Mention Chardonnay to someone and you’ll likely get a definitive response: people seem to love it or hate it.
But many of those who say they hate it are basing their opinion on one expression of the grape, not realizing that there are many other expressions, some of which have names that hide their true identity.
Retail wine workers have often heard someone complaining that they hate Chardonnay, but they just love Chablis, which, like Meursault, Montrachet and Pouilly Fuissé, is a white Burgundy wine made entirely from, you guessed it, Chardonnay.
Then there’s Champagne, most of which consists of a good percentage of Chardonnay, if not entirely made from the ubiquitous “Queen of Grapes” that is one of the most planted in the world.
Chardonnay is truly the chameleon of grapes because it can take on so many expressions based on variables that can be natural or fashioned through the efforts of farmers and winemakers. Jacques Scott wine professionals Lee Royle and Sergio Serrano hosted a private tasting at Blue Cilantro highlighting the different faces of Chardonnay in wines that came from four distinct regions of the world.
Chardonnay is one of the few grapes that can produce good wine regardless if it is aged in stainless steel tanks or in oak barrels.
For many years, California pumped out heavily oaked, powerful Chardonnay wines that were buttery in texture and smoky on the palate. Eventually this style fell out of favor, and is one of the reasons many people say they hate Chardonnay. Especially in a tropical climate like Cayman’s, the overly oaky, buttery style can be overbearing, and many white wine drinkers here prefer something more refreshing like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.
As a result of changing market demands, a good number of winemakers around the world changed from aging Chardonnay in oak to aging it in stainless steel tanks, resulting in a wine that highlights its crisp acidity and fruit flavors.
Tormaresca, an unoaked Chardonnay wine made by the Antinori group, comes from Puglia in southern Italy and would surprise most people with its delightful aromas of apples and flowers and its clean citrus and tropical fruit flavors.
“If you like Sauvignon Blanc, how can you not like this?” Royle asked. “It’s full of fruit and it has good acidity.”
Coming from an area in Italy known for its warm temperatures, it would be easy to expect Tormaresca to be high in alcohol content, but it’s only 12.5 percent alcohol by volume.
“That just shows you that Chardonnay is a very malleable varietal,” said Royle. “The winemaker can make it into whatever he wants using different techniques.”
Most surprising about the wine was its $15.99 retail price.
“I think this is a beautiful wine for the price,” said Royle. “It would be a great house wine.”
Long before it became fashionable to produce unoaked Chardonnays, Chablis in northern Burgundy was already doing it regularly. Although some of the Grand Cru Chablis are aged in oak, most of them are not, allowing the crisp, cool-climate acidity and limestone-soil minerality to shine through.
Joseph Drouhin Vaudon Chablis comes from a vineyard close to the Grand Cru vineyard in Chablis and is a very dry wine with mouth-puckering acidity and a long finish.
The “laser-beam acidity,” as Royle called it, is typical of Chablis and it could be a bit too tart for some people just to quaff at happy hour. However, pair it with the right foods and it’s magical. Priced at $30.99, this is really a meal wine anyway. Try it with shellfish or fish cooked in butter or with a salad with goat cheese. It’s also excellent with pasta with cream sauces, foie gras, veal or any white meat served in a rich sauce.
Many people have rebelled against New World oaked Chardonnays, but it still has its fans; enough, in fact, that many wineries even outside California are still producing it. Oyster Bay in New Zealand is one such winery.
One of the things that made California oaked Chardonnays so buttery was the use of malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation that is used to convert tart malic acid to a softer lactic acid. By not using this secondary fermentation, Oyster Bay is able to produce a New World Chardonnay that retains, as the winery describes it, “all the natural assertiveness and flavor.” The resulting texture of the wine is creamy, but not unctuous and buttery, with a slight petrol-like aroma similar to German Riesling, another wine that usually doesn’t use malolactic fermentation.
Half of the production was fermented and aged in stainless steel and half of it was allowed to slowly ferment and then age in French oak barriques, resulting in a wine that is oaky, but not too oaky, with ripe citrus and stone fruit flavors.
The key with using oak in Chardonnay is finding balance in the wine, something Burgundys like Montrachet or Meursault have done for a long, long time. Oak gives structure to Chardonnay wines, but too much oak will mask the other flavors in the grape.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about balance,” Royle said. “If you have power and oak, you have to have acidity.”
California winemakers have earned a reputation of being too heavy-handed with oak (partially because it will also mask flaws in winemaking). However, there are a number of producers making well-crafted, well-balanced Chardonnays in California. One such winery is Thomas Fogarty in the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Jose.
Its 2012 Chardonnay is produced from cool-climate, high-elevation vineyards, giving it distinct citrus and mineral characteristics.
“In a blind tasting, most people would think this is from Burgundy,” Serrano said.
Aged in French oak, the Thomas Fogarty wine is an example of just how good California Chardonnay can be, and of the balance that can be achieved with a “hands-off” approach to winemaking that allows the grapes to speak for themselves – the way winemakers in Burgundy do it.
“They say a lot of American [Chardonnay] wines have a lack of elegance, a lack of class,” said Royle, adding that the perception is that American Chardonnays are over-oaked and high in alcohol without any subtlety. “But I think this wine speaks to how that perception is wrong.”
Even though all four Chardonnays were very different from one another, they surprisingly all paired well with the seafood dishes served at lunch.
“That shows you how versatile Chardonnay is,” said Royle, adding that because there are so many styles of Chardonnay, there’s a wide variety of dishes with which it could pair nicely.