Domaine des Nembrets Denis Barraud Pouilly-Fuissé "Sur La Roche" Vieilles Vignes 2008

What is it about Chardonnay?

Flying back to California last Monday, I was lucky enough to score a guest pass to the ANA lounge in Tokyo airport. I was delighted to find that they had all you can drink, well, everything available, including Grace Family Vineyards koshu, which is a pretty damn good wine made from an indigenous Japanese grape that you never, ever see outside of Japan. After pouring myself a glass, I noticed a generically middle class American woman staring at my glass with a look of obvious disgust. “It’s koshu,” I said. “It’s delicious, they don’t export it, you almost never see it. Would you like to try some?” “No,” she said. “I was looking for the Chardonnay.”

Later on in the week, I received an E-mail from a male reader concerning a review of a Pouilly-Fumé I’d posted earlier in the year. “You might want to change your notes on this wine. Sauvignon Blanc not CHARDONNAY…,” it read. In short, pretty much the opposite reaction: because the review contained the word “chardonnay,” it triggered disgust that I had somehow mistaken sauv blanc for chardonnay, which of course would be a most grievous offense. After all, if you’re a sauv blanc drinkin’ kind of guy, wouldn’t you be offended if someone mistook your drink for, you know, CHARDONNAY?

As a result of all of this, I’m sitting here with a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, partly because I want a glass, and partly because I want to somehow desperately prove that I do in fact know the difference between Fumé and Fuissé. So: about this wine…How do I know Chardonnay is a noble grape? Simple: I’ve had so many different tasting chardonnays in my life that the only other white grape that comes close is Riesling. With gewürztraminer or viognier, muscat or pinot gris, there aren’t too many surprises (I’m looking at you, Josko Gravner): you know what you’re in for. But with Chardonnay, well, you have to know more about where it came from and potentially something about who made it in order to know what you’re getting yourself into exactly. Me, I was never a great student, and although I’m pretty sure I once passed an exam where I had to explain why Chablis was different than other white Burgundy, I still can’t remember the details of all of the other appellations. Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault, Montrachet, you name it: they’re not Chablis, so they’re probably manipulated more, but other than that? You got me. All I can do is describe this one wine.

Strikingly bright, there’s something about this wine that doesn’t look quite right to me: it’s got that dead sheen of a filtered wine. The color’s darker than Chablis, too: if anything, it reminds me of a flat German pilsener, something like Kölsch that was left out overnight. The nose is instantly appealing, with a brief suggestion of green apple quickly subsumed by bright acidity, movie theater popcorn butter (just the tiniest amount, mind you), and the warm, sunny smell of rocks and freshly washed sheets drying in the sun after being sprayed with lavender water: it’s a friendly, moderately complex nose that smells like American perfume. In short, it smells of clean.

On entry, the wine is immediately surprising, showing greater complexity than the nose would suggest. There’s an immediate suggestion of cashew butter and pear, quickly followed by apple cider, perhaps slightly oxidized notes (stupid cork!), quickly swelling to a tasteful crescendo of cream tending towards butter gently lifted by subtle oak. The texture is textbook: rich and creamy, but elegant, not overwrought. Simultaneously, there’s that sheen of incredible freshness, counterbalanced by sun-dried herbs and a curious note that frankly reminds me of those green not-quite-pickles you sometimes get in New York delis, of green youthful exuberance. The finish takes its own sweet time, oh does it ever, lazily circling through variations of spice, toast, butter, nuts, and beautifully acidic fruit.

In short, it’s damn good. The only thing that gives me pause is that I honestly do wonder if the cork’s contributing something here that it shouldn’t: I occasionally get hints of creeping oxidation that I’m not sure are intentional – but they don’t particularly dent the experience, so I really can’t complain, especially at this price.

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