The problem(s) with Chardonnay
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.