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Chardonnay Deep Dive

Chardonnay felt like the perfect grape to start our series of “deep dives”, as wine professionals tend to get quite frustrated with people who say they don’t like Chardonnay. It is truly the most chameleon of grapes, able to take on a variety of flavour profiles reflecting where and how it is made, allowing the winemaker to fully express themselves, and we’ve chosen three to explore.

There are particular aspects to look out for when tasting Chardonnay that are indicators of where it is from and how it is made.  Cool climate Chardonnay will taste more delicate, potentially chalky and with crisp apple or citrus flavours. As you verge into warmer climates a more tropical feel comes to its flavour with melon, fig and mango.

Then you have the techniques that a winemaker has at their disposal that can really change the style beyond that point. “Malolactic fermentation”, commonly used in cool climate styles, will turn tart malic into creamy lactic acid.

Using barrel fermentation can encourage a toasty or smoky note in the wine. Maturing in oak barrels adds more flavour such as vanilla, ginger, clove and cinnamon. And if they decide to use none of those techniques you get an unoaked Chardonnay that has a pure fruit driven style.

I would encourage you to look out for these clues to try to work out what the winemaker has done to the Chardonnay you are trying with us. To follow are our notes on each wine we tasted, each intended to showcase the potentially different styles and climatic influences on this grape.

Chardonnay Taste Test

We began with a simple test for Andy. Five Post-It notes were written, but only three matched the wines. His task was to match the descriptions to the wines. This is something you can try at home – even if you only have one bottle of wine, just write at least three notes and test somebody.

Tasting Post-Its
The Wines

Andy says: “It was quite easy to pick out the wine on the right due to its colour, but that’s cheating. My notes were ‘honey, tropical’ and it was the only real match. Separating the other two was a little trickier, but I just managed to pick up on the smoke in number 1.”

On to the wines…

Week 52 – Sangiovese

We tasted: Cantina di Montalcino Brunello di Montalcino, M&S

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “I start our final tasting week with a mix of relief and a tinge of sadness. If I’m honest, we took on a bigger project than I imagined.

Finding, tasting and writing about one wine a week was more demanding than I thought. Not to mention, I didn’t realise Andy would be quite the taskmaster. Apparently my grammar is pretty poor, and he’s been doing a heavy red pen edit on it each week!

But at the same time, it has been a fun project to share and I do now understand what Andy does and doesn’t like a lot better which was the fundamental thing I was trying to achieve. The feedback we have received from you all has also been great and is a real motivator for us to carry on into 2019.

Sangiovese wasn’t the obvious choice as a final grape but I’m now really pleased. Just pouring this glass of wine I knew it was going to be a total “old skool” classic. It has that brown red hue of an aged classic wine, and the aroma that springs from the glass is full of that complex savoury charm; balsamic, leathery and smoky with brooding cherry fruits underlying. All these layers of character come through as the wine changes and reacts with age, and this to me is what make this wine so interesting. To taste it had that certain rusticity that can make Sangiovese so distinct, a chalky texture to the tannins, and acidity really bursting in the mouth. What made this wine sit above the average Sangiovese (as Brunello should) was the decent weight of dark cherry and plums working alongside that tannin and an array of flavours, from dried herbs, to orange peel, cinnamon and an earthy clay note. All working in balance so they don’t fight with each other.

I’m glad we traded up to Brunello. Chianti is often overlooked as a simple pizza restaurant wine, but it can be so interesting when made in the right hands.”

Andy says: “The final week, and unfortunately I have my first/last cold of the year, and I can’t taste a thing.

Or, maybe this wine is just fairly insipid. The first thing I noticed was the high acidity, and I think this is the third wine this year that has made me do the ‘sour shudder’, although perhaps it needs to be rebranded as the ‘acid attack’. The only thing I can agree with from Emma’s notes is the brown/red hue. I’m going to have to re-taste in a day or so when my head clears up.”

Buying Guide

Sangiovese is the grape behind Tuscan wines, especially Chianti. It has a light colour and flavour but a distinct tea leaf textured tannin which gives it a unique character. The best Sangiovese tends to be in the Chianti Classico hillside areas. We will be looking for one form a great producer to end our 52 weeks on a high note.

