If there is a wine grape in the world that has a wider reputation range than Chardonnay has endured in the past 50 years, I have yet to read about or taste it. So, why has Chardonnay attracted commentary like “wine for people who don’t like wine” and “overpriced jug wine”, but also been the center of much of the global respect that the New World now commands, and whose European bottlings were the original wines to be called “poetry in a bottle?”
There are entire books written on the subject, so I’ll keep this brief. I believe there are three primary variables that account for the range in like/dislike for Chardonnay:
1. OAK. Used with discretion, oak is a wonderful enhancement for Chardonnay. Like other wooden storage devices, it allows a very gradual and minute amount of air to reach the wine that takes some of the sharper edges off of it, a quality that is especially desirable in wines containing a lot of malic acid. In addition, oak contains the chemical vanillin which, as you might guess, imparts a slight vanilla quality to the wine that makes even a bone-dry chardonnay seem fruity and even slightly sweet.
The problem is that some Chardonnays are so heavily oaked that no one can taste the underlying grape. In one of my tasting classes, I put a glass of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and dry Chenin Blanc next to each other and asked my students to taste each and take notes. I dosed the latter three with vanillin extract. The comments were interesting, but most interesting is that every single student (including some with experience in wine-tasting) assumed that all four wines were Chardonnnays! I would wager that a lot of people don’t even know what the varietal character of Chardonnay is supposed to be, but that statement begs the question…
2. TERROIR. Usually translated as “sense of place” it refers to the qualities that a wine picks up from its combination of soil, rainfall, angle of declination, latitude, degree days, etc. that are unique from place to place. When a Chardonnay is allowed to express its terroir, there are few grapes in the world that more wonderfully express a range of tastes. Unfortunately, when it became the most popular white wine, winemakers around the world all seemed to aim for the same sort of flavor: off-dry, easy to sip even without foods.
Want a real treat that will blow your taste buds! Try a bottle of Premier Cru Chablis (100% Chardonnay from the far north of Burgundy, not the jug wine from California) with raw oysters, mussels, or (if you can afford it) caviar. The Chablis has no oak, and the combination of the food and the wine is almost addictive, with the steely, crisp Chablis making you want to eat the salty seafood, making you want to drink the Chablis.
3. TONNAGE. Part of the problem with the meteroric rise in popularity of Chardonnay and the fact that it melds almost too well with oak is that it is an easy grape to grow for high profit. Unlike Riesling, Pinot Noir, or Nebbiolo, to name just a few, Chardonnay will grow almos everywhere. If you grow it in the hot, flat Central Valley, then dose it with lots of new oak, you can get yields of over 50 tons/acre and produce a wine that, to a novice, tastes significantly better than a run-of-the-mill house white. On the other hand, grown in a cool area and limiting yields to, i.e., 5 tons/acre, and you can produce wines that not only sell for over $100 bottle, but are worth it.
Enough for now. I’ll write about more Chardonnays as the weather gets warmer.