I recently received a tasting sample of an unassuming white wine; a wine made from a grape that I am thoroughly tired of and which arrived with just a one-sheet and no fanfare. I was all prepared to shrug off Bodegas Ochoa “Calendas” Chardonnay-Viura…
Instead, I got one of those Moments when I remember just what it is about wine that drew me into this business, nearly 30 years ago.
As recently as 2012, I drank at least 90% red wines. It wasn’t that I disliked whites but, well, go to any nearby supermarket wine department and check the shelves for white wines. What you’re going to find, basically, is maybe five different grapes: Chardonnay (mostly, maybe 90%!), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Riesling, Moscato ( maybe), and Prosecco, the Italian crowd-pleaser sparkling made from a grape called Glera. Oh, really ambitious wine buyers might have a token Viognier or Gewurztraminer or something different from France (Chenin Blanc, Melon, Roussanne, mostly), Italy (Verdicchio, Vernaccia, or maybe Vermentino), Spain (Verdejo, Albariño, Garnacha Blanca), and, if they’re really on their game, you might find a Torrontes from Argentina. But ALL those wines will be onesies. You’ll only rarely get any range of producers and MOST of what we ever see in this country is the lesser wineries producing those grapes.
I loved white wines. I was just BORED – BORED, MY God, how profoundly, utterly give-a-shit about what was on those shelves – with all of it, having spent a solid twenty years tasting upwards of 1,500-2,000 wines a year in the course of my job. I tasted spectacular whites…and then never saw them on shelves. And you’re experiencing, even if you don’t know it, that same problem now.
I’ve asked a rhetorical question of at least 250 casual wine fans, over the years, about obscure grapes. Just “Why”; why have you not tried any white wines beyond The Big Three: Chard, Sauv Blanc, and Pinot Gris/Grigio? At least 85% of the answers were exactly this…
“I don’t like drinking weird wines.”
Okay, “weird“? In what way? Every white wine I have ever tasted shows somewhat the same range of flavors: minerals, to some degree, tree fruit (apples, pears), stone fruit (apricots, peaches), tropical fruit (mango, guava, passion fruit, pineapple), and various mild spice flavors, maybe some vanilla-ish oak flavor, and some earthy notes of soil and vegetation, as in a flinty, stony Loire Valley Sauv Blanc. There are no white grapes that are marching to some very different drummer, showing things like cocktail onions, canned tuna, dog biscuits, liver, or durian.
Vuira is one of those fear-inducing whites. It’s grown nowhere but in Spain, (where it’s usually called by its more-common Spanish name, Macabeo) primarily in the North, where the Pyrenees Mountains separate the wild ‘n’ wooly Spanish wine scene from the pole-up-the-ass rigidity of the French. It’s used as a blending grape, primarily, and it is a dead-bang rock star at that. There are a few bottles of 100% Viura and a couple were…nice, but it’s not usually gonna be the star of the show because it’s delicate and we are Americans, those folks who gave the world Cajun food, bastardized Mexican, soft drinks, Zinfandel, and chili dogs. We like BIG flavors and Viura is a wallflower. So, when you see it in a bottle it’s usually playing wingman/sidekick to a larger, more assertive white.
Recently, I received a bottle of Bodegas Ochoa “Calendas” Chardonnay-Viura from a trade association called Navarra USA, the promotional arm of a Spanish wine region that has lagged a bit behind the buzz and prestige of splashier regions like Ribera del Duero, Rioja, Toro, and Priorato but is maybe the most consistently solid and adept region in Spain’s uber-active wine culture. 91% of all wines exported from Navarra are red. In the whites, four grapes dominate the vineyard acreage and production: Chardonnay, Verdejo, Vuira and Malvasia. We don’t see a ton of whites from Navarra.
