Better Basics: From Chardonnay To Shiraz, Try These High-Quality Alternatives To Popular Wine Styles
When times are uncertain, there’s nothing more reassuring than the familiar flavours of wines we already know and cherish – so why not spend a little extra effort on finding one that’s a cut above?
Where: Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, Chile
What: Still white
Why: Sure, you could join the "Anything But Chardonnay" club, but you’d be missing out on some of the most exciting wines to emerge from the new world over the past decade. Though purists may not agree, I would contend that great chardonnay is no longer the sole province of Burgundy and a major advantage of shopping outside the Côte-d’Or is that very few bottles come even close in price (except maybe a handful of lauded Californians).
Cool climate bottles are generally more promising than warm, with their heightened acidity and flintier expressions. New Zealand, Australia, California, South Africa and Chile all have appropriately chilly meso-climates. Look for origins that are close to cool coastlines (Walker Bay in South Africa; foggy West Sonoma Coast or windy pockets of the Central Coast in California; San Antonio Valley in Chile) or comparatively high in altitude (Upper Yarra in Australia).
The other critical factor in “new wave” chardonnay is winemaking philosophy. The much-maligned butter ball chardonnays of yore were made with generous helpings of new oak and would have gone through complete malolactic fermentation (a biological conversion used to soften a wine’s acidity) and large amounts of lees stirring (a process used to add volume and creamy texture). In reaction, many producers in Australia especially aimed for an ultra-skinny “unoaked” style, the worst examples of which were either painfully shrill or flatly insipid. Today’s fine-boned, chiselled style is characterised by a slightly smoky “mineral” quality (think of the smell of just-extinguished matches), tart acidity, bright, citrus fruit shading into unripe stone fruit and a sophisticated dash of cedary oak. The best ones remind me of Hermès Jardin perfume series.
Which: New Zealand: Kumeu River (any of the Chardonnays); Australia: Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay, Giant Steps Tarraford Chardonnay, Oakridge Chardonnay; California: Peay Vineyards Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Eden Rift Estate Chardonnay; South Africa: Hamilton Russell Chardonnay; Chile: Errazuriz Estate Chardonnay
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
Where: Marlborough, New Zealand
What: Still white
Why: The favourite whipping boy of those who would seek to show off their wine sophistication, Marlborough sauvignon blanc is undeniably one of the world’s most recognisable and characteristic wine styles. That said, even the producers themselves have recognised that being reliable and familiar doesn’t necessarily make you sexy, and so they’ve looked for different ways to up their game. Sauvignon blanc done the Marlborough way has never lacked for intense aromas and so many efforts of late have focused on either amplifying and refining the mouthfeel or increasing the age-worthiness, something that hasn’t traditionally been a strong suit. Some producers have simply focused on restraint, aiming for a cleaner, less pungent style with a bright, cleansing mouthfeel.
The seekers of “texture” have increasingly looked to the lees (dead yeast) and different ways of manipulating them during fermentation and maturation to give a sense of creaminess and drag on the palate. Though discussions of texture can leave many western consumers scratching their heads, here in Asia this selling point tends to get a lot more traction – after all, what is the allure of delicacies like sea cucumber, pig intestine or fish maw if not their addictively gelatinous consistency?
Those intent on age-worthiness have tended to make use of oak barrels and careful oxygen exposure (or its opposite, reduction) to preserve flavour precursors for slow release over time. They often employ hand picking, which usually means sacrificing some youthful aromatic punch in exchange for longevity. This experimentation can yield some odd aromatic profiles when young (think basil pesto, hummus and cabbage soup). However, having now enjoyed a handful of Marlborough sauvignons slipping gracefully into their second decade, I can confirm that they’re worth the wait.
Which: Clean and classic: Churton Sauvignon Blanc Best End, Smith + Sheth Cru Sauvignon Blanc; Lush-textured: Amisfield Fumé Sauvignon Blanc, Mahi Single Vineyard Boundary Farm Sauvignon Blanc, Greywacke Wild Sauvignon; Surprisingly ageworthy: Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc, Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc
Where: Tuscany, Italy
What: Still red
Why: Though the fiasco that was the “fiasco” bottle (the straw-wrapped, bubble bottom probably best relegated to the ash heap of history) is a distant memory to most consumers today, Chianti Classico DOCG – the jelly in the doughnut that is the sprawling modern region of Chianti – still hasn’t quite matched the illustrious reputation of other top Tuscan wines with far less history, such as Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri’s Supertuscans. Instead, Chianti Classico is often thought of as an affable companion for tomatoes and meat stews.
The reasons for this go beyond the aforementioned offending container and Chianti’s vastness, which has sadly detracted from the specialness of the classic zone. For one thing, until 1996 it was mandatory for the wine blend to include some white grapes, driving quality-conscious producers such as Sergio Manetti of Montevertine to leave the DOCG to make his 100% sangiovese wine in high-altitude township Radda and causing one of the most famous wines produced in the region, Tignanello, to likewise fall outside the DOCG.
However, the raw material of sangiovese plus the exquisitely variable, sunny but cool, densely forested Chianti hills is a combination of undeniable grace. The best examples sparkle with Chianti’s characteristically translucent “redness” – a red cherry, red earth and blood red amalgam that smells deeply primeval and quintessentially civilised at once. The ambitious new Gran Selezione category, which requires more stringent selection plus longer ageing time, is one attempt by the region to elevate its quality and reputation.
Which: Riecine Chianti Classico, Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Santa Caterina, Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico, Fontodi Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena Chianti Classico, Fèlsina Berardenga Riserva Chianti Classico Riserva, Castello di Ama Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigneto Bellavista and, technically not a Chianti Classico, Montevertine Le Pergole Torte.
Aussie Shiraz (or Syrah)
What: Still red
Why: No style other than perhaps Napa cabernet comes with as solid a guarantee for big, luscious black fruit that will snuggle in cosily with whatever macho, meaty dish you want to throw at it. Though this genre of wine is generally not my bag, I can’t deny that in certain instances I understand the appeal. In some cases, I find the difference between big and beautiful and big and brutal is just a matter of years – South Australian icons like Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace for instance really only hit their stride (as far as my palate is concerned) after three or more decades in bottle. The producers in question (along with a handful of other equally storied producers) fortunately also make slightly less grandiose bottles that can start to feel less overwhelming after a mere decade or two.Then there is Wendouree, which stands apart for its idiosyncratic take on Australian shiraz, much more redolent of the medicine chest or spice market than the fruit stand or bake shop.
Then there are the comparatively slender expressions of shiraz (or “syrah” as they’re often labelled) from Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Yarra Valley in Victoria and Canberra that show a different notion of what this grape can do. Dark, glossy and fine boned as black cats, they tend to stalk confidently across the palate with angular, assertive floral and pepper notes over their dense but self-contained fruit. Some, such as Clonakilla, incorporate viognier for a lilting floral lift.
Which: South Australia: Wendouree Shiraz, Henschke Mount Edelstone and Keyneton Euphonium, Penfold’s St Henri, Rockford Basket Press; New South Wales: McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Old Paddock & Old Hill; Victoria: Jamsheed Seville Syrah, Luke Lambert Syrah; Canberra: Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier