Why drink Chardonnay, a very misunderstood but versatile grape?
I went out for oysters the other night with my friend, Jack, who’s also in the wine business. Neither of us are picky eaters and he has great taste. It’s probably at least half of why we’re friends. So, it never even occurred to me that we’d run into a moment of contention when picking a bottle of wine.
I’m a Muscadet or sparkling kind of person when it comes to an oyster pairing and if I’m feeling adventurous I’ll venture as far as a bracingly acidic Chenin Blanc or a salty Albarino. Not in a million years would I have expected what came out of his mouth when I asked what he was thinking. “They have a 2014 Saint-Aubin listed for a pretty good steal and I always love trying a new Chardonnay.” Chardonnay?! With oysters?! Was he crazy?!
Now, while I will gladly call this man my colleague, he has been in this industry much longer than I have and is admittedly quite a deal more knowledgeable. Naturally, I conceded. Maybe he was onto something and who am I to pass up an opportunity to learn something?
I immediately had to eat my words. It was perfect. The oysters we got were east coasters; delightfully briney and fatty. The Burgundy was so mineral laden, a little wooly and just weighty enough to help the oysters slide right down. It jumped in bed with all the brininess and snuggled up to it with this lightly creamy texture that resulted in a heavenly mouth full. He was right. That Chardonnay was the right way to go.
Buttery Chardonnays and it’s alternatives
It got me thinking though. How many times have I overlooked a Chardonnay just because I’ve had so many that were overdone or downright overwhelming ones in the past? Those only represent a fraction of the expressions of Chardonnay that are available. I know that. I’m the last person who should be biased just because of a few less than desirable apples. Chardonnay is one of the most versatile grapes out there but, it seems like most folks drinking it these days have one idea of what it is and one idea only.
Thanks to the boom of heavily oaked Chardonnays that came rip roaring out of California in the 80s and 90s that became so popular (think Sonoma Cutrer, Cupcake, etc) people got it in their heads that all Chardonnay was like drinking drawn butter: thick, rich, full of diacetyl (the compound that makes it taste like butter) and weighty.
When done in moderation all of these things can be excellent qualities to have in a wine and many California producers do a great job. I’m not trying to say that this way is wrong or lesser (I’ll still jump on a bottle of Kistler in a heartbeat given the chance), rather just that it’s not the only way.
Burgundy is a perfect example of just how different Chardonnay can be. In Chablis, the northernmost region of Burgundy, the climate is cooler, the soil is riddled with limestone and the wine is rarely, if ever, aged in oak. It results in a Chardonnay that is lean, mineral laden, sometimes a touch salty, zesty, and famously chalky.
Further south, in the Cote de Beaune, the Chardonnay is richer. You see a bit more orchard fruit showing through. The climate is warmer and oak is often used in aging. You get more of that buttered brioche note and even some toasted nuttiness.
Oak VS Stailnless steel Chardonnay
In the 2000s the United States jumped on the unoaked Chardonnay bandwagon. While Chablis had been doing this all along, these Chardonnays were different. The climates in California and the Pacific Northwest were so drastically different. Stainless steel Chardonnays in California were bursting with tropical fruits, which had been there all along but now could shine through and let us bask in their juicy glory. It was ripe and luscious and I remember hardly even believing it was Chardonnay. In places like Washington and Oregon you saw steely, bracing Chardonnays that were downright chuggable.
The best way to find an unoaked brother is look for these terms on a label: ‘inox,’ ‘sans chêne’ (France),‘acero’ (Spain) and simply ‘no oak’.
The French aren’t the only ones to do Chardonnay either. Italy does Chardonnay, and so does New Zealand and a number of other places that we don’t even stop to consider. They are all drastically different. It’s a very versatile grape and does well in so many conditions.
The soil, the weather, and the winemaking processes used all contribute to the final product. It has not and never will be just one thing. So, next time someone offers you a Chardonnay, tells you that it’s something that isn’t at all what you think it will be, maybe just try it. You might just find a new favorite. Alternatively download Wine Picker, a food and wine matching app for Android and iOS that will find wine for any taste.