Let’s discuss a grape that is responsible for a wider range of successful styles of dry wine than any other, from bright and crisp to full and creamy with all stops in between. This grape is able to make quality wines, both oaked and unoaked, in various climates and is the source material for some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world, both still and sparkling.
Of course by now you know that I’m talking about Chardonnay, a noble grape that does all that and more. Perhaps its greatest ability, in addition to being able to make quality wine everywhere, is that it’s able to reflect terroir, revealing flavor, aroma, and texture of the precise location and microclimate in which it’s grown.
You’d think that all these traits would be admirable, and of course they are, yet these days Chardonnay is getting a bad rap and is very much misunderstood by many consumers. Why? Well most people equate Chardonnay with the full-bodied, oaky, buttery style from California. That style was tremendously popular not that long ago, but as time has marched on it has fallen out of favor. The mistake here is to think of all the Chardonnay in the world as fitting into that narrow profile, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. Let’s look at some Chardonnays.
The Famous (and Infamous): Epitomized by the grand and glorious wines from Burgundy like Montrachet and Meursault, this is the barrel fermented and aged style that continues to inspire many of the world’s serious producers of Chardonnay. In California, the warmer climate and longer growing season mean riper, fuller wines that, when married with new oak barrels, can provide the creamy, buttery notes admired by many. This style can also go too far if overripe and over-oaked, and these are the wines I see disparaged by so many. Although not the same as actual barrel aging, realize that oaky wines can be produced more inexpensively by using oak chips or staves instead of spending the money on barrels. If you are finding cheaper bottles of oaky chardonnay unenjoyable, this is probably the reason.
The Opposite: The other side of the spectrum is represented by wine from the French village of Chablis. Generally, but not always, this is an unoaked style of Chardonnay characterized by bright, crisp acidity and a superlative mineral finish due to the unique limestone soils of the area. Other countries are also succeeding with “unoaked” or “stainless” bottlings. These can be delicious, uncomplicated wines offering nice value with fresh and round fruit flavors reminiscent of apple and pear.
The “In-Between:” Since pretty much every wine region globally makes Chardonnay, we see many wines that express something in the middle of these two versions. Nice drinking wines are found all over, with great examples from Long Island, South America, South Africa, New Zealand and other areas in France and Italy. Wines that see barrels will have varying degrees of butter or toast, and the fruit profiles can be anywhere from citrus through peach, nectarine and apricot, and into apple, pear and fig depending on the climate. American wines, especially from California in the last few years, have seen a definite move toward less oak and more balance with a fresher fruitiness and acidity. My tip for some of the best buys for serious quality wines is to look to Macon region in France. The wines may see oak or not, but if you stick to passionate winemakers rather than the larger negociants and cooperatives you can find some real gems. The real advice is to get past the “chard-hating” and start tasting.
Michael Amendola is wine director at The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. Learn more about wines at www.villagewinemerchant.com.