I turned up at a friend’s house the other day clutching a bottle of our latest addition to the Simply Spanish Wine range – Bespén Blanco by Luis Oliván. It’s a delicious, dry white wine from Somontano, and my hunch is that it’s going to be a real winner as the warmer weather starts rolling in.
My friend eagerly accepted the offering – and rightly so - only to glance at the label and grimace. “It’s a Chardonnay,” he said. “You could have brought something Spanish!”
His reaction took me aback at first. But when I thought about it, I could understand where he was coming from. Chardonnay is perhaps the most international of wine grapes. It’s the bedrock of Burgundy and the darling of Down Under. It’s a California Dreamer and a Champagne Charlie. In fact, with a significant presence in some 41 countries at last count, it could be said to be an out-and-out globetrotter.
So, it’s not surprising that my friend didn’t think of it as being particularly Spanish. But there some very good reasons why he (and everyone else) should.
For a start, it’s actually grown here more than you’d think. In Spain there are about 11,000 Ha planted in DOs like Somontano in Aragon, and Rioja, as well as regions like Castilla La Mancha, Catalunya, Navarra, and Valencia. True, that doesn’t put it in the top 10, but when you consider that in Australia there are about 20,000 Ha planted (versus some 50,000 in France) you can see that Spain isn’t that far behind. It’s also planted more in Spain than varieties like Albariño, Bobal and Mencía – all of which are at the heart of the modern Spanish wine movement. So, in terms of volume, Chardonnay has certainly earned a seat at the Spanish table.
But it can also be considered Spanish in terms of its flavour profile – or lack of it. You see, Chardonnay is a very adaptable variety. It soaks up the characteristics of the climate where it’s planted like few other varieties do. That’s why you can find it in so many wine-producing countries around the world. And in each of those countries it expresses a different style.
For example, in France (Burgundy to be precise), it gives us a range of wines from the steely minerality of unoaked Chablis in the cooler north, down through the nutty and intense whites of the Côte de Beaune and further south to the more complex, riper styles of the Maconnâis. Then in the New World, it tends to be more opulent and exotic in countries like Australia and New Zealand, or California in the US.
And here in Spain, it will often give pretty aromatic wines, with quite a meaty texture, but can just as easily deliver a fresh, crisp, dry white. It’s also often blended in Cava or even on its own in other sparkling wines. So even though the variety itself is of French descent, when it’s grown and used here in Spain it will exhibit its own Spanish “personality”.
And finally, it’s a grape that allows winemakers to express themselves. People sometimes talk about Chardonnay as a ¨blank canvas¨ - by that, they mean it responds well to different vinification techniques and can showcase the skills and creativity of individual winemakers. It also combines very well with oak - whether old or new, French or American – absorbing some of the flavours of the wood to give richer style wines with hazelnut and buttery flavours. So, if you’re drinking a Spanish Chardonnay, you’ll be enjoying a wine that reflects the styles and approach of Spanish winemakers.
Luis Oliván for example uses 100% Chardonnay in the aforementioned Bespén Blanco to make the most of its fresh, dry, crispiness and to reflect the Alsace-like landscape of the lower Pyrenees. It is an expression of Luis’ techniques and of the vineyards where the grape is grown. In short, it’s an expression of Spain.
At Simply Spanish Wine, we are constantly banging on about how Spain is full of innovative producers making wines that reflect the regions in which they are working. Bespén Blanco does that perfectly and, for me, is as good a reason as any to think of Chardonnay as a truly Spanish grape.
And by the end of the bottle, my friend thoroughly agreed.