• Going with the grain: success of oaked Chardonnay in Pays d’Oc

    When Pays d’Oc Chardonnay shot to prominence in the 1990s, it owed much of its recognition to the New World producers, particularly in California, who had spearheaded the concept of varietal wines, taking the native French grape and infusing it with a new level of extroversion. Key to this was the role played by oak, which became closely associated with Chardonnay in the public imagination – and followed the grape back to Pays d’Oc as it rode the waves of international market trends.

    When Pays d’Oc Chardonnay shot to prominence in the 1990s, it owed much of its recognition to the New World producers, particularly in California, who had spearheaded the concept of varietal wines, taking the native French grape and infusing it with a new level of extroversion. Key to this was the role played by oak, which became closely associated with Chardonnay in the public imagination – and followed the grape back to Pays d’Oc as it rode the waves of international market trends.

    mm By November 24, 2023

    Dominic Rippon finds out how oaked Chardonnay has matured in France’s Pays d’Oc vineyard and selects his favourite IGP Pays d’Oc wooded Chardonnays from an impressive tasting of the 2022 vintage. 

    As I wrote in my previous piece for The Buyer, Chardonnay still rules in France’s Pays d’Oc vineyard. Originally a Burgundian variety, it now produces over 600 000 hectolitres of IGP Pays d’Oc every year – making it by far the region’s most squeezed varietal white.

    The Pays d’Oc vineyards cover the area of the Languedoc-Roussillon, stretching from the Spanish border all the way to the western fringes of Provence. The range of climatic influences, terroirs, and hence styles of Chardonnay are consequently vast, but oaked Chardonnay is such a distinctive product that it is almost a category in it own right, deserving a special focus.

    Chardonnay’s unique affinity for oak has been well known for centuries and undoubtedly played a role in the variety’s ubiquitous adoption in its native Burgundy. But whereas the role of oak barrels in Burgundy has always been nuanced, allowing oxygenation, adding structure and contributing to wines’ ageing potential, the New World Chardonnays that spurred France’s Pays d’Oc renaissance put the emphasis squarely on flavour – bold, powerful flavours that came to play the leading role in many Chardonnays in Pays d’Oc and elsewhere.

    Chardonnay
    Chardonnay when it’s oaked gives you so much gastronomic potential

    By the early 2000s, the oaked Chardonnay craze had become somewhat divisive, creating a backlash which pushed many consumers into the arms of varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Yet with such a long heritage, and such extraordinary potential, it was inevitable that oaked Chardonnay would make a comeback as a new generation of consumers learned more about the variety.

    In Pays d’Oc, improvements in both knowledge and winemaking tech led to a more judicious use of oak, producing Chardonnays with a subtler, more refined profile. Oak barrels are frequently used here, in addition to other methods such as staves and oak chips – the new incarnations of which are able to add valuable flavour to wines which, now more than ever, need to hit a price point.

    The strides made in winemaking more generally over the past decade mean that most modern IGP wines are clean and well made. But the application of oak to a wine in just the right degree, so that its flavours are complemented without being overwhelmed, and to a tight budget, is still a fine art.

    What follows is a selection of oaked IGP Pays d’Oc Chardonnays in which that balance is just right…

    “Le Versant” Chardonnay 2022, Les Vignobles Foncalieu, 13.5%

    Les Vignobles Foncalieu is one of western Languedoc’s most dynamic cooperative cellars, and “Le Versant” is their flagship varietal range. 20% of this pale golden Chardonnay is fermented and then aged in oak barrels (50% new) for 6 months. North-facing limestone slopes near Ensérune give a wine with a tight, citrus nose at first, which gradually opens, becoming more floral, with notes of pineapple and toast. Acidity its bracing and the wine is full-bodied, with a direct attack that broadens out on a subtle, exotic finish. Drink with scallops in a creamy sauce.

    RRP in UK £11.50. Available from: UK importer – Hennings Wine Online

    “Collection des Cépages” Chardonnay 2022, Calmel & Joseph, 13.5%

    One of two entries for Calmel & Joseph, with this exuberant, exotic Chardonnay, grown on volcanic and clay-limestone terroirs. As with Villa Blanche,  30% of the juice receives 3 months oak ageing. The nose offers waves of mango, passion fruit, lime and pineapple. Hyper-concentrated on the palate, with an explosion of mango and peach – intense and mouth-filling: an unapologetically modern Chardonnay with a strong southern French accent. An interesting partner for Indian cuisine.

    RRP in France €10 at cellar door.. Available from: direct from the estate

    “L’Artisan” Chardonnay 2022, Domaines Paul Mas 13.5%

    A selection of the best plots of Chardonnay, from clay-limestone and gravel soils; 20% is fermented in American oak, with malolactic fermentation for 35% of the juice. The wine is then aged in oak for a further 4 months. Pale straw in colour, the nose is delicate, with yellow flowers, apples, nutmeg and quince. Lovely purity on the palate, fruit salad flavours with balanced acidity, a rich middle and spices developing on the finish. Enjoy with salmon blanquette.

