Chardonnay: A Most Versatile Grape
“That’s my favorite wine so far this summer,” my wife said as she finished a glass of 2019 Argyle Nut House Chardonnay. Never mind that the summer solstice had yet to arrive and that when she opened the bottle it was still spring—albeit an excessively hot spring. The Chardonnay had resonated and was a favorite.
And rightfully so. This wine is a solid example of just how delicious a single vineyard Chardonnay from the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon’s Willamette Valley can be. Aged 18-months in French Oak, the wine was fresh but lush with a rounded finish. It was a style of Chard that works wonderfully with food and pleases palates that love richness.
Later that same week, a crowd of happy people, gathering for the first time in months around the gardens and the pool at Aspen’s Element 47, toasted the opening of the first Little Nell Culinary Festival. In their glasses were the bubbles of a pair of wines from the classic Champagne producer Ruinart (pronounced rwee:nahr), the world’s first Champagne house and a member of the LVMH family.
The wines, a crisp fresh Blanc de Blanc and a pink Champagne Róse, were also delicious but in a completely different way from the Oregon offering. And the beauty of both were the product of Chardonnay, Ruinart’s emblematic grape variety. The Blanc de Blanc was 100% Chardonnay, and the Róse was a blend of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But make no mistake, these were wines driven by the balance of the white grape, the Chardonnay.
The beauty of Chardonnay is that it dresses up so well in so many different costumes. It can be elegant, as was that sparkling Blanc de Blanc from Ruinart. It can be flinty and crisp as a stony Chablis that pairs perfectly with oysters. It can be rich and golden and round as a buttery California or Oregon interpretation, and it can be austere and steely as an un-oaked release from New Zealand. And that doesn’t even take into account the mind-blowing, life-changing white wines from the region in France that is the global sweet spot for Chardonnay, Burgundy. The amazing thing about Chardonnay is that it can be so varied and unique depending upon where it is grown and how it is touched by the winemaker’s hand.
Chardonnay is perhaps the most versatile grape on Earth. While its origins lie in Burgundy, it is hardy and grows well in many different soils and terroir around the globe. Winemakers have always loved it because they could put their imprint on the grape and, when the intent is to create wines that are a reflection of a winemaker’s skills, it makes for a perfect canvas.
Interestingly, enough Chardonnay is a relatively recent star in American wine. While there were some minimal plantings in the early 1900s in California, it was not until the 1950s that bottlings of the grape began to come to market. The most significant event in the elevation of Chardonnay to the status it enjoys today came in 1976 when a bottle of Napa’s Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay won the Judgment of Paris tasting. The victory, which came at the expense of a number of worthy French Burgundies, helped to bring Chardonnay into the lexicon of American wine consumers. And now, nearly half a century later, it is the dominant white variety for American consumers.
There was a time, just about the turn of this century, that the wine cognoscenti rebelled against the popularity of Chardonnay. The “Anything But Chardonnay” movement, or ABC, had become the trendy way to say no to the established queen of white wines. Too oaky, too viscous, too manipulated, was the cry as insiders turned to Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc or other more acidic varieties as their pale pours of choice.
Never mind that not one would turn their noses up at the great Meursault or Montrachet (pronounced Mon-rashay) wines of Burgundy that are made from 100% Chardonnay. Nor was there a dislike for great Champagnes also made from Chardonnay. The movement was predicated on damning the whole for the actions of a few. Those winemakers who had, reacting to the tenor and tastes of the times, upped the oak and had overly manipulated the wines to appeal to a certain aesthetic.
When people are critical of Chardonnay it is often a response to “flabby” wines. These are wines that are overly oaked, have high alcohol and are out of balance. And they have a point. Many Chardonnays, particularly those that have been mass-produced in lower price ranges, have traded balance for yucky, over-drawn flavor. Oak, alcohol and an overly buttery style all mask the quality of the grapes. In the late ‘90s and early ‘oughts, some wines from California and Australia were made in this way to profit from the Chardonnay craze. In fact they were responsible for creating the “Anything but Chardonnay” backlash that followed.
But there are also Chardonnays from both regions that are balanced, bold and delicious, as well as being slightly buttery. This is often the result of making wine using a process called Malolactic Fermentation, combined with generous time spent in high quality oak barrels.
Malolactic fermentation or, MLF, is it is sometimes called, is a secondary fermentation. winemakers use the practice to alter the tart and harsh “malic” acids naturally found in grapes to a mellower, more rounded “lactic” acid. This can transform the way a Chardonnay tastes and, more importantly, how it feels in the mouth.
Chardonnay remained and still remains the best selling white wine on the planet. Domestically, Chardonnay sales in 2020 accounted for about $2.8 billion in wine sales, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.2 billion), according to Nielson numbers.
While America loves it some Chard, the enormous growth in sales is also a by-product of the growth of the consumer market itself. Today there are great Chardonnay wines from all over the world and as standards and the quality of Chardonnay’s improve in places like South Africa and South America, our love affair with the grape will continue.
2019 Far Niente Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Napa Valley
2019 Far Niente Estate Chardonnay
Sometimes it’s just best to go with a classic. This 40th anniversary from one of the Napa Valley icons is a blend of Chardonnay from Napa Valley vineyards, many of which are located in Coombsville, the cool growing region east of the city of Napa. Winemaker Nichole Marchesi produced this wine in the “house” style, which is focused on creating Chardonnay wines without the use of malolactic fermentation that see classic proportions of structure, elegance, style and length with a focus on age-ability. There is a fresh, lemon and citrus quality to the wine that pairs perfectly with fresh salmon and dill. A true great.
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After taking a leap of faith, Alpine Wine Design, who has a booth at the Aspen Saturday Market, makes good use of old barrels and boxes for unique offerings