I’m so burnt out on Chardonnay that I practically fall asleep when I get a bottle for review. It’s a spectacular grape, arguably the template for the very principle called “wine”. It grows well practically everywhere. It’s not some candy-ass fruit that has to be babied along and pampered. “Just gimme me some dirt and a drink of water, now and again, and I’m good,” Chardonnay says and it comes bustin’ up, practically screaming, “Make wine, dickhead!” And therein lies the rub…
A lot of dickheads are making a LOT of Chardonnay.
We Yanks tasted the wine that most of the rest of the wine universe has made and loved, just as it is, and said, “Well…it needs something.” That something was oak barrels and – as opposed to European wineries which may release the occasional reserve Chard that’s aged in wooden barrels, usually NOT those spendy new casks, fresh from the cooperage – we as Americans, as is our preference, ran spendy new French oak straight into the fuggen ground, so hard that we popped out in either China or an alternate universe. We turned Chard into cream soda. You’ve heard it: “I like a Chardonnay that’s soft and buttery and smoky and tastes like vanilla!” This trend went on forever.
This Calendas (an Ochoa series of younger, fresher, more fruity wine) makes a mockery of our ridiculous cultural tormenting of this grape and demonstrates, yet again, why Spain stands out as an island of sanity and grace in the world’s schizophrenic wine culture clash. As Robert Parker famously said: ““Ask a French wine producer in Bordeaux what wine region in the world has the best chance of competing qualitatively with his, and the answer will not be California’s Napa Valley, but Spain.”
Ochoa had the stones to say that this wine should be consumed within two years, thereby tacitly relinquishing the small but reliable wine collector’s market. Chardonnay is prized as a cellarable wine and you probably could, if you were moved to, lay this down. “Nah,” says Ochoa, “Drink all ya want. We’ll make more!”
This reminds me powerfully of why I used to drink Chard religiously and regularly, exploring the vast variety of different styles and cultures of it, before simply burning out. It’s crisp and lively and delivers torrents of yellow apples, honeysuckle, (and honey, for that matter) and overripe pears and white flowers and peaches and the splashy, refreshing scattergun of mixed citrus and pink grapefruit and almonds and spices from the Viura. Ochoa also includes a dash of wildly floral, assertive Muscatel, less than one percent, which makes its presence known in aromas of jasmine and sweet pea flowers and something akin to the Eastern teaberry plant, which most of us know as Clark’s Teaberry gum.
It’s not oaked. In fact, though the literature doesn’t say it, it has to have been fermented in stainless steel because there is absolutely NOTHING that masks the prodigious clarity and complexity of this wine. The fat superstructure of what is some truly spectacular Chardonnay is augmented by the citrus and spice of the Vuira and gilded with the hint of the Muscatel florals and sweet herbs, all drenched with a flattering mineral character that is the hallmark of most Navarra wines. It’s light as a whisper on the palate but bursting with flavor and finishes almost perfectly, leaving only hints of jasmine and baked apples to savor for a full minute. I deliberately put it in the freezer for about ten minutes and tasted to see what would happen. It barely closed up at all. It’s hard for me to imagine a wine more purely refresthing and flavorful and just flat-out interesting for hot weather picnics and outings and conversations at sunset.
And the stuff is TWELVE DOLLARS.
I have no idea how easy it is to find this wine. I’ve casually checked a few wine shops around Western Washington and haven’t found it but I plan to order at least a case and to agitate for more people to try it. I’ve already suggested it as a wine list selection to my clients and tasted three of them out of my sample bottle. All three flipped the f**k out.
This wine is a near-perfect expression of Navarra; of how truly spectacular, planet-class fruit, 174 years of winemaking expertise, and the unfailing judgment and humility required to taste your grapes, trust their character, and say, “Let me let these speak for themselves“, results in little miracles like this, one of the best value wines of any type it has ever been my pleasure to taste.
I received several other bottles of Navarran wines in the two boxes that this came in and all of them were red. THAT should tell you how impressed I was with Ochoa Calendas Chardonnay Viura. I would drink this wine ANY time and plan to, all this hot, climate-change-tweaked summer long. 96 Points