Wine Hack: Buy Chardonnay Made by Riesling Makers

Two of the most amazing bottles of chard—one by Tantalus and one by Sperling—come from the minds and cellars of riesling masters.

May 7, 2018

By Neal McLennan / Photo: Thomas Matinsen, Unsplash

First off, don’t even start with the “I don’t like chardonnay” BS. You like wine, you like chardonnay and trying to elevate your taste by denigrating one of the great grapes of the world only serves to make you look sophomoric.

That doesn’t mean you have to like all chardonnay. A huge swatch of it is made in an over-extracted, highly-manipulative manner, so if that’s what you were talking about when you said you didn’t like chardonnay, then fair enough. Sorry I flew off the handle.

The other night I rather absent-mindedly grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge, cracked the screw cap and poured into a stemless glass that may or may not have been properly rinsed from the night before (or the night before that). I went back to chopping carrots, took a pull and…wow. Just, wow. The bottle was from Sperling Vineyards, which is one of those producers every somm I know loves (owner/winemaker Ann Sperling is a legend in Kelowna), but until recently was a bit under the radar for most wine consumers. Well, they’ve finally revamped their website and in the last few years, have rolled out some pretty cool new labels. But their specialty is riesling.

The wine was jumping with citrus and crisp apple but had just enough richness (and what I assume is just a touch of oak aging)—all of which seemed, at least at the moment, to be in perfect proportions.

And then a few weeks later, it happened again. Same crappy stemless wine glass (cleaned this time), same casual reach for a bottle from the fridge and the same “wow” moment. This time, the bottle was from Tantalus’s Juveniles range and it carried the “Are you sure?” price of $19. The wine has less depth than the Sperling and it’s a little more austere, but geez was it delicious. Zippy green apples and lemon peel but never angry. Wine types often talk about fruit being “pure” and this little number could be the poster child for the term.

The funny thing is, neither Ann Sperling nor David Patterson would generally be known as chardonnay winemakers. Together they form the Twin Towers of riesling in the Valley, with Patterson also known for his pinots. So why the deft touch? Well, one reason is that, like Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, you’re really good at something.

The second reason is that both are using estate-grown grapes—meaning they’re relatively far north for growing chardonnay. The result is slightly lower alcohol but loads of natural freshness; both sites have some of that elusive “minerality” in their soil to impart on the grapes.

Thirdly, I wonder if good riesling makers are a bit more hands-off than many chard-first winemakers. We’ve been “crafting” chardonnay for so long that there’s an endless number of tools and decisions at a winemaker’s disposal to steer them toward whatever style they want. And while I’m sure the riesling winemaker likewise has a plethora of decisions to make, the good ones seem focussed on the pursuit of purity—letting the grape and terroir shine through as much as possible.

In the end, a sample of two probably doesn’t pass scientific muster (even in today’s climate of feelings being as important as facts), but I do think I’m on to something. And it’s a fact that these two bottles can go toe-to-toe with any two similarly priced chardonnays from anywhere in the world and seriously impress.

 

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