By: Jeff Thoreson
So there’s a black fly in your chardonnay? Ironic, and maybe a legit reason to drive you away from chardonnay. You read Laura Holmes Haddad’s book Anything but Chardonnay? That could be another. Or maybe you remember Bridget Jones, the lovelorn anti-heroine as she drowns her sorrows by chugging a glass of, yes chardonnay, while air singing “All by Myself” after yet another relationship has disintegrated. I mean who could like a wine so maligned in pop culture, right?
The more likely fact that you say you don’t like chardonnay is that you’re not hip to those big buttery, creamy, lactic acid flavors. Well, that one I get. I prefer my white wines not to taste like movie theater popcorn, but I still like chardonnay.
It is the most widely grown white varietal in the world, and almost every wine region in the world grows chardonnay. Some grapes, take sangiovese for example, grow brilliantly in a single specific region (Tuscany, Italy, in this case) but don’t flourish anywhere else.
Chardonnay is perfectly happy in its ancestral home in the Burgundy region of France, or in the warm-weather climates of California (there’s even a Chardonnay Golf Club that plays through vineyards near Napa) and Australia or in obscure wine regions like Michigan, Moldova or even Mexico.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that chardonnay doesn’t have to be terroir driven. Certainly it can be and a lot of great chardonnays from California and France express the conditions of their region, but the grape presents a winemaker with almost a blank palette. There are so many ways a vintner can manipulate the outcome that, consequently, chardonnay is a broad spectrum of styles that go way beyond something that tastes like it belongs in the dairy aisle.
Most wine drinkers associate chardonnay with those buttery, lactic flavors, and a lot of wine drinkers like that. They must because California has been cranking out that style for decades. But on the other end of the chardonnay spectrum are the great wines of cool-climate Chablis, France, where they make chardonnays that are crisp and racy, a little bit minerally and more fruit and acidic driven.
You’ll hear a buttery chardonnay referred to as “oaky,” but only part of that creaminess comes from barrel aging. A process called malolactic fermentation also plays a part. MLF changes the wine’s harsher malic acids into the softer, rounder lactic acids – the flavors you find in milk, butter and cheese. The temperature at which the wine is fermented and whether it is aged on the lees (the residual yeast that drops to the bottom of the barrel after it converts the sugar to alcohol) also affect chardonnay’s style.
So let’s say these creamy flavors are the reason you don’t like chardonnay. Don’t give up on the grape. Fine Chardonnays from around the world – often from cool-weather climates – are aged in stainless steel vats that give the wine a Sauvignon blanc-like crispness and let the grape show off its fruit character – yellow apple, starfruit, pineapple and even citrus notes – and its moderate acidity.
While Chablis may be the preeminent example of this style, you can find stainless steel chardonnays all over the world – even in California. Many Golden State producers clearly mark their stainless chardonnays as “unoaked” on the label.
As a result, chardonnay can be presented as an anything from an “oak bomb” to a wine of bright, crisp, minerality that the French used to refer to as gunflint or anything in between. It depends on how the winemaker chooses to manipulate the grapes. Some ferment and age in stainless steel and then move the wine to an oak barrel for a short time before bottling to add a little texture and body but none of the “oaky” flavors. Some winemakers put all the juice through MLF, some choose to do only a portion or none at all.
So take it or leave it when it comes to a buttery chardonnay, but don’t abandon the grape because you didn’t enjoy that one style. In order to truly say you don’t like chardonnay you’d have to sample hundreds of them. So get going.
The great thing about chardonnay is you can search around the world until you find one you like – and you will. Because chardonnay grows well everywhere, don’t rule out a local wine region for quality chardonnay of all styles.
Oh, and by the way, do you like Champagne – I mean real Champagne and not just your off-the-shelf sparkling white? If so, you like chardonnay because most Champagnes are made with chardonnay. Champagne labeled blanc de blanc (white of whites) is 100 percent chardonnay.
Maybe it’s ironic, but with all these styles, you probably really do like chardonnay.
Here are a few examples, from big and buttery to crisp and lean.
|J. Lohr Arroyo Vista, Paso Robles, California $25. This buttery chardonnay plays across the palette with flavors of lemon cream, crème brûlée and toasted hazelnuts with hints of apples and citrus. Heavy on the malolactic fermentation and aged on the lees.|
|Cloud Break, California, $9. Rich and full-bodies with flavors of toasted oak, vanilla, butter and fruity notes of apple and pear. Creamy but not so much so that the fruit flavors don’t come through.|
|Sunset Hillls Vineyard, Purcellville, Virginia $24. This is a great example of a local chardonnay fermented half in stainless steel and half in neutral oak. Crisp and clean with an essence of fresh lemon and rich pear tart.|
|Domaine Chenevieres Chablis, 2018 Chablis, France $25. Crisp and acidic, this light-bodied, light-colored chardonnay delivers flavors of quince and honeycrisp apples with aromas of jasmine and wet stones. Cool and refreshing.|
And here’s a few that the Traveling Golfer has been sipping: