A crowd pleaser, chardonnay has an interesting history By Tom Ward
It’s beginning to feel more and more like summer. To me, this means it’s time to put the reds away, unless I’m grilling a steak. My taste buds seem to crave white wine more in the summer. That crisp, mouthwatering, refreshingly chilled, white wine, washing over my pallet on a hot day is exactly what the wine doctor ordered.
Having an extensive cellar at home, I choose wine based of several factors — mood, food, occasion, weather, participants and events. If it is me and some other wine geeks, I get more experimental, and go with a Chablis, torrontes, or a riesling. If it is a larger crowd, I tend to go with the most popular white varietal, chardonnay. A general crowd pleaser, chardonnay is easy to drink, non-offensive, and you pretty much know it’s going to fall into a few styles: crisp and clean, with vibrant citrus flavors, and unoaked, like a Chablis; creamy, with tropical fruit notes, and neutral oak that is just there to add balance, as with some higher end California and Burgundy releases; lastly, the oaky, buttery, creamy, apple and pear dominant California offerings. The first two are the time-honored examples of showcasing what the chardonnay grape can bring to the table. The last offering is a relatively new craze that has come from new world wine makers. While everything has its place and purpose, I plan to delve into these styles with you in more detail.
Let’s look at a brief history of chardonnay. It has been planted in Burgundy for hundreds of years, if not a thousand. Here they believed that chardonnay could showcase differences in terroir better than anywhere else. While this is evidenced by the broad spectrum of styles and tastes available in chardonnay from this region, it is also highlighted in pinot noir. The grand cru vineyards of Burgundy have a history of producing the best and most sought after (expensive and rare) chardonnays in the world. It wasn’t until “The 1976 Judgement of Paris,” where Chateau Montelena put its 1973 chardonnay up against the best of the white burgundies, and won, that the U.S. officially took notice of this grape and sales exploded. If you’d like to know more about this, I recommend the movie “Bottle Shock,” which tells the Hollywood version of the story of the people behind the wine. What happened at this point is where the story takes a turn.
Due to the explosion of chardonnays popularity, vineyard managers began ripping out vines that were suited for the terroir they were growing in and replanting them with the new star of the show, chardonnay. Many of these areas were not well suited for chardonnay and the wines couldn’t compete with the higher end offerings that came from those areas blessed by having the right terroir for the grape. Chardonnay is a hearty grape that can, and does, grow almost anywhere (I’ve even tasted one from the far northern slopes of the Mosel River valley in Germany), but this doesn’t mean that it should be grown everywhere. Many makers discovered that they were producing chardonnay that needed to be “umphed” up. Thus, began the process of malolactic fermentation (adds the buttery taste), and oak barrel aging (adds the creaminess and other flavors associated with oak). While used in very judicious ways to balance the wines in Burgundy and higher end California offerings, it was abused in the New World. Wine makers learned that they could take an inferior chardonnay, utilize 100 percent malolactic fermentation and oak the hell out of it and you would get a creamy butter bomb, and that people would drink it up, love it, and so they did what they people wanted. The Old World winemakers would laugh and look down their nose at us and our wines because we were completely covering up the qualities of the chardonnay grape. It also caused a backlash against chardonnay.
This brings us to where we are today. Modern wine making practices are exploited by low cost producers using inferior grapes and manipulating their wines to give people what they are asking for at low price. Oak barrels aren’t cheap, but oak staves, chips and extract are. One hundred percent malolactic fermentation hides the flaws in an inferior wine. Sadly, this is what has happened to the reputation of chardonnay. Most chardonnays that are under $20 for a bottle are manipulated and doctored in some way in order to achieve a homogenized taste. If a chardonnay tastes the same from vintage to vintage, this is what you are dealing with. If a bottle says it is “California,” with no localization to it, the grapes can come from all over the state. The smaller the region, the less adulteration occurs. Single vineyard chardonnays are the best quality, as winemakers will try to showcase the characteristics of those vineyards, not what they can do to the wine.
Single vineyard wines can be expensive, so, as always, try to go with small family wineries that you don’t see on grocery store shelves. Buy from local merchants that have tasted the wines that they bring into their stores. Drink at wine bars whose focus is wine, like 45 Central. You should be able to trust the person you are buying wine from, to know their product and be able to ask the questions of you to determine what your style is. They should be able to recommend food that pairs with the different styles of chardonnay as well. If you like chardonnay, don’t be afraid to branch out and explore all the wonderful facets and variations of flavor that this grape can produce. You can explore with some of California’s more respected producers, as many of them have moved away from the New World style and adopted a Burgundian approach to making quality chardonnay.
Tom Ward is the owner and operator of ATL Vineyard Express wine tours in Atlanta, Ga. He has worked in the wine industry for more than 25 years and has his Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 certification. Tom loves sharing his passion for wine with those who want to learn more. If you have any questions for Tom, email him at info@ATLVineyardExpress.com.