At my very first wine class nearly 25 years ago, my WSET tutor helped simplify the complex new world of wine for me by dividing wine into Types and Styles. Types included still, sparkling or fortified and colours: white, pink or red. Within those types were Styles with their inherent taste: dry to sweet. Just like any fashion’s fabrics, the weave of the wine has many hues, textures and weights.
The constant threads that affect all wines’ styles are the five factors: climate, grape variety, vineyard, winemaking and maturation. Familiar with farming life, the climate’s influence was the most obvious factor to make sense to me.
Grape varieties are fruit and their wines share a similar style to other unrelated fruits. Grapes grown in cooler northern European climates will have a crisp and refreshing character with echoes of green apples, pears, gooseberries, blackcurrants or raspberries etc. Similarly, grapes grown in Mediterranean and hotter climates produce wines likely to share a fuller bodied and richer profile, familiar to more luscious and ripe tropical and exotic fruit – apricots, peaches, pineapples, black cherries etc.
Some grape varieties are better suited to vineyards in cooler climates – Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir in particular. While others really depend on a hotter climate to ripen successfully – Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache/Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz etc. A few are more versatile – Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc and can easily adapt to vineyards in both cooler and hotter climates with their styles reflecting each environment.
Winemaking techniques have a profound impact on a wine’s style similar to the cook in the kitchen. Whether a potato is boiled, roasted or fried will have an effect on its texture, any seasoning or spices used will influence its taste. The winemaker in the winery is the equivalent of the cook in the kitchen. The kind of vessels used for making/ fermenting and maturing wine: steel tanks, wooden or concrete vats, small oak barrels (new or used and lightly or heavily toasted/ charred inside) are like the cook’s spice rack offering many different aromas and flavours.
For example, to achieve a rich and buttery style in a white wine, grapes that are suited to a hotter climate are ideal because they yield riper fruity flavours and potentially higher sugar amounts that will convert to full-bodied alcohol levels. These riper styles lend themselves better to being enriched with a spicy character from smaller oak barrels used for either fermenting or maturing the wine.
If the freshly pressed grape juice is not overly clarified and still contains some particles of the pulp and skins, these fragments will nourish the yeast during fermentation giving an additional complex and savoury characteristic. Whereas for crisp, fresh and aromatic wines, the grape juice will be fully clarified of any particles.
If a white wine is fermented in a small and new oak barrel, the heat generated naturally during fermentation as the yeast converts the juice’s natural sugars into alcohol, will integrate more subtly the oak’s white peppery and vanilla character. Depending on how lightly or heavily toasted the inside of the new barrel is – caramelising the sugars in the wood to give a toasty, nutty or toffee and butterscotch character.
Controlling the heat generated naturally during fermentation is important, generally, 12C-22C. Lower temperatures slow down the fermentation process, promoting the aromatics and is more suited to crisper and fresher styles fermented in steel or concrete inert vessels, preserving the grape variety’s character (Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Riesling). Fermented at a higher temperature encourages more complex aromas suited for richer wines but at the expense of losing the primary fruity ones.
Once the yeast has converted all the juice’s sugars into alcohol, it has no further nutrients to survive and falls to the bottom of the vessel as lees. If the winemaker stirs up the lees as the wine is aging, this lees-stirring (battonage) procedure will give a creamy texture and a biscuit note to the wine.
Once fermented, the winemaker may choose to encourage a malolactic fermentation (MLF) in the wine. This is done for all red wines but only for some whites, usually the richer styles to give them a buttery character. Lactic bacteria is introduced and it converts the harsher malic acid (found also in green apples) into a softer gentle lactic acid (also present in milk). In addition to reducing the acidity in the wine, MLF gives a dairy buttery richness and hazelnut character to the wine, now complimented by the creamy texture of the lees-stirring/ battonage.
Maturing a wine in the porous lung of an oak barrel for a period (usually 6-12 months) allows the wine to evolve, breathe and develop in a controlled oxidative way, adding richness and depth of character while extending the wine’s life cycle.
