Chardonnay is a shapeshifter of a grape. It’s responsible for some of the most breath-taking and glorious wines in the world – Grand Crus from Burgundy, steely Chablis, Napa icons. But, in the wrong hands, it’s also to blame for some of the worst (like the oaky, syrupy, brash wines which caused an ABC – anything but Chardonnay – backlash in the 1990s).
At Gusbourne, we think that our Kent clay and Sussex chalk and flint soils are especially well suited to Chardonnay. Our – relatively – cool growing season allows the grapes to ripen to perfection while retaining their all-important acidity to give wines elegance and structure.
Even within the Gusbourne portfolio, we have several different styles of Chardonnay. If you’re interested in exploring how different winemaking techniques, vintage variation and clone selection interplay within a single grape variety, then this is a great place to start exploring.
First things first: our signature Chardonnay
Any conversation around Gusbourne’s Chardonnay needs to start with our elegant, classic sparkling Blanc de Blancs – a 100% Chardonnay vintage wine.
Our Blanc de Blancs uses berries from both our Sussex and Kent vineyards. “The subtle differences in altitude and soil give exciting variation in fruit profiles,” says Charlie Holland, our Chief Winemaker. Charlie and his team taste hundreds of base wines, bringing these different components together to create a beautifully balanced blend.
Before we release our Blanc de Blancs, it’s aged on its lees to build layers of complexity. Characteristically, this style of sparkling wine is elegant, fresh and mineral. “It’s the best expression of our terroir and our Chardonnay,” says Charlie. The current vintage, Blanc de Blancs 2018, was “an almost perfect crop” making this an excellent example to try. In the glass you can expect a golden colour, citrus aromas, green apple, ripe stone fruit, a hint of ginger and toasted hazelnuts.
With age comes complexity
One of the joys of fine wine is its ability to transmute into something even more delicious and complex with age. Of all the white grapes, Chardonnay is particularly receptive to ageing gracefully, thanks to its naturally high acidity levels. It’s also well-suited to oak-ageing, a process which adds tannin.
We release our vintage wines only when they’re ready to enjoy, and all will have had a degree of cellar ageing. The 2018, for example, was aged on its lees for more than 33 months.
But it’s interesting to look at what more extended cellar ageing does to the Chardonnay’s character. We currently have two variations of our 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs from the 2013 vintage available – one of which has enjoyed extended lees ageing, and one which has been aged under cork for longer. When tasted side by side, you can see the difference these different approaches have on the wine.
When our Chardonnay enjoys more time on lees, it gains deeper levels of richness and toasty brioche flavours. The late-disgorged style, which is rested on lees but without any exposure to air, retains bright, light freshness. The cork-aged style, meanwhile, is gently exposed to small amounts of air through its cork closure meaning you can decern deeper toasty flavours and less emphasis on freshness.
The impact of oak
Oak has a fascinating effect on Chardonnay. When it’s rested in oak barrels, the wine interacts with the wood developing flavours which are usually likened to vanilla, toast, caramel and spice. There’s lots of variables at play here (the size of the barrel, its age, whether it’s been used before, where the oak comes from, whether the inside has been toasted or not – and if so, how much). The skill for the winemaker is in knowing which barrel to choose, and how long the Chardonnay should spend resting in it.
We use oak when we’re crafting our still Chardonnay, a bottling known as Guinevere which is made using fruit from our Boot Hill vineyard in Kent. The 2020 vintage of Chardonnay Guinevere spent 10 months ageing in barrel to give it additional weight and texture. In the glass, these characteristics really come through – for instance critics note the “beautiful oak” (JancisRobinson.com) and “hints of vanillin deferring to the wood,” (Simon Field MW for Decanter).
On occasion, the unique interaction of a particular barrel and a wine work especially well together, creating a wine that stands above the others. When the team tasted the 2020 vintage, Charlie and his team identified one such special barrel. This was so delicious that he set aside Chardonnay Guinevere Barrel Selection 2020 as a standalone bottling. To taste, it’s honeyed and intense – a remarkable and age-worthy wine.
One very special way to experience the impact of age and vintage variation on our Chardonnay is with a vertical tasting of Chardonnay Guinevere. This six-bottle case, which spans vintages from 2016 through to the yet-to-be-launched 2021 vintage, offers a fascinating profile of the wine’s development. In its youth, you’ll taste the fruit and freshness; as the wines mature, this gives way to toasty, nutty complexity.
Yeast: another element at play
We’re not done with winemaking variables yet. Yeast is another component that has a big impact on the flavour profile of your Chardonnay. Typically, most producers inoculate their wine to stop any naturally occurring yeasts from getting involved in the fermentation. Then, they add a carefully selected strain of winemakers’ yeast – one that has tried and tested characteristics – to help them produce a particular style of wine.
For our Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2021, one of our young winemaking team, Tom Jones, crafted a wine using the grapes’ naturally occurring yeast. You can read more about how, and why, he’s continuing this experimental, low-intervention technique here.
While the wine is still recognisably from the same stable as Chardonnay Guinevere, it hits some different notes too. “It’s quite tropical, with gooseberry and elderflower notes,” says Tom. “It’s incredibly aromatic, but with this mineral character too and typical Chardonnay citrus. It’s got a nice, pithy quality. It’s broad and quite voluptuous. It’s a big wine.”
Our most aromatic Chardonnay
So, from our elegant and pure Blanc de Blancs to our honeyed and intense Guinevere, it’s clear to see that Chardonnay takes many forms at Gusbourne. But we have one more string to our bow:
This bottling is named for the 809 Chardonnay clone, which is grown in our Bottom Camp vineyard. In France alone, more than 30 Chardonnay clones have been cultivated – each different variety aimed at amplifying or supressing different Chardonnay characteristics. Our Burgundian 809 clone is, we think, rather special.
It is wonderfully aromatic, lifted and perfumed – reminiscent, perhaps, of a Muscat or Gewürztraminer. Our current release from the gorgeous 2020 vintage is beautifully balanced. It has an intense nose dominated by lemon, peach and tropical fruits. Its palate is laden with stone fruits and just a hint of white pepper on the racy finish.
The vintage conditions in 2021 meant we didn’t bottle any 809 and in 2022 the gorgeously ripe fruit was used for another pioneering winemaking project. This means the last remaining bottles of Chardonnay 809 2020 are increasingly rare. If you’re yet to try it, then we’d recommend it served lightly chilled alongside bright flavours such as fresh herbs, soft young goat’s cheese or sweet and delicious peas or scallops. Sensational.
Taste our styles of Chardonnay
The wines mentioned in this article are as follows:
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2018
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs Late Disgorged 2013
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs Cork Aged 2013
Gusbourne Chardonnay Guinevere 2020
Gusbourne Chardonnay Guinevere Barrel Selection 2020
Gusbourne Winemakers’ Edition Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2021
Gusbourne Chardonnay 809 2020