Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Chardonnay Spectrum

I like to think of chardonnays as falling somewhere on a spectrum. For the sake of convenience, I use the age-old left-to-right spectrum used and abused in the political sphere. There is by no means a relation between a person's political views and their tastes in chardonnay, but, follow me if you will.

On the right, you have the bombastic buttered toast bombs, chardonnays that have given the grape much of its reputation as a delivery route for oak and butter. These are the wines that have been fermented or aged in new oak and allowed to undergo full maloactic fermentation (which turns the malic acid and green apple flavors into lactic acid and butter flavors.) A lot of Australian wines with critters on the label fall into this category. Napa and Santa Barbara chardonnays frequently taste of an oak tree and butter sandwich. These are the wines with understated back labels that use catch words like toasted marshmallow, baked pear, hazelnut and honeycomb.

On the left, you have mineral-driven, high acid, steely chardonnays that beg for oysters on the half shell. Usually these wines have been fermented in older oak barrels that have lost their toasty edge, or increasingly they are fermented in stainless steel tanks, which impart no flavors and let the grapes express themselves in an unadulturated way. Chablis wines from France are a good example of left-wing chardonnays, although Grand Cru Chablis and a lot of Premier Cru Chablis from good producers have a bit more heft to them. Teetering on the edge of the leftist extreme are the freakish lightning strike chardonnays of the Jura.

Most chardonnays will likely fall somewhere in the middle. It's a fact that even the best chardonnay grapes can benefit from some contact with oak, new, old or some blend of both. White Burgundies (made entirely of chardonnay) can pop up all over the spectrum, but they usually fall somewhere in the middle, offering a kind of vinous consensus of acid, fresh fruit and creamy toast. More and more often, chardonnays from Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Oregon and Washington State demonstrate the best of both right and left. And it's not always place that determines the style, but the winemaking practices. Look for how the wine was made, whether it was aged in oak (be it new or old) or stainless steel, and for how long.

What interests me so much about chardonnay is this versatility. When I talk wine with friends and acquaintances, I frequently hear: "I don't like chardonnay." "Hate" is even thrown in there sometimes. Wine nerds like myself call these folks the ABC crowd ("Anything But Chardonnay!") My reaction to the ABC crowd is always the same: "What don't you like about it?" It's my opinion that there really is a chardonnay out there for everyone, right, left or somewhere in the fruity, mildly-toasted center. And knowing where you usually fall on the spectrum can help you choose a bottle that can convert even the hardest ABCer into a chardonnay believer.

So, with that spectrum in mind, I went back over tasting notes from chardonnays I've had in the past few months. It turns out, there are a lot. (Actually, according to my database, I've tasted more chardonnays than any other grape!) To demonstrate the different styles of chardonnay, I've chosen a wine on The Right, a wine on The Left, and a wine somewhere in The Center.

The Right
On the right wing, we've got the 2009 "Annabella Special Selection" chardonnay from the Michael Pozzan Winery. This Napa Valley wine is an extremist. It's a lightning rod, a galvinizer, a benchmark butter bomb chardonnay that will help you determine where your chardonnay sympathies lie.     

I drank this wine with my girlfriend over a dinner of homeade chicken panninis. I picked it up specifically for her, as I know she tends to fall on the buttery, toasty end of the spectrum. This chardonnay is a golden color in the glass, which is usually a good indicator that you're in for a big, oaky chardonnay. Right away, the aromas hit you: buttered toast, ripe pear, vanilla and hazelnut. The palate, of course, is goopy with butter, oak and ripe pears. There is almost no acid on this wine at all. In fact, I can't remember a wine I've had recently that had so little acid, which is why I chose this one to represent the extreme end of the spectrum So, if you don't like acid in your wines, this may be for you. I, on the other hand, like at least some acid in my wines, and tend toward wines with more intense acid. I do enjoy the flavors in this wine, and I'll admit that I have a sweet spot for buttered popcorn in my chardonnay. This wine is by no means balanced or subtle. The sensation on the palate is that of getting cracked in the head with an oak stave that had just been dipped in popcorn butter. I don't want to sound derisive about this style of wine, even though it's not my favorite. There's a reason these wines sell out. A lot of people, sometimes myself, absolutely love them.

The Left
Ah, Chablis. I'm not talking about the jug stuff, but the real stuff that comes from a northern enclave of Burgundy. If you're in the ABC crowd because of oak, butter and goopy pear flavors, then you need to go out and buy a Chablis from Domaine Bernard Defaix. This producer puts out medium bodied chardonnays with superb acid, bold minerals and freshness. And 2008 Chablis tends to be leaner and fresher than the 2007 or 2009 vintages.

This wine shows a light straw color in the glass, with tinges of green as well. When a chardonnay looks more like a sauvignon blanc in color, it's probably safe to assume it's going to be a left-wing wine. The aromas on this wine are fresh and lively. There's a rush of sea salt, followed by a burst of lemon zest and some slate. The palate is full of searing acid, so if you've got acid indigestion problems, you might want to stay away from left-wing wines like this. That said, it maintains some creaminess as well. It shows grapefruit, lime and lemon flavors, mixed in with flavors of oyster brine and sea salt. This $25 wine paired very well with a quinoa salad with a lime dressing, and it's acid and minerality helped cut through salmon. I dare you to try this chardonnay, or another that's stylistically similar, and you'll see why I frequently come to the defense of the chardonnay grape. In fact, I've poured many a Chablis for ABCers without telling them it was chardonnay. More often than not, ABCers dig Chablis. Just saying...

If you think you might fall on this side of The Chardonnay Spectrum, you might also want to keep a lookout for "naked" chardonnays. Over the past decade, these wines have seen a surge in popularity, due in large part to the immensity of overoaked, buttery chardonnays that were in vogue for many years. Naked chards are fermented in stainless stell and usually undergo minimal maloactic fermentation, leaving you with fresh, steely wines that tend to show green apple and citrus fruit flavors.

The Center
Self-described political "centrists" tend to be about as exciting as the navy blazers they wear. But centrist chardonnays demonstrate the power, intensity and balance that the wines can achieve at their pinnacle. Chardonnay is planted pretty much everywhere grapes are grown, and winemakers around the world use a variety of methods to craft chardonnays that have both refreshing acid, as well as creamy mouthfeel and integrated oak flavors. I love the richness and nuttiness of a lot of White Burgundies like Mersaults and Puligny-Montrachets for this very reason: they back up the fruit and oak with a good dose of acid. The balance of a lot of Sonoma County chardonnays can be similarly mouthwatering.

To demonstrate what I mean about the best of both worlds, I've chosen the 2008 Cameron Chardonnay "Clos Electrique." This was one of the best U.S. chardonnays I've ever had. (I rated it 96 points.) It comes from the Dundee Hills appellation in Oregon's Willamette Valley. This chardonnay is complex, bold, sexy, but also wonderfully balanced. The nose is a massive explosion of pineapple and lime juice. It kind of smells like someone poured a salty margarita on top of cotton candy. The palate shows ripe, sweet fruit, but it is by no means overwhelming. The palate is silky, creamy and alive. It has the citrus flavors of a left wing wine, but the rich honeydew, vanilla and almond flavors that remind me of some wines on the right end of the spectrum. 


Where do you fall on The Chardonnay Spectrum? If you're not sure, there's only one way to find out. Drink. It's a whole lot more fun than politics. If you know what you like, and you know what to look for, I think it's nearly impossibly to say: Anything But Chardonnay!

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