Week 51 – Xinomavro

We tasted: Thymiopoulos Xinomavro, M&S

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “Coming soon!”

Andy says: “Another one to look forward to, given that I think I like big bold reds.

Week 14’s Nebbiolo didn’t quite do it for me, so will Xinomavro? It reminded me more of week 10’s Corvina, as I thought it was quite sweet and raisined. Emma is yet to write her notes so I’m interested to see if she agrees. Very drinkable with bold tannin and a purple colour that for me also had a tinge of brown. I’m not sure I could have more than a couple of glasses as I am finding it to be very sweet.”

Buying Guide

Xinomavro is the king of Greek red grapes. It is a giant of a grape variety in the fact it has thick skins and double pips. That means it has a lot of tannin and structure making it a bold red. Many people compare it to Nebbiolo for its bright fruit aroma along with distinct smoky characters, plus its ability to age well. The best region is Naoussa in the North of Greece but if you can find any Xinomavro that will do.

Week 50 – Pinot Blanc

We tasted: Pinot Blanc 1er Cru Cotes de Grevenmacher, Domaines Vinsmoselle (Luxembourg), Vinoteca, £14.50

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “And so for the final white grape in our 52 week challenge. The order of the grapes we have tasted has been quite random, but I’m pleased we have this one to end with.

It has been difficult to track it down. It doesn’t seem to be favoured on any supermarket or bar list. But we’re fortunate to live in London where just about every grape can be found and we were finally able to find it in a favourite wine shop/bar of mine, Vinoteca.

Interestingly our one is from Luxembourg which is perhaps one of the few wine growing regions I have never tasted wine from. A fitting final white adventure. Pinot Bianco is the Italian name for this grape but it is also known as Pinot Blanc in France, or Weissburgunder in Austria or Germany. It is grown in similar northern Italian regions to Pinot Grigio and does share a sprightly character with delicate fruit flavours. However I’ve always felt that Pinot Bianco has a touch more tutti frutti appeal and a creamy finish which means it is more interesting to me. I wish we’d see a few bland Pinot Grigios give up their shelf space to this grape.

To the wine we tasted. I thought it was a brilliant example. The cool climate of the Luxembourg hills gave it a really spritzy and zingy acid freshness. The aroma was delicate but fragrant with hints of papaya, peach and orange blossom. To taste it was chalky and mineral but with that gentle apricot and candied peel character, plus touches of acacia honey and cream to give it a soft sweet finish. This tasting reaffirmed to me that Pinot Bianco is really an overlooked grape, let’s hope a few of our readers agree with me.

A final geek fact. Pinot Bianco is actually a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. Sometimes Pinot Noir produces the odd white bunch of grapes as a single cane on a vine and this is Pinot Bianco. Perhaps this is the explanation for the underlying fruit-y-ness of the grape.”

Andy says: “This is very probably the first time I have ever tasted Pinot Blanc, so I will have to take Emma’s word for it that it is a brilliant example.

The first thing to note is the acidity. It’s very high, and a little wince inducing, but not near as much as the eye watering Bacchus from a few weeks ago. When ice cold, the wine was very pleasant to drink, but as it warmed up it became somewhat hard going and started to stray into the still-as-yet-undefined ‘winey’ zone.

It was fragrant and there are hints of fruit, but none that I could readily identify. If only wine had flavour characteristics borrowed from crisps (chips for our American friends), then I’d be world class at this. I again got what I call coconut, like a coconut ring biscuit (cookie for our American friends), and perhaps this is what Emma describes as ‘cream’. I sense the coconut flavour a lot in wine so really do need to nail down what it is. It’s not oak, definitely not in this case.”

Buying Guide

Pinot Blanc or Pinot Bianco are the same grape made in France or Italy. A grape that is often confused with Pinot Grigio and does share some flavour characters in its crisp orchard fruit profile. However it can deliver wines with a bit more interest and charm, expect more peachy fruit and a touch more ripeness in flavour. We will be seeking one out from Alsace as a region that tends to produce some of the most characterful styles.

Week 49 – Cabernet Franc

We tasted: Saumur Cabernet Franc, Nicolas, £9

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “This week we are on to the lesser known but classic wine style that is 100% Cabernet Franc, originating from the Loire region in France. I found a Saumur in our trusty local Nicolas wine shop, a great place for searching out random regional French wines.

