When I think about Chardonnay, I’m reminded of the wallflower, the girl who preferred to fade into the background lest she be singled out and ridiculed for some made up reason. Nonetheless, if you need a tutor or a study partner, sitting at a table with her is your fastest way to an A.
The truth is, just like in the movies, she cleans up very nicely – with some nice clothes (Malolactic) and perhaps a little makeup (aging in oak), she can be rather attractive. But just as she is, in her everyday wardrobe with her hair pulled back and poorly chosen spectacle frames, she doesn’t really shine except in the classroom or boardroom.
That’s the thing about Chardonnay. While there is a goodly amount of unoaked Chardonnay on the wine market, much of it has little character and sort of reminds one of a less exciting version of some other varietal white wine. But after fermentation in oak with a dose of beloved lactic bacteria that turns the malic acid into something soft and buttery, and then aging in some more oak to give that round mouth feel and add a layer of flavor complexity, she can really be a bombshell! She lends herself well to these techniques, so to me, Chardonnay as a wine is a study in style, a winemaker’s opportunity to demonstrate artistic talent and intellectual vinification.
The benchmarks for Chardonnay come out of Burgundy’s Chablis and Côtes de Beaune sub regions in France and from the Napa and Russian River Valleys in California. The former homeland can offer a range of styles from the very crisp, mineral, linear wines to the curvaceous, rich and complex, all with precise balance and minimal fruit character. The latter is known for wines that are consistently described as “oaky-buttery”. They often weight in heavy in alcohol and are either beloved or detestable to a wine drinker – the wallflower that has come out of her shell and will never look back!
Think basic with Chardonnay: if you grew up on meat and potatoes, chicken for dinner most nights, Chinese take out or pizza once a week, then it’s an easy wine for you to wrap your head around. Unoaked Chardonnay and ones that have had just a light handed dose of oak lend themselves to almost anything that isn’t spicy or elaborately seasoned or sauced, including poultry, fish, beef and lamb. It’s a comfort wine for comfort food – I love it with baked macaroni and cheese or beans and rice.
Your homework for this week and weekend is to try 5 Chardonnays. Start with a Chablis (the real stuff from France, none of that Franzia 5L Bag-in-Box or Carlo Rossi please!). Shop also for a Napa Valley Chardonnay in the $15 range and an Unoaked Chardonnay from Australia or New Zealand (many specifically say Unoaked on the label). Since Chardonnay is made just about everywhere, have a local one. Chardonnay doesn’t need to be served too cold, so perhaps an hour in the fridge to just cool it down a little if your bottle spent an 30 minutes in a hot subway car or walking down the street in the heat with you. Do Tweet your notes to @wineLIFE_ #ChardonnayHW. Tell us which one was your favorite (please include the wine’s name, vintage and region), how much you paid for it and its best qualities. You can also post notes on the wineLIFE Facebook wall. Also feel free to post questions. We would love to talk wine with YOU more!!