from the CellarSession 1: Wine school starts now with ABCs (ALL ‘BOUT CABERNET/CHARDONNAY)

While entirely reliable and current information on exact acreage and/or yields is difficult to obtain, the winner of the world’s top wine grape (genus VITIS, species VINIFERA) is widely regarded as cabernet sauvignon. Originally cultivated in Bordeaux (an area just south of the “half-way point” of France’s Atlantic coast), cabernet sauvignon is now planted throughout most of the world’s wine growing regions, provided the climate is warm enough for this late-blooming grape to ripen. Because the aroma and flavor of cabernet sauvignon can be greatly affected by growing climate, we will explore some key regions in upcoming articles. In general, cabernet sauvignon displays:

  • Fruit notes of black fruit (blackberry, black currant, blackberry, plum), red fruit (particularly cherry and plum) and/or blue fruit (blueberry)
  • Herbal notes of thyme, rosemary, tobacco and (especially in warmer climates) mint and/or eucalyptus
  • Vegetal notes of bell pepper (from a compound called pyrazine), especially, but not exclusively, in cooler climates
  • Possible notes of spice (especially pepper or anise), dark chocolate and/or coffee
  • Earthy notes of mushroom, forest floor, dust, dead leaves, and/or graphite/stone
  • Oak influenced notes of smoke, toast, baking spices, vanilla, cedar, dill and/or coconut

The latter group of aromas and flavors are influenced by exposure to oak barrels during fermentation and/or aging. More specifically, French oak may impart notes of smoke, toast, and/or cedar while American oak may impart notes of dill and/or coconut. Additional types of oak may be used (including, but not limited to Slovenian and Hungarian oak). Barrel aging can be a rather costly affair, with new barrels ranging in price from about $400 to about $4,000 each, depending on quality and origin. Oak aging may be mimicked to some degree by use of a variety of barrel alternatives, including, but not limited to, individual oak staves, oak chips and/or oak cubes.

Considering other components of wine (alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin (the component in oversteeped tea that cause the inside of your mouth to feel rough and dry), cabernet sauvignon tends to be

  • relatively high in alcohol
  • dry, meaning that is has little residual sugar (sugar remaining after fermentation), although oak influence or fruit notes may be perceived as sweetness
  • moderate in acidity
  • relatively high in tannin.

By some accounts, the most widely planted white wine grape in the world is now (but only recently) chardonnay (the other contender is the Spanish grape airén, a grape grown primarily for the production of brandy and bulk/economy wine). Chardonnay hails from Burgundy (a region in east-central France) and is one of the two primary grape varieties in that region (the other being the red wine grape pinot noir). In fact, chardonnay takes its name from the village of Chardonnay (itself named for the abundance of thistles (carduus) in the area) in the Mâconnais, the southernmost portion of Burgundy. Like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay is now planted throughout most of the world’s wine growing regions. Chardonnay’s prominence owes much to the fact that it is relatively easy to grow and also relatively easy to vinify, possesses moderate acidity and no extreme aromas or flavors, and is rather easily adaptable to the winemaker’s desires. In fact, many of the aromas and flavors that are most commonly associated with chardonnay, particularly those of butter, butterscotch, vanilla and toast, are indicative not of the grape itself, but of applied winemaking methods. The first of these methods, malolactic fermentation, in which the malic acid (the same acid that gives a Granny Smith apple is distinctive tartness) is converted into lactic acid (one of the acids present in milk and butter), is responsible for the butter and butterscotch notes. Oak fermentation and/or aging, is responsible for the vanilla and toast notes (as it is in cabernet sauvignon, as noted above). Additional aroma and flavor (and texture) may even be added by aging chardonnay on the spent yeast cells (lees). In general, chardonnay displays:

  • Fruit notes of apple, pear, peach, citrus, and/or tropical fruits (including banana, mango, papaya and pineapple)
  • Earthy notes of chalk, flint or oyster shell (especially if from Chablis, the northernmost area of Burgundy), forest floor or mushroom (especially if from the Côte d’Or in Burgundy), or clay (especially if from the Mâconnais, the southernmost area of Burgundy)
  • Malolactic fermentation (conversion of malic acid to lactic acid) notes of butter, butterscotch, and/or cream (most pronounced in American chardonnay)
  • Oak influenced notes of smoke, toast, baking spices, vanilla, cedar (most pronounced in chardonnay from the France and America) and/or dill and/or coconut (most pronounced in chardonnay from America
  • Yeast aging notes of bread dough and, in a textural sense, cream

Considering other components of wine, chardonnay tends to be

  • moderate to high in alcohol
  • dry to slightly off-dry (a trace of residual sugar), although oak influence or fruit notes may be perceived as sweetness
  • moderate to high in acidity

White wines generally display little evidence of tannin, unless the juice has had extended contact with the grape skins before or during fermentation.

In upcoming articles of the series we will explore several key growing areas for cabernet sauvignon (Bordeaux, California, Chile and Australia) and chardonnay (Burgundy and California). In so doing, we will see how geography, climate and tradition (among other factors), influence the final bottled product that we know as wine.

Sláinte! (To your health!)

Terrell Abney, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators and Wine Buyer at Corners Fine Wine & Spirits in Peachtree Corners, GA