I’m interested to see how this one goes down with Andy, I suspect he would be more a fan of the Argentine Cabernet Francs I’ve tasted in recent years that have the generous rich fruit profile more similar to their Malbecs.

As for the French version it couldn’t be much further up the opposite end of the spectrum from the juicy fruited new world Cab Francs. At work I’m known to be a bit of a lover of “leaf” which means I can handle and even appreciate my red wines when they have some green or even vegetal flavours; probably thanks to drinking all my Dad’s Bordeaux as a kid. This means I have potential to love a pungently herbaceous red like a Loire Cabernet Franc. Whilst others may hate it.

As a grape Cabernet Franc produces bunches with lots of small thick-skinned berries which give it strong tannins and is why it is often used to muscle up a red blend; for example with Merlot in St Emilion. It’s also naturally high in acidity and has a lovely purple fruit perfume. The leafy notes can be accounted for because it has a naturally high level of “pyrazine” characters which create that herbaceous character particularly in cool climates. It is also proven to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon when partnered with Sauvignon Blanc, which explains why Cab Sauv also picks up those greener notes. This makes it a characterful grape which sometimes people think therefore is best to be blended so it becomes more approachable.

Onto the wine we tasted, I was really pleased it was a “classic”. Upfront I got a heavy waft of fresh cut green peppers, with a smoky dark edge along with crunchy black fruits, it really did explode from the glass. To taste it wasn’t too grippy and taught on the tannin which can be the case with this wine. The fruit flavours were ultra fresh, just like tasting black berries of the bush and there was an elegant mineral graphite bite to it. The herbaceous flavours did linger on the finish, but like I said, I’m actually in favour of a dose of that in reds provided it is in good balance to the fruit.”

Andy says: “The first thing to note about this wine was the burst of fruit when tasting, which after a second rapidly faded, figuratively falling of a cliff in your mouth, changing to a more earthy flavour.

I don’t think I’ve experienced such a rapid change in taste in any wine before. Colour wise it was a nice vibrant purple. I agree with Emma saying it’s not too grippy. Tasting again a few days later, the fruit has faded and the change in taste in the mouth doesn’t happen anymore, and there is a vanilla like after taste.”

Buying Guide

Cabernet Franc is a grape that is either used as a minor part in blends like in Bordeaux or as a grape alone. On its own it is most known in the Loire region, with wines like Saumur or Chinon. But it is also starting to travel well and there are now many countries in the world testing out Cabernet France with some great results such as Argentina or California. We will be staying true to its original homeland and looking for a Chinon.

Week 48 – Godello

We tasted: El Gato Gordo, Majestic, £11.99

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “Godello isn’t the easiest grape to find so I was really pleased to spot one in the trusty local Majestic. In fact, that is one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most of our 52 Grapes experience, it has made me peek outside the supermarket doors where I work to see what interesting things the others are getting up to.

In recent years Godello has swiftly moved onto my list of reliable party pleaser whites. It has a soft fruit profile which is similar to a cool climate Chardonnay, in its peachy flavours, and it is brisk and fresh giving it ready appeal. The wine I found was pricier than the typical Godello I buy, so I was hoping it would show me that Godello can achieve an extra layer of sophistication above this.

I’m happy to say the wine did really impress me. I was trying to have a “dry” night at home and only planned to have a few sips but that proved really hard work. I love a good Macon Villages and it had a lot of characters reminiscent of that style of wine to me. To start the aroma had a lovely perfume, like orange blossom with a honeyed twist, plus some apricot notes.

To taste it was similar, a mix of fruits from papaya to lemon zest plus some sophistication from a touch of minerality adding a toasty, smoky twist to the finish. I’d seek this one out again as a nice wine to break the rhythm and routine of what I normally drink.

An interesting sub note for geeks, this was from the hilly Bierzo region, a region mostly known for reds, the majority of wines I have tasted from this grape is from the valley area of Valdeorras, Galicia. They are neighbours, but this could account for why it had a particularly good dose of acidity which would come from the higher altitude hilly sites.”

Andy says: “When I first tasted the wine a few days ago, I didn’t really like it and thought that it was another one of those mysterious ‘winey’ whites.