New French oak barrels are costly with a 225 litre barrique costing close to €800, adding nearly €3 to a bottle of wine before a grape is picked. Transporting and storing the barrels and waiting a year or so before bottling and selling the wine all adds to the additional cost for these rich buttery white wines. The benefit to us the consumer is a wine that has added complexity and longevity from that investment in oak.
Below, seven beautiful, rich and buttery white wines to discover…
Etoile Chardonnay 2015, Domaine Begude
A.C. Limoux, France – 13.5% ABV (Certified Organic)
€19.95 – Available in O’Brien’s Wine
Buttery scents from its French oak barrel aging. Intense and complex diversity on the taste buds – floral white fruits, pepper, lively acidity and an accent of the local cool Limoux terroir. A wine defined by purity and elegance.
Food friend: made for lobster tossed in linguine and melted butter.
Les Hautes du Monteillet Blanc 2014, Stéphane Montez di Monteillet
I.G.P. Collines Rhodaniennes, Northern Rhône, France – 12.5% ABV
€24.95 – Available at McCambridge’s, Galway. In Dublin: Baggot Street Wines; Searson’s, Monkstown and online searsons.com
Rich and nutty aromas. Made from a blend of three local Rhône varieties: Viognier for an apricot note; Roussanne with its honeysuckle, herbal and pepper character and Clairette’s fennel, lime and peach personality. Aged for 11 months in 600 litre demi-muids French oak barrels giving a concentrated palate with peppery spice and nutty richness, highlighted by a salty terroir seasoning.
Food friend: monkfish baked on a bed of shaved fennel bulb and a splash of Pernod.
Missionvale Chardonnay 2014, Bouchard Finlayson, Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven-on-earth)
Walker Bay, South Africa – 13% ABV
€33.95 – Available at Searson’s, Monkstown and online searsons.com
The flagship wine from multi-award winning Bouchard Finlayson and fermented in small French oak barrels for added concentration and longevity. Very intense aromas of buttery and milky scents. Pronounced peppery palate with an elegance, depth of character and length of finish.
Food friend: too soon to say the C word, but make a date with the turkey.
Wilde Chardonnay 2013, Tempus Two Copper Series
Hunter Valley & Adelaide Hills, Australia – 13% ABV
€17.30 – Available online at winesoftheworld.ie
Lovely aromas of hot buttered toast. Ripe fruity mango and peach flavours ripple over the taste buds. Very well-balanced with the wild yeast ferment in French oak barrels and lees-stirring adding a savoury and creamy richness.
Food friend: enjoy with a chicken Thai green curry
Puligny-Montrachet 2014, Louis Latour
Burgundy, France – 13.5% ABV
€79 – Available at select SuperValu stores nationwide
The original classic oaked Chardonnay style that influenced the world. Grilled nuts and butter bouquet. A rich palate with highlights of white pepper spice and an expansive oaky character lifted by crisp acidity and a hazelnut finish.
Food friend: chicken thighs stuffed with toasted pine nuts and a parsley sauce.
Chenin Blanc + Viognier White Blend 2015, Pine Ridge
California, USA – 12.5% ABV
€23.99 in Dublin: Baggot Street Wines; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Martin’s, Fairview and Redmond’s, Ranelagh.
Citrus and apricot perfume highlighting the two varietals in a harmonious marriage. A medium-bodied but intense palate with tropical touches of mango sorbet; delicious and refreshing. More exotic than rich in style.
Food friend: serve with sweet and sour pork.
Espelt 2015, Quinze Roures, D.O. Empordà
Spain – 13% ABV
€19.99 – Available at Deveney’s, Dundrum and The Coach House, Ballinteer.
A subtle winey and fruity fragrance. Made from a blend of two cousins, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris (white and pink skinned respectively). An arresting palate of baked lemon peel and nutmeg, pithy, fresh with a drying finish.
Food friend: perfect with shellfish and chicken, pair with a Spanish classic, paella.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.