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Chardonnay is a Schizophrenic Bitch

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by weshagen

Chardonnay is a grape varietal that is provably schizophrenic. She is both a rock star and a charlatan, a soft spoken ballerina and a brazen harlot, generic as a white label with a blue stripe across it and as expressive as a zealot. Why is this varietal so likely to cause both passionate debate and bored indifference? I’m going to try to make the suggestion in the text of this short article on growing Chardonnay in your backyard, that it has to do with where its grown and how it is made.
Americans were some of the last to plant Chardonnay, and some of the first to take it for granted. In the 1960’s there was less than 1000 acres planted in California, and most of it was mislabeled as ‘Chablis’, which of course is a region, not a varietal. So from the get go Californians screwed it up, doing more damage to the noble wines of Chablis with our unfair mislabeling as any devious ad campaign could have. Innocuous, cheap, uninteresting, flat Chardonnays from California stole the name from Chablis—and Chablis is still used as a name for the generic white wines that come out of large grape production areas of the Central Valley of California. Shame, as the REAL Chablis produces some of the most beautiful, long lived, and expressive white wines (100% Chardonnay, as always) in the world. There is currently about 100,000 acres of Chardonnay under cultivation in California, three times the amount that is bearing in Burgundy and Chablis, the Homeland of Chardonnay, and arguably the world’s greatest terroir for producing white wine. (Notice I only use the term terroir when it applies to French wine regions with Centuries of history and pedigree. We don’t have the history to use the term yet, in my never-to-be-humble opinion.)
Other regions (besides California, and specifically Sonoma Coast, Santa Cruz, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Chalone, Monterey County, Santa Barbara County, and specifically the Santa Rita Hills) that have shown great promise with the Chardonnay grape include Margaret River, Australia, Oregon, Washington (especially in the Columbia River Gorge), New Zealand and New York . Of course as soon as I think I’ve tried wines from all the areas that can grow world-class Chardonnay, a wine arrives in my glass showing me just how generous the varietal it can be. Like Pinot Noir, I believe Chardonnay suffers no fools, but unlike Pinot Noir (a very distant relative of Chardonnay), Chardonnay can take a lot of manipulation by the winemaker. It’s a varietal, as a famous winemaker once told me, that ‘you can hang a lot of clothes on’.
That means that the treatment in the winery can dictate the wine’s final style almost as much as the appellation of the sourced fruit. Oak treatment is famous in Chardonnay production. During America’s undeniable love affair with oaky Chardonnay in the 1980’s and 1990’s (a trend I’m happy to say is dying slowly in most regions), some producers (even in France!) bragged that they were using 200% new French oak in their Chardonnays. That means the wine would be fermented and aged 6 months in a brand new barrel, and then racked into another brand new French oak barrel. While some would call this a ‘luxury cuvee’, putting almost $10 of new oak in every bottle of Chardonnay is like drenching a beautiful prime ribeye in A1 sauce. It may taste good to some, but to most of us it seems a waste of quality base product, and will surely obliterate the uniqueness of flavor either in a well-bred Angus steer or some nice coastal Chardonnay fruit. Malolactic fermentation (which is not a true fermentation but more accurately a bacterial process of decarboxylating malic acid into lactic acid by leuconostoc oenos) is another process by which Chardonnay can be stylized, and the buttery style (as distinct or combined with oak treatment) still has many fans in the white wine world. It can be argued that the combination of malolactic treatment and oakiness made Chardonnay in the 1980’s and 1990’s so recognizable, that Chardonnay, as Jancis Robinson once famously quipped, “Virtually became it’s own brand”. It became synonymous with white wine.
So now that the tide is turning stylistically in Chardonnay, what is the varietal today and what direction is it moving? Of the hundreds of Chardonnays I taste judging international wine competitions each year, few remain the big, buttery monsters of the late twentieth century. Chardonnay is losing weight in the new Millennia, becoming more yoga and less elephant, more like a crisp green apple rolling on earthy river pebbles than caramel and butter popcorn absorbing the aromas of a French lumbermill. As a true believer in the varietal, I couldn’t me more pleased. Chardonnay has a flavor of its own—one of the few wine varietals that screams place and represents the vineyard where it was grown, and seeing the wines become more transparent to the pedigree is always a step in the right direction from my perspective as a wine lover and educator.