that, broadly, Chablis spans 0 to 2/3, the Montrachets 3-5, Meursault 6-7, Pouilly-Fuisse 6 to 7/8 etc. You get the drift. I'll be using that scale a bit below.
It's certainly not perfect in the case of some Argentine high-altitude Chards. Here, you can often run into high fruit ripeness (stone fruits to tropical fruits) from the very intense sunlight ... matched with surprisingly high acidity from the very low overnight temperatures. But the scale has some value, I feel, in outlining what sort of wine you might be buying. We see plenty of customers who definitely prefer one end of the spectrum to the other (I myself, am unashamedly quite a 7-to-10 kinda-guy).
The Decanter review - results
The top wines
Enough pre-amble. Here are the top wines, although it's worth stressing this month that it is equally worth looking - as we will - at the two 94-pointers.
If you'd asked me which wines would top any review of South American Chardonnay, I (and many others) could and would tell you. "Why!", we would say, "that would be Catena's White Bones and White Stones" from the fabled Adrianna Vineyard, some 1450 metres above sea level, heading up into the Andres in the Gualtallary district of the Uco Valley. Not only is it perhaps the most beautiful vineyard on Earth, it is almost certainly the most studied. For a great deal more excellent info on the Adrianna Vineyard, let us direct you to Catena's excellent page thereupon.
We'll admit to being a little partial to(wards) Catena. We had an excellent Zoom tasting evening with Laura Catena just a month ago and hope to hold a specific Adrianna evening later this year. The White Bones and Stones are their flagship whites, and match the status of their famed top Malbecs (many of which we offer). The White Bones is invariably the edgier/leaner (Chablis end of the above spectrum) than the Stones, which tends to be a little fuller, rounder and riper (and often a little more affordable). It also tends to be a little more popular with Exel customers... and speaking personally, I hugely respect the Bones as a work of brilliance but find it just a little unforgiving. The Stones is more my kind of Chardonnay.
It's an amazing wine. It has a concentration and persistence that is rare even in the best Chardonnays.
As Wine Advocate expressed it: “The outstanding 2018 White Stones Chardonnay epitomizes the expression of the grape in the cooler-climate and high-altitude location of the Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary. There is rectitude, austerity and elegance, a subtle wine with great clout and intensity that comes through as chiseled, focused, symmetric and pure, ... with superb integration of all the elements and fine minerality. This is more about the place and vintage than the grape, which feels like a good way to transmit the chalky soils of the selected plots. Simply superb, possibly the finest vintage for this bottling so far".
As mentioned above, it's a little difficult to categorise on that notional numbered spectrum. I'd say its acidity and 'bite factor' is around a 3, but it has fruit ripeness more a 5, perhaps even a 6. In many ways, it has the feel of a sunny and brilliant Montrachet.
Obviously, icons like the White Stones don't come cheap: you're looking at £66.80 a bottle. If it's any consolation, you'll be very hard-pressed to beat our price on this, There is also precious little in the UK - around 180 bottles. We have 30 bottles to offer.
Those of you who would like to try the Catena Chardonnays at a more moderate price... you have two options. The Catena Alta Chardonnay (a superb wine, year-after-year, £21) comes under test here. The 2019 is reviewed but will not arrive in the UK for some months yet; we offer the 2018. And the Appellation Chardonnay from Tupungato is under £15 and very fine indeed (as our Zoom tasters fully discovered).
For Outstanding Wine #2, we stay in Argentina and shuffle south a little to Tunuyan (see map - you'd be forgiven for getting lost in the Uco Valley - we do...).
map from Decanter, April 2021
And we reach a little more affordability. Here, on 96 points, we meet a wine from Paul Hobbs' superb Viña Cobos project. It's a minimal intervention wine (primary fermentation with native and selected yeasts; spontaneous malolactic fermentation [MLF] in barrel; unfined and unfiltered) from a single vineyard (Las Arbolitos), situated at an impressive 1100m ASL. It sees new oak (12 months sur-lie aging in 30% new French oak); by way of comparison, the White Stones sees no such new oak.
It's a richer and slightly weightier wine than the White Stones with a little less acid 'crackle' (although the acidity is still impressive). I'd class it as an upper 5, just possibly a 6. Fruit flavours are peach and apricot and the new oak and MLF lends this Chardonnay a little more weight and density. It is delicious and an excellent bottle at £37.50 (again, a UK-leading price).
NB: If you fancy a good proportion of what this wine has to offer, but at less than half the price, and with a little more richness again, the Viña Cobos Felino Chardonnay is also rated in this test (92 points).
Outstanding Wine #3 takes us over the Andes and into Superb Value territory. Specifically, it takes us to the Talinay vineyard of Viña Tabalí, just 12 km up the Limarí Valley (really quite north in the scheme of all things Chilean). This is the 2020 vintage of their flagship, single-vineyard Chardonnay.
Tabalí and Talinay are well known to Exel customers. The Talinay 2015 Pinot Noir topped a 2019 Decanter panel tasting of Chilean Pinot Noir and was hugely popular. It had SO much more to offer than almost all Chilean Pinots we've tried (alas, the current 2017 vintage is not a patch on the 2015; we don't offer it for that reason; the 2018 vintage is much applauded but not in the UK for some months yet).
The Talinay vineyard is seriously cool-climate. It focuses on cool climate grapes: Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. All three wines are typically superb and much rated by the Jancis team. The unique location of Talinay provides truly excellent conditions for cool-climate wines and is the only vineyard site in Chile to be planted over pure chalky limestone soil; ideal for elegant and refined wines. The constant breeze that drifts from the ocean and over the vines creates the coolest vineyards in Limarí.
And that shows in the Chardonnay 2020. We've shot a video tasting, see here. The Jancis team have much likened this wine to a good Chablis, and that's a good starting point for discussion. It has some serious acidity, crackle and zing ... so, in that sense, this has Chablis written all over it.
However, in my view, as in that video, it has more texture and overt Chardonnay character to it than most Chablis I know (quite often, I have to consciously remind myself that Chablis is a Chardonnay, such is that very distinct 'green' flavor of Chablis). However, it is strongly worth noting that this (the Talinay) is absolutey not a big, rich, ripe, 'fat' New World Chardonnay - not at all. That acidity is really quite something. On the above spectrum/scale, this is an upper 2 or a lower 3. It's really quite dry, and the acidity accentuates that. It's an amazing wine at the £17.75 price - and the rival of cool-climate Chardonnays 2-4 times its price - and sure to be popular. But do please be clear that this is a lean Chardonnay.
NB: Our initial stocks are already sold. We expect another 300+ bottles towards the end of May and are now taking orders for these.
As mentioned, it's worth taking a good look at the two wines that just missed Outstanding status - ie they top the Highly Recommendeds - given their style and price.
Both thise 94-pointers are Chilean, both are from San Antonio and both are around £18.00. Both are of a rather fuller, richer style than the lean Talinay. They are Matetic's EQ Quartz 2017 (Matetic being known to many Exel customers for their Carmenere) and Viña Leyda's excellent Lot 5. Both wines are highly concentrated.
The Leyda is truly fascinating and has a distinctly tropical streak: think kiwi fruit and lemon meringue pie. It's a Chardonnay but with some real tones of Marlborough to it! The acidity keeps it quite lean despite this ripeness; it's an upper 4 or a 5.
The Quartz is the fuller, bigger-bodied of the two (perhaps a 6); it's a little more Burgundian, creamier and oakier, but with a definite acidic edge to it.
For fans of a slightly richer style and wishing to spend at more this sort of price, these should not be missed.
And there are many other fine value options among the 90 to 93 pointers in this review: