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The problem(s) with Chardonnay

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I completely agree with Laurie Daniel’s column today in the San Jose Mercury News about the dismal state of California Chardonnay. “A lot of the wines are downright undrinkable, with noticeable alcoholic ‘heat,’ too much residual sugar and/or oak that’s way too aggressive,” she wrote. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ve said many times that I’m a Chardonnay lover. Never have been an ABC guy, never will be. And when I say Chardonnay, I mean Burgundian Chardonnay: barrel fermentation, new oak, sur lies and battonage, the whole works. Chardonnay is the world’s greatest white grape and wine (along with Riesling) and there’s no way I’d ever dismiss the whole category, categorically.

But! Let us get real here. When you taste as many Chardonnays as I do — 500 last year? something like that — you reach the point where you want to tear your hair out and scream (and with what little hair I have left on my head, that’s not a good thing). I hate to single out particular wines for criticism on this blog, but in this case, I will, because it’s a poster child for sweet, flabby Chardonnay. It was Geyser Peak’s 2007 (Alexander Valley), and here’s what I wrote: “Sugary sweet, simple and over-oaked, this Chard has one-dimensional flavors of pineapple candy, vanilla and smoke. 83 points.” Granted, it was only 13 bucks, but I might have said the same thing, or something similar, about Robert Stemmler’s 2006 Chardonnay (Carneros, $34) or Frank Family’s 2006 (Napa Valley, $32) or ZD’s 2007 Reserve (Napa Valley, $55). Buttered popcorn, caramel corn, sugary sweet, candied — what’s going on?

Someone or something has to take the blame, but who or what? Well, first of all, there are places Chardonnay simply shouldn’t be grown because it’s too hot. I’ve seldom encountered a great Chardonnay from Paso Robles or Lodi, although there are other factors in those places that limit the wine’s potential. Large tracts of central and northern Napa Valley also are unsuitable, as is Sonoma Valley as you move north from the Carneros.

Whenever I get a distressed wine the question arises in my mind, Did the winemaker do this on purpose, or did he not know this is dreadful? When in doubt, choose the more compassionate interpretation: the winemaker did it on purpose. Why would a smart winemaker make a sweet, oaky Chardonnay he, himself, probably wouldn’t drink? We know the answer to that one: THE MARKET DEMANDS IT. Or so it’s said: Americans like their Chardonnays gooey.

Laurie also wrote: “I made the observation that a lot of the wines seemed to be made to a recipe. The winemakers who churned out some of these wines couldn’t possibly have been proud of them. I suspect that the marketing departments determined that their wineries needed to have an $18 chardonnay in the portfolio, so the winemakers just did what they were told. The wine was treated like a commodity.” Exactly.

I’d love to hear from people who actually sell Chardonnay, particularly merchants. Is this true? Does the average consumer really prefer a flabby Chardonnay to a dry, crisp one? Certainly, California is capable of producing very great Chardonnay. Bjornstad, Au Bon Climat, Hartford Court, Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell and Failla come to mind. They have the richness, mind you, but also the sleek acidity and dry finish for balance. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. It may be that California is unable to produce reliably inexpensive Chardonnays that are also of high quality. That’s the case with Pinot Noir. We may have to face the facts. If my budget was limited to, say, $15 for a bottle of white wine from California, I doubt if it would be Chardonnay, even unoaked. More likely Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer.

  1. “The more successful wines in this mode, e.g., Rombauer, will continue to dominate.”
    …Really? I recently heard the term “Rombauer effect”, as in stop the fermentation to increase RS, to win gold ribbons.

    Can’t I have a dry, (tart or buttery, I like ‘em both) Chardonnay?

    — UCDavis grad, but not in winemaking…although, perhaps I should go back…

  2. Steve, your last comment in the blog fits me to a tee. Haven’t drunk Chard in ages, but I thought it was because my taste has changed. It hasn’t . Affordable Chard isn’t available. Hence, my favorite white, by far and away, is a nice crisp Sauv Blanc, which with any dinner gathering, is the only white we serve. As you say, “flabby Chards” …just don’t get it done. Thanks for this article, because now I am going to seek out a great Chard and re-connect with it…at current prices, that will be rarely.

