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Reflecting on Chardonnay

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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.

  1. Hey Steve – thanks for the link and for listening to the podcast!

    I dug the take on Chard and whites in general, though I can say with 1000% certainty that if I saw Kate Beckinsale naked I personally would score her 100*** on the Parker scale… ;-)

  2. BTW… Napa (And generally CA) Sauv Blanc in my opinion/experience (for the little it’s worth!) suffers from very similar issues as in the tricky balance you described for Chard.

  3. 1WineDude, amen, brother!

  4. Dude, well how do you know you’d 100 point Kate if you never saw her naked? I mean, maybe she’s all flabby and has canker sores.

  5. If I may speak for Joe, I think he would take his chances on that.

    And at least part of what is going on with Chardonnay is that a large percentage of it is not grown in cool coastal regions and thus is not going to have “classic structure”. And, as with any region in the world, some of it is just plain lousy. That also happens in Bordeaux where the majority of the wine produced is not rated growths and is just plain pissant–thin, green and lousy.

    The good to great quality of so much CA Chardonnay is why it has become so popular.

  6. Charlie, agreed, but we are looking for perfection. What is the greatest California Chardonnay you ever had?

  7. There is no doubt that California can make great Chardonnay. I tasted some beauties recently that challenged my own biases of the California ‘style’. This ‘style’ is a diverse as what you might find in Burgundy. This of course, is the beauty and curse of both Burgundy and California Chardonnay. I guess, what I am suggesting is that there really isn’t a ‘style’. Although, people sure do buy lots of Rombauer, don’t they.

    I came home with a new appreciation of California Chardonnay and was reminded of one of wines greatest lessons. “Just when you think you know something, you know nothing.”

    Horse & Plow “McFadden Ranch” (excellent)
    County Line “Alexander Valley” (best QPR)
    Salinia “Heitz Ranch” (Gorgeous)
    Porter-Bass “Estate” (Raises the bar)
    El Molino Chardonnay (razor sharp beauty – haunting)

    And with all due respect Steve, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ wine.

  8. Regarding Kate – what Charlie said!!! :)

  9. Actually, chardonnay became popular as the imported Chablis/Macon/Pouilly Fuisse, when the could be had at $10.00 a bottle. Yes that was when lots of CA wines were also less expensive. The main reason chardonnay became popular was that it was dry and had some structure and to the new wine drinker of the past did not leave one with a headache. I am talking about the 1970-1980 period. That is when Chardonnay became popular, and folks called it pinot chardonnay to boot. As people learned more, some traded up to Puligny and other french whites and the CA wines started cashing in on the popularity. This is not to say there were not great/good CA wines, there were. Some new drinkers did not like to real dry Chablis’ and tried the german wines. Some where along the way some people found that many US new wine drinkers like a little residual sugar and lots of flabby chards came along.
    Many chards do not need aging after they are bottled and can be consumed from just below room temp. Chardonnay is easy to say, it rolls off the tongue. Chard has been a marketers dream.

  10. Steve asks: Charlie, agreed, but we are looking for perfection. What is the greatest California Chardonnay you ever had?

    I am always looking for perfection. Maybe some day I will find it.

    Greatest CA Chard ever? I can never answer that question, but here are a few wines I consider to be seminal Chards for me.

    1972 Mayacamas
    1991 Mount Eden
    2007 Freestone

    LeFlaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes (vintage now lost in the sands of time)

    Because each seemed to break new ground in my understanding of what the grape could be. What I have appreciated about Chardonnay is that the winemakers keep advancing the cause.

  11. Very good piece, Steve.
    “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”. This sort of information is worth a million (subjective) tasting notes.
    Chardonnay is, indeed, very sensitive to yields with only “some of the highest quality fruit being able to stand up to new oak”.[1]
    I would only add that Chardonnay is not particularly apt for “cool coastal” climates. In fact, it thrives in continental climates with fairly high temperatures, where it can achieve high ripeness levels and burn the excess of tartness (malic acid). At the same time it favors a short growing season to avoid losing “its crucial acidity (tartaric acid) in the latter stages of ripening”.[2]

    Mr. Olken,
    I have to agree with you on that: one of my all time favourite Chardonnays is also a Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes (Domaine Jacques Prieur (A. Rodet), 1990).
    Cheers,

    [1&2]: Robinson, J.; The O.C. to Wine; Oxford.

  12. The best chards – or almost any variety – are being made by the amateurs. Home winemakers may not have all the top-notch tools but we work in small enough batches – can you say “micro-lots” – that we can control the wine’s development to the extent that any human being can exercise.
    That being said, my two favorite chards are the current Inox from Melville and the 2007 Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict.

  13. ABC — give me a rhone white (from anywhere), a really good Pinot Gris (Orgeon), a Reisling (Washington, Germany, Finger Lakes), a spicy Argentinian Torrentes…pretty much anything besides chard (from anywhere). And I’ll take kate with, or without, the “oak”. Have a wonderful holiday!

  14. Mr. O’Connor–

    It seems to me that the Chardonnays from western Sonoma County in the hands of Freestone, Dutton Goldfield, Bjornstad and others suggest that Chardonnay can, in fact, produce wines of balance, albeit sometimes with a tart edge (you like, I like). And they are doing so at lower alcohols–which, while not a necessity for my palate (David Ramey’s wines in the mid-14s being prime proof)–does not hurt my feelings either.

  15. As for the ABC crowd, as I said in my Christmas list of wants, I am happy to seem them prosper, thus leaving more Chardonnay for me.

  16. Charlie, I’d put Evening Land in that category. And Hartford Court.

  17. Mr. Olken,
    You are right when you affirm that there are excellent Chardonnays being made in CA’s coastal areas. There’s no doubt that skillful winemakers can make first-class wine from a wide range of (carefully farmed) grape profiles. Particularly, if one has the economic means and/or price-making flexibility.
    My point is that economic and physical resources are scarce, and should be optimized in order to leverage any wine project; aiming at a high-quality, competitive product. And the first macro-move to maximize quality while minimizing costs is to match, as precisely as possible, varieties and vineyard sites (meso-climates). This process, if pursued via trial and error can be costly; and could take centuries.
    Moreover, California has several (climate-wise) perfect spots for growing naturally balanced big-bodied (e.g. Sierra’s mid-to-high altitudes, Southern California’s higher altitudes, etc.) and elegant (e.g. U. Anderson Valley, Northern Mendocino, etc.) Chardonnay. Unfortunately the smart money is not there, yet.

  18. george kaplan says:

    First of all, one must properly judge Kate Beckinsale with a meal; under certain circumstances, 100 may not be the highest possible score. Provenance counts too.
    Cal Chardonnays: Mayacamas 1976, Heitz 1973( one of the Z-lots. Why they have never tried to resuscitate those? Or do they live on under another name?)And David Bruce, probably 1972. And some Hanzell.I have tasted some Kistlers that are pretty good, but two pretty. Almost all Cal wines nowadays are dessert toppings.

  19. George Kaplan, I hear you about “dessert toppings.” Know exactly what you mean. The line between dessert topping and rich is a very fine one. In my judgment, one essential ingredient is acidity. For example the Suacci Carciere Chardonnays are very rich, but so crisp in acidity, they make your mouth water.

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