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In the Spirit: Knowing your ABC’s When it Comes to Chardonnay

The American wine drinker has for some time now had a Love/Hate relationship with Chardonnay. On the one hand, it was our “gateway drug” to what used to be considered “exotic” grape varietals from Europe. In fact, it was our first love affair with a white French grape that made it easier for us to later fall in love with harder-to-pronounce grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir…at least if you consider the spellings of those grapes at first glance. In the now famous Paris Tasting of ’76…the so-called “Judgment of Paris”…when the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Calistoga in the Napa Valley took first place, the market for Chardonnay absolutely exploded. Then in the 1980’s, when Jess Jackson released the iconic Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, he defined what became the preferred style of Chardonnay for a generation. This oaky, buttery style was copied many times over by other producers in an effort to capitalize on and replicate the success of what had become America’s best-selling wine. Then around the time of the new millennium, we saw the rise of the “ABC” movement, otherwise known as “Anything But Chardonnay.” This represented a wholesale rejection of the full-bodied, oaky, buttery expressions of Chardonnay and a yearning for something with a fresher style. Hence, we saw a rise in the popularity of grapes like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. And to this day, even though Chardonnay is STILL the top-selling white grape varietal in the country, there are many wine drinkers who will outright reject ANY and ALL Chardonnays because there is still a tendency to lump all styles of the wine into the same category as that of the original mass-produced Chardonnays of the ‘80s. This summer, it may be time for you to reconsider those attitudes and re-embrace an old friend.

To understand how Chardonnay has evolved over the past several decades, it is important to understand the nature of the grape and the wine produced from it. It is a fairly thick-skinned, hearty varietal that can grow and ripen well in many different climates and is very robust in terms of withstanding the vicissitudes of unpredictable weather. This makes it a fairly “safe” varietal for winery owners to plant and in which to invest their time and resources. It is also easy to overcrop this grape and make many tons of it per acre, which means it can also generate a lot of profit. So, from a business standpoint, it is a good grape to work with if you own a winery. However, you are not selling the grapes themselves, but rather the wine produced from it that’s in the bottle, and you have to make sure that this is something consumers want to buy.

Chardonnay, in terms of aromas and flavors, is a fairly neutral varietal and, especially if cropped heavily, can be somewhat lacking in unique character. Hence, winemakers have tended to manipulate the wine production process of the grape more than other varietals that have a more unique expression such as Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. For instance, Chardonnay wine is often aged in oak barrels, just as are many red wines. New oak barrel is a powerful ingredient to add to a wine, especially a white wine, and so this is not seen as often in the production of more aromatic, but delicate wines made from grapes such as Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc (although it can sometimes be seen with the latter.) Oak can add notes of toast, caramel, nuts, coffee, popcorn, coconut and many other aromas. If you smell these things in your wine, in most cases, I can assure you, it is NOT coming from the grape. And indeed, when the oak barrel is employed, other, more delicate aromas of the grape may well be overwhelmed by these powerful oak aromas, and so this is why oak is generally used on bigger, more powerful wines. Chardonnay, not generally known as an “aromatic” varietal thus usually takes well to the influence of oak, but a winemaker runs the risk of perhaps using TOO much oak to the point that the barrel ends up overpowering the grape character.

Chardonnay wines have also become associated with buttery, or diary-like notes, such as cream and curd, along with a velvety, round, mouth-filling texture. This too comes from a process during winemaking that is often not practiced on other, more aromatic white wines. The process is known as “malolactic fermentation”, or often simply as MLF. During this conversion, which is a natural process occurring after alcoholic fermentation, a bacteria feeds off the malic acid (associated with green apples) and in the metabolizing process converts it into lactic acid (associated with milk). As a result, the acidity of the wine is dampened and the texture is rounded out creating a soft, pearl-like roll in the mouth.

Why I bring all this up is because these winemaking processes are what has created the prototypical “oaky and buttery” Chardonnay that wine drinkers of the ABC movement have come to reject as the one and only style of the grape. The reality is that the Chardonnay wines of today have evolved greatly since the advent of this style with the KJ Vintners Reserve in the ‘80s. Winemakers today, even in the warm climes of California, are striving to create expressions of Chardonnay that are fresher, more playful and lighter in mouthfeel, meaning that we can no longer assume Chardonnays are not made for summer drinking.

As the thermometer continues to rise this July, and you go searching for a quenchable, refreshing glass of white wine, I encourage you to NOT dismiss the Chardonnay grape from your many options because you assume it is big, oaky and buttery. From France, you might try a white Burgundy or, even more fittingly, a Chablis…both made from the Chardonnay grape (excepting the more rarely found Aligoté). Chablis especially is a fresh style of Chardonnay that grows in one of the coolest wine regions of the world, which means the alcohol will be lower and the acidity brighter. Additionally, most Chablis wines do not see new oak barrels and most do not go through MLF, making for a lean, crisp wine that bursts in your mouth with notes of green apples, sea shells and stony minerality. This is a great wine for summer seafood. Australia too, as a norm now, is producing much fresher styles of Chardonnay when compared to their wines of the ‘90s, which were highly alcoholic oak bombs.

Australia too, as a norm now, is producing much fresher styles of Chardonnay when compared to their wines of the ‘90s, which were highly alcoholic oak bombs. Today, Australia Chardonnay winemaking is much smarter and more strategic in harvesting Chardonnay from cooler climes such as Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and the Adelaide Hills. Acidty is brighter here and more refreshing and some producers are even making “un-oaked” styles to emphasize this new fresh style. Chardonnay has also taken on a new identity in South America where Chilean coastal vineyards are making mineral-driven, stainless steel-fermented styles that focus on fresh fruit and vibrant acidity. Argentina too can be a good source for high-quality Chardonnay, as the high-altitude vineyards of regions like Tupungato are producing some wines that can rival the greatest expressions of Chablis at a much lesser price. And, of course, Chardonnay is still grown all over the United States, from the shores of Long Island in New York to the Sonoma Coast and all the way up through Washington State. Over the past decade or more, oak treatment has gotten much smarter and well-balanced in the US. Even the famed KJ Vintners Reserve is taking on a fresher face more recently as winemakers are growing Chardonnay in cooler regions like Carneros in California or the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast, or even more recently, the Willamette Valley in Oregon. This change in vineyard selection is producing lighter, fresher expressions of the grape. Additionally, many producers in California and beyond are opting for only partial use of MLF, or even NO MLF at all, such as wineries like Far Niente or Failla. Oak usage as well has become much more moderately used, with most California Chardonnays typically seeing around 20-30% new oak barrels. Some producers are even opting for the use of concrete eggs for fermentations as opposed to new oak barrels and this makes for a wine that can still have a rich mouthfeel, without the preponderance of oak character. So, if you’re looking for a “fresh” wine this summer, don’t make generalizations about Chardonnay. Try coming back to this grape as a serious option for summer refreshment and you may discover, even if you’re a stalwart ABC adherent, that you do like Chardonnay after all, and perhaps way more than even you expected.

– Brian McClure, beverage director at The Greenbrier. Hashtag #91, July 2017.

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