"Why are you biased against chardonnay?"
I got this question in an email from a reader not too long ago. I won't lie...it got me thinking. I don't write a lot about chardonnay because, honestly, I just don't drink a lot of it anymore.
That's not to say I didn't drink a lot of chardonnay once upon a time. Like most wine drinkers, I started my exploration of the world of whites with chardonnay. House whites are almost always chardonnays. They're ubiquitous wines and there's a reason. Much like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay will grow almost anywhere, but it takes a certain amount of care to make a truly tasty chardonnay. Chardonnay is probably the wine most affected by terroir. The growing conditions make a huge difference with these wines.
When chardonnay is discussed, there's often talk about "oaky" and "buttery" flavors. Neither of these flavors is inherent to the chardonnay grape. The "toasted" flavor many chardonnays have come from the oak barrels in which the wine is aged. This process also often darkens the wine. The "buttery" flavor comes from a process called "malolactic fermentation." (Wine geeks love to throw this term around because it sounds important.) In a nutshell, it's a bacterial process by which malic acid in wine (which tastes like tart apples) gets converted to lactic acid, which is one of the major flavorings in milk. When you hear someone talk about a wine "undergoing malolactic fermentation" -- expect a softer, creamier taste rather than a crisp, acidic taste.
California winemakers, sometime in the late 1980's and early 1990's, decided that oak and butter were What Chardonnay Is Supposed To Be. Many of these chardonnays were either powerfully oaked or so creamy that they tasted like buttermilk. Neither, in my estimation, was a particularly good thing. Sure, they're drinkable, but I just kept finding more and more interesting white wines.
Also, since I enjoy focusing on food with wine, I could usually find a wine that will complement whatever I'm cooking better than one of these California chardonnays. It's a "good enough" pairing, but again, I can usually find something that works better for me. Over-oaked or overly creamy wines tend to overpower rather than complement food.
Then someone slipped me a white Burgundy. White Burgundies, especially Chablis, are Chardonnay, but they're completely different from their American cousins. There's usually some oak, but the cooler climates keep the barrels from imparting lots of oaky flavor. The creaminess in these wines comes much more from the wine "resting on the lees" (meaning that the fermenting wine is kept in contact with spent yeast) that malolactic fermentation. The result is a crisp, clean wine that goes with almost any food. California chardonnays simply got pushed off my tasting radar.
But then I got this email and I figured -- "OK, let's give some other chardonnays a try...I'm always willing to be convinced..."
Round Hill 2007 "Oak Free" Chardonnay -- Thankfully, thankfully, some of the California winemakers are realizing that the world doesn't necessarily feel like gnawing on charcoal with a glass of white wines. There have been more and more of these "unoaked" chardonnays showing up on the shelves. The Round Hill still has a nose of banana and cloves, which can often be one of the side effects of malolactic fermentation. The body is crisper than many California chards, but there's still a full mouthfeel and there's still a slight smokiness to the flavor from somewhere. It's slightly creamy and does have more of an acidic character, with a little fruit and smoke on the finish. The Round Hill is a much better food wine than one to have on its own. It nestled nicely with roast chicken topped with pancetta and mashed potatoes. $7-10.
Waterbrook 2006 Chardonnay -- There should be no secret to the Vine faithful that I'm a big fan of wines from the upper left-hand corner of the U.S. California chardonnays get blasted with much more heat, so the acidity and fruit can get washed out. Wines produced in cooler climates tend to have softer, crisper flavors, so I hoped this would also be the case with Chardonnays from the Pacific Northwest. The Waterbrook, from Columbia Valley in Washington, didn't disappoint. The nose is light and crisp with scents of lemon and vanilla. Not surprisingly, a much more subtly flavored wine. The flavor is crisp and acidic -- peaches and vanilla with a little bit of oak. The finish starts out softly acidic, but that fades quickly into a gently toasty finish that becomes more pronounced after a couple of sips. A very nice glass of wine that would complement grilled salmon wonderfully. $11-13.
Olvena 2007 Somontano Chardonnay -- I also make no secret of adoring Spanish wine, and I'm a sucker for a glass of Albariño. I hadn't tried a Spanish chardonnay before, so wanted to slake both my thirst and my curiosity. I'm glad that I did, because this is a really interesting wine. The nose was different from many Chardonnays -- it's floral and somewhat "chalky." On the first taste, I thought this would be very similar to a French version, since it started me out with a slightly-citrusy, minerally character. Those flavors give way quickly to vanilla and oak, finishing with a combination of citrus and toast. Imagine a slightly oakier white Burgundy and you'll have it. And for about $12, you can have it! It's a great value at this price, and, like almost anything from Spain, extremely food friendly.
As I mentioned, Chardonnay can be grown almost anywhere that grapes can take root, so the "expressions" of Chardonnay are myriad and can be quite interesting. For me, however, the gold standard is still white Burgundy. If you feel like treating yourself, get yourself a bottle of white Burgundy and see what you think. You'll probably end up paying $18 or more for a bottle, but you'll never look at a bottle of "supermarket" chardonnay the same way again.