Great Grapes: Chardonnay, Anyone?

It’s getting chilly outside, but as Debbie Barker ’80 explains, that means now is the perfect time for a good Chardonnay.

There are many kinds of white wine grapes, but the three majors are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. I’ve covered the first two grape varietals in prior columns. Now that the weather is cooling off, it’s a good time to look at Chardonnays. The Chardonnay grape thrives in many climates and is relatively easy to grow. Good Chardonnays can be cellared for five to ten years, sometimes longer. The best Chardonnay-based wines come from Northern California, France, and Australia. I find these wines are highly influenced by the terroir from which they come-in other words, the characteristics of the soil, weather, regional climate, and all the things that make the growing area unique. Another thing that dictates unique flavor is what the wine is aged in prior to bottling.

Debbie Barker '80

A friend of mine recently referred to me as an “ABC” wine drinker. His definition is “Anything But Chardonnay,” and it fits! However, truth be told, the best whites I’ve ever tried are white Burgundies, made from Chardonnay grapes. How can one person like and dislike wine made from the same grape? The answer is the wide range of styles this varietal can take on. In warmer climates, alcohol content increases and wines have stronger flavors. In France, Chardonnay takes on a mineral quality from the terroir that makes it complex and varied. The Chardonnays in the heavier, oaky style became popular in the boom of California winemaking. They can be aged in oak, and often newer oak, and sometimes go through a second fermentation called “malolactic fermentation.” This process softens the acids and smoothes the flavor, generating what we know as a “buttery” taste. So everyone can find a Chardonnay to suit their own preference.

Bottle prices for Chardonnay vary all over the spectrum, from $4.00 at your local grocery store, to Le Montrachet from Burgundy, which can cost upwards of $3,000. Villages that make excellent Chardonnays in France are Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet. The best wines are considered “Grand Cru” wines, so look for that rating on the label. Shippers matter too in Burgundy: Good names to look for are Joseph Drouhin, Bouchard, Louis Latour, and for a special treat, Olivier Leflaive. In California, Ramey and Kongsgaard make heavier, buttery Chardonnays, while Chateau Montelena and Au Bon Climat make Chardonnays that even an ABC wine drinker can love!

2 thoughts on “Great Grapes: Chardonnay, Anyone?

  1. Jeff Kralik '88

    Debbie, I love your columns! Very well done. The only thing I would add here is that Chablis (the real stuff, not the American wines that have stolen the name but produce nothing like the wine from northern Burgundy) can be a really great chardonnay for the ABC crowd. Chablis is all about the mineral soil, rarely sees oak and does not (usually) go through maloactic fermentation: the process that makes wines ‘buttery’–it transforms malic acid to lactic acid (yes the same stuff you find in dairy products, hence the ‘butter’ taste). Like other areas in Burgundy, it has the same ‘cru’ system of classifying wines. Hard to go wrong with a 1er or Grand cru from a great producer: William Fevre, Louis Michel et Fils, François Servin, etc.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Dave Brown

    Deb
    Well done and Jeff thanks for the additional insights. I would add the observation that Central Coast of California: Santa Rita and Santa Ynez AVAs, in particular offer terroirs that are producing a number of interesting Burgundian influenced Chardonnays. In addition to the Au Bon Climat, I would suggest Brewer-Clifton, Sanford, Babcock, Foley, Diatom Huber, Mellville and Bowdoin’s own, Rusack. These wineries all offer well made wines for people who dislike the big buttery Chardonnays of Northern California.

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