  3. Steve,
    Thanks for talking a bit of climate. There are absolutely several regions known for their Chard and Pinot which have a marginal climate for producing those grapes. But as places like Mount Eden, Chalone and Burgundy have shown, you don’t need to hang grapes well into October to make great wine. I think you needed to talk soils a bit more; heavy soils, deep valley soils, sandy loam, pretty much anything without granite, shist or limestone dominating, will produce a boring wine. Most of California, Oregon and Washington is planted in relatively quotidian soils… and so Chardonnay gets its reputation as a boring grape.
    Ian

  4. Marriage of wine with foods may have changed my preferences to crisp Chardonnay. Now I can only remember how beautifully Montrachets, Chalone, and older Joseph Swan [1975] Chards paired with rabbit in mustard cream sauce, abalone and other shellfish. I don’t care for gooey Chards, but layers of complex flavors are still exticing to find.

    Inexpensive Estancia Pinot Grigio from Monterey accompanies a five course soup to nuts fare very well.
    Loire Chenin Blancs are often my “go-to” choice for brilliance with food.
    No tweets here either Thomas…

  5. This is the exact reason we’re planning a Chardonnay Symposium for this summer. We’re extremely excited to bring together experts and high end producers of Chardonnay to prove that Chardonnay can, in fact, be a wonderful wine. I think consumers aren’t fully educated about the various styles and sometimes they aren’t given the opportunity to compare and contrast. Besides, wine can be made the exact same way from two different vineyards and you can easily have two completely different wines.

  6. Hey Steve,
    I own a wine shop and I do see alot of people who want that “California Chard” style. Big, Oaky and Buttery these are three words I hear most when some one is looking for a chardonnay. I do try to stear them towards wines with more balance then GP, which I agree is undrinkable, I have had success with no oak chardonnay. KJ Vintners Reserve is the cause for this style if we want to place blame. I do see the market swinging back toward balance, albeit slowly, I think that over oaked, super sweet style will fade for a while but like herpes we will never get rid of it.

  7. Gregg: there are some big, oaky, ripe Chards out there that are quite good. The ones I don’t like suffer from a multitude of sins: they can have residual sugar, or the “oak” is actually some cheap chips or liquid, etc.

  8. I will agree that over-oaked, super sweet is a difficult style for me to like. If I want sweet, I would prefer Riesling.

    But, I am not so sure about the comment on over-oaked. It seems to me that the majority of CA Chardonnay priced from $20 or so and up has seen more than a couple of days in good barrels and does not derive its character from chips or oak syrup. Moreover, the greater majority of those wines, including some from KJ (not Vint Res–the most recent one of which we tested at 1.0% RS) are fermented to dryness.

    Now, it is not my place or anyone’s place to tell others what they should like or not like. But, I do have to insist that we not extend the fiction that CA is, by definition, overripe, overoaked, oversweet because anyone who deals with those wines on a regular basis can name hundreds of wineries whose products are nothing of the sort. “Big, oaky and buttery” do not mean sweet or overoaked.

  9. Mark Osmun says:

    Charlie, if your testing methods found Kendall-Jackson VR Chardonnay to have 1% RS, then you should test your testing because it would be flawed. That wine has no more than 0.5 RS, if that.

  10. Mark, there are reasons why a wine can taste like it has greater RS than it actually does. Without having recourse to a laboratory, the most a critic can say is that the wine tastes sweet, or tastes like it has RS. But I would not state categorically that a wine has RS because I don’t have the ability to test wines.

  11. It is very simple. Wine is not made for a bunch of so called experts. It is made for people to enjoy. If you take a group of people and have one bottle of the buttery and one bottle of the “crisp” and most people like the buttery then it must be the best. An expert is only one persons opinion. He could taste a 1ooo a year and it would still be an opinion. Some of you said that we should try to change the majority of peoples opinions becuase the minority likes soemthing differant. How crazy does that sound! Let the people enjoy what they like. Everyone is there own expert!

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