Most wine writers these days, if they write about white wines, expound on the virtue of ABC – Anything But Chardonnay. And while, admittedly, Chardonnay has never been a favorite of mine, there comes a time for all things. And even I have my moments of Chardonnay-ness.
Of the big, well known grape varietals, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon lead the pack. Even non-wine drinkers are familiar with these two.
Around since the beginning of wine history, Chardonnay is one of the cornerstones of worldwide wine production. It’s hardy, grown in cooler climates making it perfect for northern France, Napa, Sonoma, Carneros, Oregon, the mountains of Chile, and the hills surrounding Santa Barbara. It can be smoky, buttery, crisp like a green apple, citrusy as a lemon, full of flinty-mineral flavors, smooth and creamy, or like buttered popcorn in a bottle.
In France Chardonnay is called white Burgundy. Pouilly Fuissé, the buzz wine of the 1970s and ‘80s, is a Chardonnay. The soil in the Chardonnay region of France tends to be chalk. In some areas the chalk content is so high the soil is actually white. The wines are usually crisp, clean, flinty (a slight dusty finish), wonderfully aromatic and long lived. Most just get better with age.
My favorite story about White Burgundy concerns Charlemagne, then emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s said that Charlemagne loved wine, especially a red wine called Corton. But his wife found unattractive the red wine he inevitably spilled down his long white beard. She asked the winegrower to produce a white wine to satisfy him. The winegrower complied and Corton Charlemagne was born. Today it sells for $100 a bottle.
Chablis is another wonderful White Burgundy. You might know Chablis as horrible stuff – wretched, sweet-ish, abysmal. You are mistaken. In the 1970s, Chablis was a name attached to any generic white wine by the large, box wine producers. The wine was usually a very low level white, produced from Thompson Seedless grapes. The winemakers thought Americans didn’t know any better. These days, because of past prejudices, selling real Chablis can be a struggle. But it really is a lovely, minerally Chardonnay with very little oak and nice citrus touches.
Over here and "down under," we tend to like our Chardonnays with a bit of smokiness and lots of buttered popcorn flavors. When done well, a good New World Chardonnay has enough flavor and structure to be a meal in itself.
In recent years "un-oaked" chardonnays have gained in popularity, even in California. It’s crisp and citrusy, without a hint of smoke or oak. This is Chardonnay with minimal finesse.
My latest discovery is Oregon Chardonnay, and these might just offer the best of both worlds. Some oak, but well integrated. Crisp, clean, with good acid and great with food. Ten years ago you wouldn't catch me drinking one. Now, I seem to gravitate to them. Just delicious.
So I dare you to bypass the “ABCs” of the world and try Chardonnay again. It remains the number one selling white wine in the world for a reason.