    RRP in UK £12.95. Available from: UK importer – EWGA

    Chardonnay “Élevé sur lies fines” 2022, Domaine Girard, 13.5%

    Domaine Girard is located west of Carcassonne, in the beautiful Malepère hills, where it is a local reference point for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Grapes are grown on clay-limestone slopes at an altitude of between 350 and 450 metres. This concentrated, mineral-laced Chardonnay spends up to 10 months on its lees in 500-litre barrels, from which pure citrus aromas emerge, followed by apricot and brioche. On the palate, an assertive citrus attack gives way to softer fruits, through butter and toast, to a pleasantly astringent finish. A dead ringer for ripe Mâcon Villages. Try with fondue or tartiflette.

    RRP in France €11 at cellar door.. Available from: direct from the estate

    La Souveraine” 2022, Domaine la Louvière, 14% – Organic

     Aussie winemaker Jem Harris runs this progressive estate at the far western fringe of Languedoc, within the Malepère growing zone. Aged in French oak for 8 months before bottling, La Souveraine is a serious Chardonnay that needs a little time to open – and will keep for a good few years. Kiwi, marzipan, apple crumble on the nose; everything on the palate (which has yet to fully express itself) shows concentration, balance and power. Flavours are delicate though, and you barely feel the relatively high alcohol. This is one for strong smelly cheeses, like Munster or Époisses.

    RRP in France €17 at cellar door. Available from: direct from the estate

    “Les Jamelles” Chardonnay 2022, Badet Clément, 12.5%

     With its origins in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, if there’s one thing the Badet Clément négociant house knows about it’s Chardonnay. For this one, grapes are selected from cooler sites such as western Languedoc’s Upper Aude Valley, to give freshness and poise, as well as warmer sites, like the area around Narbonne, for their vibrant, ripe flavours. The result is a delicate wine, with stone fruit aromas (peach, apricot), and wonderful balance. There’s good amplitude on the palate, complex yet restrained, with just the right degree of acidity. An excellent, juicy Chardonnay, with the faintest hint of toast on the finish – the result of 9 months lees stirring in oak (for half of the cuvée). Try with exotic, spicy seafood dishes.

    RRP in France €8.40 at cellar door. Available from: direct from the estate

    “Sélection Parcellaire” Chardonnay 2022, Domaine de Castelnau, 13%

    This wine is a great illustration of the fruits of modern winemaking technology. The estate’s best parcel of Chardonnay grapes is machine-harvested at night, to preserve freshness, and is aged in vats equipped with oak staves. The result is a well-packaged wine that manages to be satisfying and complex at an incredibly competitive price point. Deep gold in colour, aromas are of lime, mango, vanilla and apricot jam; the palate is supple and inviting with no hard edges, just delicate, exotic fruits and a touch of spiced vanilla on the finish. A great accompaniment for brandade de morue or fish pie.

    RRP in France €7.20 at cellar door. Available from: direct from the estate

    “C’est la Vie!” 2022, Domaine de Paraza, 13%

    Grown in pebbly clay vineyard sites in the Minervois zone, in the foothills of the Montagne Noire, this is a cooler style of oaked Chardonnay. Bright flashes of gold give the wine a vivid appearance, announcing vibrant pineapple, grapefruit, lemon and vanilla aromas. It’s tight and direct on the palate, revealing itself slowly, with attractive lemony acidity and a broad finish. The perfect partner for Thai green curry, cooked with either prawns or chicken.

    RRP in France €8 at cellar door.. Available from: direct from the estate

    Chardonnay “Villa Blanche” 2022, Calmel & Joseph, 13.5%

    The Calmel & Joseph micro-négociant estate is located at the point where the Corbières mountains begin to rise south-east of Carcassonne. Within their varietal Villa Blanche range, this Chardonnay is perfectly judged, with only 30% aged in oak for 3 months, giving it an exuberant fresh fruit character. With a dazzling golden-green colour, the nose is pure and open, with peach, pear and coconut aromas, and a dash of exotic spice. A generous mouth-feel with juicy peach, apple and a hint of almond, driven by a lively thread of acidity. An inspired choice for seafood risotto.

    RRP in UK £10. Available from: UK importer – Daniel Lambert, CHR

    “Barrique Blanc de la Jasse” 2022, Maison Le Breton, 13%

    This wine comes from limestone soils in the cool hills near Limoux, well-known for the excellent Chardonnays they produce. It is partially aged in French oak barriques for 10 months. With a rich marzipan hue, the wine is immediately classy on the nose: semi-exotic with kiwi, apricots and fresh toast. There’s a lot of wine here, fleshy and concentrated, with power in reserve. Vanilla and soft fruit flavours; complex and long. A great match for rich shellfish dishes, such as Cajun garlic butter lobster tails.

    RRP in UK £16.95. Available from: UK importer – Wheeler Wine Online

    “Grande Courtade” Chardonnay 2022, Famille Fabre, 13% – Organic

    A bright golden Chardonnay from the Fabre family estate, in the heart of the Corbières area. 20% of the wine is aged on its lees in oak for 6 months. The nose is energetic and floral, with ripe lemons, pears and peaches – full of charm, it just wants you to take a sip! This theme continues on the palate, with generous flavours underpinned by a delicate buttery richness. An ideal partner for fish in a creamy citrus sauce.

    RRP in UK £13.99. Available from: UK importer – Boutinot/Third Floor

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