Food & Drink, Libations

Modern wines with Dr. Booze

I was wandering the aisles of the liquor store the other day, when I swear the roof opened, a ray of light shot down and there was a chorus of angels singing Halleleujah (the real thing, not the Cohen version.) In the centre of that ray of light was a $15 wine in the Australia aisle, Lindemans Early Harvest Crisp Chardonnay. I clutched at my chest and had to sit on the floor breathing into a paper bag.

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Modern wine is achieved primarily by keeping the grapes on the vine so long their sugar content is enormous. The next step is to inoculate the juice with specially bred yeasts that can continue to digest sugar at alcohol levels over 15 per cent. (Such yeasts do not exist naturally.) Finally, in a feverish attempt to balance the mess you’ve created, you oak the wines in lightly charred barrels to extract astringent compounds from the wood.

Historically any number of wines made in the reverse fashion: pulled off the vines in late August when they are less ripe, and vinified quickly. This was done partly for flavour, and partly to hedge against early frosts. Such wines (e.g. Vinho Verde, Champagne, traditionally made Pinot Grigio) have low sugar content, crisp acidity – and mark this part well – consequently low alcohol and calorie levels.

Modern weather forecasting and some other high tech tools like water misters in the vineyard have largely removed this peril. This is a real shame because such wines are considerably more food (and car driving) friendly than the vermouth currently known as zinfandel.

Now you know why I heard the Angels singing when I spotted the Early Harvest wine. I would guess this wine is aimed squarely at the same market segment as Skinny Girl Vodka. It actually lists the calories in a glass on the back label, something you won’t find any time soon on a Napa wine.

You lose your senses gradually as you age, and your taste buds are at their absolute peak in your early twenties. And if you’re a woman of that age, the probability is your sense of taste is about twice as sharp as that of an old fart like me.

How does Lindemans Early Harvest stack up against “normal” chardonnay as produced now? If you’re an old fart you’ll describe it as simple. It is crisp, citrus and very, very easy drinking. It is definitely a chardonnay with all of those flavours, but they are much, much lighter. (I.e. possibly beyond the buds of an old fart). I was quite impressed with the bouquet of the wine. I really didn’t expect to get that much from it.

Drink it alongside Banrock Station Unwooded and you’ll understand my point. Banrock is remarkably well balanced, especially for a wine at this price point. The astringency in particular is well in the background. But compared to Lindemans Early Harvest it is a very big wine indeed.

Rosemount Diamond Chardonnay a wine that has always tried to be bigger than the price, seems downright clumsy alongside the Early Harvest. It’s a very dry wine, with nice acidity, relaxed astringency, and some of the more viscous texture that many people adore. The bouquet is traditional, and the finish fairly long. My guess is the latter feature will be almost overwhelming to a 20 something with a sharp sense of taste.

Because I rather like Gray Monk I threw them into the mix. Their chardonnay is also unwooded, and the more northerly climate keeps it crisper and usually lower in alcohol than Australian editions. (2011 is 12.5 per cent, quite ripe by Okanagan standards. Rosemount and Banrock are 13, down from 14 of a few years ago. Late Harvest is 8.5) The astringency is considerably more apparent than both Rosemount and Banrock station and the texture is thicker than the Late Harvest.

The question for you gentle reader is where on this spectrum you care to drink. If you like “big” wines, you should stick to Rosemount, or the much bigger Perpetua from Mission Hill. If you’re looking more for easy drinking, I’d suggest Banrock Station makes a nice stop. But if you’re young and like a wine to go with your salad, by all means buy a bottle of Early Harvest. The stuff is surprisingly good, even for old farts. What’s more it’s got a very useful dryness gauge on the back as well as a calorie count.
Banrock Station Unwooded Chardonnay, Australia, 2011. $13.21 ****
Gray Monk Unwooded Chardonnay, Canada, 2011. $22.65 ****
Lindemans Early Harvest Crisp Chardonnay, Australia, 2011. $15.48 ****
Rosemount Diamond Chardonnay, Australia, 2011. $16.49 ****

James Romanow writes about wine and all things boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.