Chardonnay Confounded

Chardonnay left Burgundy, bound for California and all points in between, over 30 years ago, from the small town which gave the grape its name.  There, it has long been made into some superb wines, with famous names, such as Chablis and Montrachet.  And further north, in the Champagne region, it is grown as a major component for all the major Champagne houses.

Chardonnay has since traveled around the world: the rest of Europe, California, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, and even South Africa.  As a grape, it is a high-yielding variety producing a balanced, somewhat neutral, light golden wine.  To growers, it’s a natural: it can grow in cool, temperate, or hot climates.  The character will be different, but it still makes acceptable wine, at high volumes, and is profitable.

chardonnay grape clusters

Chardonnay Grape Clusters

To winemakers, it is also remarkably pliable to a range of styles.  Some winemakers make it crisp and clean, resulting in an apple-like freshness.  Some age it in oak, which is unusual for white wines.  In addition, the oaked versions often have the added dimension of resting “sur lees” (on the spent yeast), which results in a unique full, yeasty, toasty flavor.

Some like this flavor, some don’t:  it’s a matter of personal taste.  As is the custom of individual producers in the old world, different, distinctive wines have been made for generations according to the convictions of the winemakers.

chardonnay vineyard

California Vineyard

Grown in the new world, it can be a perfectly pleasing wine, when made passively.  And that is the catch:  California winemakers just could not resist experimenting.  Whatever style you want, this wine can endure it.  It can be fresh, fruity, and crisp, or, thick, woody, and somehow difficult to match with any foods.

Overall, with so much going for it, why have we all heard the derisive retort:  “Anything But Chardonnay”.  Why this categorical rejection of such a noble grape?

To understand this reaction, it is necessary to go back over 20 years, to California, and to discover what was done with this grape once it was removed from its place of origin and transplanted en masse.

To many, the sur lees style in the oak barrel was over-done by the Californians.  Over-ripe grapes were fermented with yeast strains that accented high-alcohol and thick mouthfeel.  Then, aged in charred oak barrels, the result was a wine which was far removed from the norm expected of white wines.  If blindfolded, you might conclude it was a red wine.

chardonnay oak wine barrels

Touted as “rich and full”, and high-priced, they were promoted to a mass of newly enthusiastic wine drinkers.  This was supposed to be an upscale improvement for many, if you fell for the marketing hype.

Many did not. Those in the know, who had actually tasted a Chardonnay that was not over-manipulated in this fashion, were repelled.  In every bar, every party they attended, their anthem was “Anything But Chardonnay”.  And until very recently, who could blame them?

But happily, this is America, and the consumer is heard.  You may have noticed the appearance of “Naked” Chardonnay recently.  Sounds like more marketing hype, with a catchy name, but the results are real.  Now we can finally taste the actual grape, without oak additions, and the grape is indeed good.  And the price is lower too.

These are genuine Chardonnays with a true expression of the fruit and the terroir in the classic sense.  In the diverse micro-climates of California, places ranging from Mendocino to Sonoma to Monterrey to Santa Barbara, lively and fruity wines are now produced.

So as opposed to the buttery, yeasty, toasty over-oaked  version, the “new” naked Chardonnay is a blast of refreshment.  They have a range of flavors, from citrus to melons to apples, and they are all pleasing.  Not new at all, just a return to what it should have been all along: grapes not wood.

Fresh, rich, fruity, and when chilled, this version has resumed its place as the standard summer picnic wine, perfect with so many foods.  The Golden Queen is back.

Match with a sharp cheddar cheese and crackers, green apples, pears, roast rosemary chicken, and even a classic quiche Lorraine.

chard and quiche

Salute!  RG

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About Rich Gubitosa

Like a priceless bottle of wine, wine expert Rich Gubitosa's knowledge, expertise and wine-wisdom is priceless, especially for people like you and me. Rich hails from a generation of italian wine-makers, he relates to the non-snobby population who appreciates good, great and amazing bottles of wine at a fair price.