But, tasting again a few days later, it has mellowed out a touch and is better, but it’s still not wowing me. The aroma is a touch too floral for me, and the taste is just a little too much in the limey/sour spectrum for this to be a winner.”

Buying Guide

Godello is a lesser known Spanish white grape coming from North West Spain. It is also known as Gouveio in Portugal. If you are a fan of delicately fruity but soft tasting whites this could be one searching out. It is often a grape that appeals to lovers of unoaked Chardonnay. You may need to look in a specialist wine shop to track this one down.

Week 47 – Gamay

We tasted: Beaujolais Nouveau 2018, Marks and Spencer, £8

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “I couldn’t help but smile when we opened the bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. There is something about this type of wine that spells pure joy to me.

Plus it is a great for beginners to learn how to start describing wines. It is bursting with aroma and flavour that have lots of characters reminiscent of childhood. People often note a bubblegum character to the aroma and it also has a good burst of cherry fruit flavour, almost like cherry cola. Nouveau style wines are definitely not on the complex spectrum of the styles made from Gamay, but I would put them firmly in the crowd pleaser category.

We tasted Beaujolais Nouveau for our wine, Andy was cross with me all week when he realised I scheduled our tasting a week later than Beaujolais Nouveau day. My excuse is that we normally taste on a Tuesday or Wednesday and given the first legal day to drink it was Thursday then we’d be breaking the law in the name of 52 Grapes.

The 2018 vintage is being heralded as pretty special with lots of ripe juicy grapes due to the warm summer. And having tasted this wine on many good and bad years I can attest that this is a great year to be drinking it Nouveau. It is ripe succulent and tasty.

A few of you might want to know what Nouveau means. It is basically a wine where the grapes have just been picked, quickly made into wine and released just as soon as it is deemed ready to drink, about two months later. It also has a special method used on it called carbonic maceration that I described in our glossary of terms. Basically the tank of grapes is sealed shut rather than left open as it ferments, plus it contains whole rather than crushed grapes. This enables the grape to start to ferment inside its skin and gently explode as the pressure in the tank rises from the growing carbon dioxide gas. This process extracts a very soft form of tannin from the grape which is why it is so delicate and also builds all the vibrant cherry-ade aroma and flavour. The reason it is mean to be drunk young is that those characters fade quickly and then the wine becomes dull. So drink up – this wine isn’t one for the cellar.”

Andy says: “I remember quite liking Beaujolais Nouveau last year, so was quite looking forward to this week. I wasn’t disappointed.

The aroma hit me like a (very small) train. ‘I know that smell! It’s, umm, oh damn what is it?’. I just couldn’t think oh what the very distinctive smell was, but eventually it came to me. It was the cough sweets, Cherry Tunes, complete with a hint of menthol, too. I was always a big fan of those, so instantly liked the wine.

Taste wise, there wasn’t much for me. Emma notes a cherry cola taste, but she doesn’t drink Coke, so I think she’s lying. I however do, and didn’t get that at all. Tannin wise, there was next to nothing. This is a very easy drinking red wine, and I think you should try it.”

Buying Guide

Gamay is the grape that makes the more famous wine Beaujolais, which comes from the Burgundy region of France. We are trying it just after Beaujolais Nouveau week. That is the first week that the latest vintage of wine is legally allowed to be sold. The wine only finished fermenting a few weeks before. Gamay perfectly suits that because it is fruity and upfront making it a pleasure to drink young. We will be seeking out a “Nouveau” but may try one of the posher villages like Fleurie or Morgon that are also made from this grape and have a bit more age.


Week 46 – Bacchus

We tasted: Camel Valley Bacchus 2016, Cornwall, England £14.99

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “There are very few weeks that I don’t look forward to with relish on our 52 grape adventure. I’m afraid that Bacchus week is one, as a near second to Pinotage.

It seemed right to incorporate it into our 52 because it is fast becoming a grape that is synonymous with English wines. I would dearly love to embrace English wines and make this week’s column a patriotic nod to the wine industry that is beginning to evolve here. However, the honest truth is I’d go for a bottle of British bubbly above Bacchus any day.

Whilst on our weekly shopping quest I was happy to find a Camel Valley winery version of Bacchus at the local Waitrose because this is a winery that is located in one of the sunnier regions for wine; Cornwall. I was hoping that extra dose of sunlight might tame the frequently searing high acidity of English wines. If you are an acid junkie this may just be the week for you.
In support of Bacchus as a grape it has character. Often described as “Sauvignon on steroids” because it takes the herbaceous, pungent characters of that grape and times it by about ten. Pleasingly it can have a British hedgerow character which makes me feel it has that sense of place we like to think of as “terroir”.

Onto the wine in question and I can promise I was keeping an open mind. The aroma was bang on expectations, a bold nettle and cut grass character with a fresh blackcurrant, like Sauvignon but more on the herbal and fruit side. Pleasingly there was a gun smoke note that I thought gave it more dimension than many Bacchus I’ve tried. To taste that acid did come through like a slap on the face and dominated the sensation overall. But underneath there was a fresh herbal flavour, like a wheatgrass shot if you’ve ever been to a trendy juice bar. The mineral smoke edge continued and I felt the flavours weren’t bitter but most definitely on that green spectrum. If I’d had more than a glass I’d definitely be reaching for a settlers tablet.

#ConfessionTime – I may be burnt by my first ever experience of English wine. My naughty sister plied me with English wine from a family friends vineyard at the tender age of 11. Soon after my mother found me giddy and nauseous, I think the phrase I used was “why is the ceiling moving”. Perhaps this early form of wine torture has tainted my feelings to local wine.”

Andy says: “My initial reaction to the first taste was that this was very, very acidic. I’m still learning, and so doubted if what I was sensing as acid was correct.

“Is this acidic?” I asked Emma. “Very.” came the no nonsense reply. It reminded me of Week 25’s Assyrtiko, which gave me the ‘sour shudder’. Yep, same here.

Relieved, I was curious to find out just how acidic it was. The fact sheet on the Camel Valley site has it as pH 3.15. Having no idea what that meant, I delved further and found an acidity chart at Wine Folly, and basically it is at the ‘acidic’ end of ‘acidic’, not helped by its dryness, as some more sweetness would tone it down some.

Colour wise, it would be pale straw, perhaps even very pale straw as it is almost water coloured. There’s a hint of apple, and it reminds me of the ‘sour apple‘ hard boiled sweets from the 80s. I didn’t get the smoke that Emma mentions, and I can just about get the connection to Sauvignon Blanc.”

Buying Guide

Bacchus is fast becoming the grape that England is famed for when it comes to still wines. It is a hardy grape when it comes to putting up with the English less than warm climate. Expect a grape that is often called “Sauvignon on steroids” it is so powerful. Any English Bacchus you can find will do.

Week 45 – Merlot

We tasted: Filia de Grand Mayne, M&S, £23

Emma says: “And the big judgement commences. For once we have managed to strike gold and have a lovely bottle of St Emilion Grand Cru at home; a welcome break from scouring the shops for our weekly grape.”

It is also a rare thing, it is Andy’s wine. Normally wine collecting is my thing and he sticks firmly to hoarding a veritable mountain of spirits.

The wine we have is a “second wine” which is a relatively new thing in Bordeaux. It means a well known Chateau has selected out its best fruit for its top wine which you pay top dollar for. Then it produces a second wine with the fruit that don’t quite make its first selection. Normally you get great value for money from these wines since they have the first class winemaking of the top wine but cost a fraction of the price. And as Bordeaux Chateau prices have risen over recent decades many people have resorted to buying these second wines that don’t break your bank balance quite as seriously. Mind you they still all cost over £20 a bottle so either way they fall into my “special” wine territory.

Wines of the right bank are typically a bit more easy going than the Medoc (left bank) wines that are Cabernet dominant. The merlot fruit being dominant in the blend you can find that there is a rich berry fruit nose and supple easy going palate. Typically these wines are blended with a little Cabernet Franc to add a structural element plus a nice herbaceous character.

