Okay, I admit it. I have never been a fan of Chardonnay. They're just too... buttery, oaky, sweet (even though they are supposed to be dry), too much for food; just too everything. I've winced when someone has brought a bottle over and I've turned my nose up at every wine list that has five Chardonnays to every one Sauvignon Blanc.
But lately, I've been working on my tolerance, even appreciation for America's favorite white wine. I realized that I absolutely love sparkling Blanc de Blanc which is made of 100% Chardonnay. So I decided I have to get over my prejudices and see what else there is behind the butter and oak. I'm not the only grape nut exploring the world of Chard these days. Jay McInerney at Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about Santa Barbara Chardonnays that makes me want to seek them out. And it's been a favorite topic on the Chowhound message board.
Chardonnay is a grape that is easy to grow and very adaptable to soil and climate conditions, no wonder it is grown everywhere. But what I didn't know was easy it is to manipulate in the winery. So it was big surprise to me that there are more styles out there than the big butter bombs from California that I'm used to tasting. To expand my knowledge, I recently did a tasting of three major Chardonnay regions to get a sense of the different styles that exist.
First up, Chablis. Now hold on to your hats, this isn't the Chablis you saw in the '70s and '80s that came in the big jug. Nope. This Chablis is defined by where it's grown, Chablis, France. What makes this style so unique is the soil that it's grown in: chalky, limestone with high levels of minerals. I tried the William Fevre 2007 and it was completely different from the Chardonnay I've grown to mock. All that chalky soil really creates a different kind of Chardonnay expereince: lots of green apple and lemon but that fruit is dominated by flintiness and the aromas of wet stones. It has a steeliness to it that's created by high levels of acidity. Unike the typical California Chardonnay, this does not see one bit of oak as it's femented in stainless steel. It also doesn't typically undergo malolactic fermentation, a process where the harsher malic acid is converted into the softer lactic acid, but more on that tomorrow. And all that acidity makes Chablis a good ager. It's heralded to be a good pairing with oysters, something I hope to try someday.
Next up: Burgundy, France. You could call Burgundy Chardonnay's spiritual homeland. Burgundy has been growing Chardonnay for centuries, carefully documenting which vineyards produce the best examples of the grape. This wine was my favorite of the tasting, somewhere inbetween the steeliness of the Chablis and the richness of the California, it was dry with medium levels of acidity. I could taste apples, meyer lemon and creaminess rather than a butteriness. It was a bit like having a great apple pie. I could also dectect that it had seen some oak, but it wasn't overwhelming, indicating it was likely a blend of stainless steel and old oak barrel fermentation. It has enough acidity to cut through richer foods like cream sauces and would make a great partner to most seafood dishes.
Finally, California. This Sonoma-Cutrer 2006 is a favorite of Chardonnay lovers. I know a number of people who go gaga for this wine. For me it is a classic example of the rich and creamy style of California Chardonnay. Their website espouses a adherence to the Burgundian style, however, you can't take the California out of the grape. This rich wine had aromas of apples, pineapples, coconut and caramel. It was very rich and buttery. I think most Chardonnay lovers would really enjoy this wine.
So, have I become a Chardonnay convert? Perhaps not quite yet but this exercise has made me less fearful of them and more willing to explore the grape from different environments. Here's to new experiences!