Why I’m not an ABCer
(As in “Anything But Chardonnay”)
A friend of mine recently expressed a certain, shall we say, disdain for California Chardonnay. He used terms like “fruit bomb” and “over-oaked,” the implication being that, despite all the Burgundian bells and whistles, Cali Chard doesn’t come close to an authentic bottle of the real French stuff.
I grew emotional, as I tend to do when California wine is attacked, and wanted to leap to my state’s defense. But, in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t frame the words quite the way I wanted. As a writer, not a speechifier, I remained reticent. Now that a couple days have gone by, let me try.
As in all things aesthetic, reasonable people can disagree. You say “po-tay-to” and I say “po-tah-to”. But let me get in my two cents on why I love California Chardonnay and why I think — no, make that know that it’s the state’s greatest white wine.
We know that California can grow great Chardonnay grapes, thanks to the stainless steel, unwooded style produced by wineries such as Iron Horse, Sebastiani, Toad Hollow, Silver, Pellegrini, Valley of the Moon and others. They’ve shown us how rich and flavorful the wine can be when it’s never seen a splinter of oak. With flavors running the gamut from grapes, fresh green apples and peaches to pears, pineapples and tropical fruits, what’s not to like?
Which brings us to oak.
Okay, I’m first to admit that playing with oak is like playing with matches in a gasoline refinery. It’s dangerous. There’s a definite line between a wine that’s over-oaked and one where the oak is just right. It’s hard to define, and, like I said above, different people will come to different conclusions. For me, oak has these characteristic aromas and flavors: buttered toast, vanilla and caramel. (Usually, barrel-fermented, barrel-aged Chardonnay also will have lees influence, and that plays into the picture. And Chardonnays often are put through the malolactic fermentation, which can make them buttery and creamy. But the oak notes are as I described above.)
If the wine starts off with an over-dominating smell of buttered toast, vanilla and caramel, chances are it’s over-oaked and out of balance. That doesn’t mean it has a lot of new wood or a lot of high-char wood. All it means it that the underlying Chardonnay is unable to support the weight of the wood. (This can also be because the source of the “oak” is some ersatz cheap stuff with oak-like smells.) By the same token, a massive, ripe Chardonnay can easily sustain 100 percent new oak.
The best way to put this visually is this:
Tammy Faye Bakker, rest her soul, was and forever will be the poster child for excessive makeup. (Of course, this is no reflection on her character. I liked her, or, at least, I liked the person who came through the TV screen.) But she sure did pile on the mascara, lipstick and false eyelashes, so there was something freakishly garish about her. This is how an over-oaked and, yes, fruit-bomby California Chardonnay (and there are plenty of them) tastes to me.
Then there’s a different type of look, one I think we all can agree is beautiful and classy.
Since I happen to think that buttered toast, vanilla and caramel are pretty nice flavors, I don’t mind finding them in my Chardonnays. And when you couple those with the fruit of a properly grown Chardonnay, you’re looking at a pretty special wine. A great, oaky California Chardonnay is Sandra Bullock in a glass.
I often use the words “flamboyant” or “hedonistic” to describe Chardonnays I like. But I think I’m always careful to add something like “balanced with crisp acidity” or “with a streak of minerals” to suggest structure and firmness. Flamboyance without structure is, well, Tammy Faye. All flash, no substance. It’s a matter of taste and style. You either have it, or you don’t.
If you concede that California is capable of great Chardonnay (not everyone will, I know), then you have to admit that the greatest is going to be a ripe, oaky Chardonnay, not an unoaked one. Is that a controversial statement? I don’t think so, although I could imagine a situation wherein a very great Chardonnay is unoaked. Greg Brewer and Marimar Torres play in that sandbox. But my feeling is that, for Chardonnay to rise to its greatest heights, it needs oak.
No wine type divides wine lovers more than California Chardonnay. It’s the healthcare bill of varieties: you either love it or hate it. Nobody’s indifferent, everyone has an opinion. If you’re an ABCer, I’ll never convince you to like ripe, oaky California Chardonnay. But if it’s not California’s greatest white wine, what is?