Our wine is from 2011 which means it has a decent bit of age. And I was pleased to find it really came through on the aroma. It has a lovely soft shoe leather character, along with tobacco and a sweet fragrant plummy character typical of Merlot. The vintage was quite cool and not one of the best but pleasingly this has given it a sweet herbal tinge in a pleasant way. To taste it was supple and silky in texture, in fact it felt beautifully smooth. It opened out in layers of flavour that started with cassis and plum fruit and developed to sweet licquorice, coffee bean, clove and that earthy mocha that comes with age. I’m so pleased that we got a wine that really shows that Merlot can be complex, it isn’t as structured as a Cabernet but that gives it an elegance and finesse that definitely elevates above an average wine.

Andy says: “I find it much easier to describe wines that are full of big, bold flavours. ‘It smells like an old, muddy boot, and tastes like the inside of the finest cherry pie you ever had.’

This wine though, is soft, delicate and refined. I don’t have the palate nor the food tasting experience to discern anything helpful. If pushed, I would say dark fruits, like cherry. On the nose there is a soft leather aroma, and the tannins are soft and supple, giving a light grip that lessens with a long finish.

I suspect this wine is much better than I am able to tell.”

Buying Guide

Poor Merlot got a bad reputation after the iconic wine film “Sideways” put it down. It is a soft fleshy grape which means it can make simple wines without massive structure. But you can’t forget that some of the most expensive wines in the world in Bordeaux (St Emlion/Pomerol) are made mostly from this grape. So this week we are heading right to its heartland of Bordeaux to seek out one of those and see if we can put it to the test.

Week 44 – Vermentino

We tasted: Nord Est Vermentino 2016, Majestic, £9.99

Tasting Notes

Emma says: “I was feeling a little off last night so apologies if this note is short. Maybe you’ll have to trust Andy’s note as the true evaluation of our grape this week.

It was a shame since I’m a big fan of Vermentino and was especially pleased when we found on of my favourite producers at the local Majestic.

For my brief taste of the Vermentino I was reminded exactly why this is one of my favourite lesser known whites. The aroma was bright and glistening with delicate herbal notes sitting alongside grapefruit and a touch of kumquat, plus this burst of sea salt that I always find with the Sardinian versions of this wine. To taste that saline quality was really at the fore, then the fruit started to come through as peaches and melon with some really attractive herbal dimensions like bay leaf, fennel and a touch of aniseed which is a typical character of this style. There was a little weight and texture which can often happen with Vermentino but it was nicely balanced by fresh acidity. Altogether this is a wine I’d like to stock up with as a weekday white; once I feel better of course.

And to note I think that the Sardinian versions particularly fit this description from my previous experience. Andy thought that the wine tasted slightly like Viognier and he is right. It has the same problem as that grape that it can become weighty and overly tropical in fruit if grown in warm climates. I sometimes find that in versions coming from Tuscany or the Languedoc in France. The island breezes in Sardinia allow the grape to ripen to just the right point and therefore deliver for me the most elegant styles.”

Andy says: “Possibly the first time I’ve understood what Emma means when she describes something as herbal.

Unfortunately I can’t really offer a better descriptor or description. If you’ve ever been to Prague, you’ve probably been forced to try Becherovka, and most likely picked up a bottle and abandoned it, unopened, at the back of your drinks cabinet. Well if you can remember that taste, and dilute it to homeopathic levels, that’s kind of it. For me, anyway. Genepi would work too.

Straight out of the fridge, this was crisp and refreshing, with a nice rounded acidity that kept you interested but picked up on the social cues and didn’t hang around and make things awkward. There was an illusion of some residual CO2, but it was probably the prickle of the acid. It was a bit like the Furmint from a few weeks ago, but with life injected.

Taste wise, I have to default to the standard ‘citrussy limes’, but as the glass warmed it became more violet, reminding me of week two’s Viognier, which I was not a fan of, and I liked this less the warmer it got. So, I need to drink faster, as when chilled this was very nice indeed.”

Buying Guide

Vermentino is a lovely vibrant grape with a herbal floral aroma and often a rich fruit driven palate. It is most commonly found in the South France, Languedoc or coastal Tuscany. But its best homeland might be Sardinia, where the cool coastal breezes add a fresh lift to the wine. We will be seeking out one from there.


Crisp and refreshing, nice acidity, illusion of bubble, like the furmint but with some more life. Citrussy limes

Went violet-y later on, bit like viognier, less good as it warmed up