Reflecting on Chardonnay
I’m gearing up for a big article in Wine Enthusiast on the topic of Chardonnay. The specific slant is exciting, new, young producers to keep an eye on. It’s fairly standard wine magazine stuff; part of being a good reporter is to discover and follow upcoming talent and then let people know about them. Besides, it’s fun for me personally to get to know new blood. I was just listening to Joe Roberts’ radio interview with Maynard James Keenan, during which Mr. Keenan mentioned how insulated (I think he meant insular) the rock and roll industry can get, and Joe said the wine industry can, too, and I nodded my head and thought, uh huh, that’s right. In this business you tend to talk to people you know. Unless you make an effort to smash through boundaries, you’ll be ignorant of new talent, winemakers with staying power, and so will be your readers.
I’ll be writing about these talented newcomers in the magazine, but thinking about Chardonnay got me thinking about something I hadn’t considered for a while. Chardonnay is so ubiquitous in California (100,000 acres) and on store shelves, and so dominant as a branded white wine, that I think people sometimes forget how difficult it is to make a really good one. Everybody knows how hard it is to craft excellent Pinot Noir. Ditto for Sangiovese, Grenache and Riesling. But there’s a tendency to think that Chardonnay (and Cabernet Sauvignon and to some extent Syrah) is as easy as falling off a log. If that’s the way you think, then consider how many awful Chardonnays there are out there, and you’ll see that the variety more often stumbles than succeeds.
What can go wrong with Chardonnay starts in the vineyard and then spreads into the winery. The biggest problem (aside from growing it in too hot of a climate), viticulturally speaking, is overcropping. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a thin Chardonnay. I had one yesterday, from Black Box. They must have gotten a lot of clusters per vine, or tons per the acre, but at $25 for 3 liters, it was fine and clean and dry. The winemaker let Monterey’s cool terroir speak for itself because he had no choice, lacking the budget to Tammy Faye the wine with overwrought weight. I’d choose it anytime over a clumsy Chardonnay.
What makes Chard clumsy? It’s often because a vintner will take overcropped grapes, make a simple little wine from them, then dump all kinds of oak or oak-like substances onto the wine, thinking he can fool people into believing that the smell and taste of oak is actually that of Chardonnay. That sin is compounded when the vintner leaves a little residual sugar in there. Those Chardonnays are dreadful.
Even with pretty good grapes, mishandling in the winery can make Chardonnay heavy and over-manipulated. If there’s a grape in the world that’s more manipulated than Chardonnay, I don’t know what it is. Too much oak, or the wrong kind of oak, is the usual culprit. It gives weird, toothpicky tastes, while too much char can make the wine caramelized. Inappropriate malolactic fermentation, especially in a thin Chardonnay, can spell the difference between the pleasant aroma and flavor of buttered toast and the manufactured, chemically one of buttered popcorn. Acidity in Chardonnay has to be just right, as does pH. If the wine is too soft, it can taste candied and simple. If it’s too tart, it can be sour (although I, personally, like a tart Chardonnay). Sometimes I’ll taste Chardonnay that’s tart, but the acidity tastes bizarre and exogenous to the wine–something poured out of a box that gives the wine a completely wrong feeling. Add a little residual sugar, and that makes for a truly offensive combination.
When you think of all the decision points a winemaker has, you can see how easy it is to go off-track. Maybe that’s why I’ve yet to give 100 points to a California Chardonnay. In theory there’s one out there. The thing with Chardonnay, as with most other white wines, is that because they’re less tannic, less full-bodied and assertive than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, their faults are more apparent. It’s the difference between, say, judging beautiful Hollywood stars with and without clothes. You can see Kate Beckinsale on the runway with the most perfect hair, makeup, designer clothes and accessories and call her a perfect 100. Or you can see Kate Beckinsale naked, in which case she may score lower (because it’s a lot harder to have a perfect body than to cover that imperfect body with a perfect layer of masquerade). Chardonnay, even oaked and sur lie, is a more naked wine than Cabernet. Unless it’s bones and tone are perfect, it will be a little flawed. So I’m still waiting for that 100 point Chardonnay.