Chardonnay by the Gallon
Last month, Chuck Furuya arranged a blind tasting of Chardonnay at Vino mainly for several
vintners who were in town for The Kahala's For The Love of Wine Festival. The instructions were
simple: bring a bottle of Chardonnay per person but conceal the identity of the bottle making
sure the bottle is at a drinkable temperature. Of course, you also need to be present at said date
and time. Which escaped all of the winemakers. Oh well, there's still 12 of us with chilled bottles
in hand and sometimes the last thing you want is a winemaker upset because his wine wasn't
chosen as the best of the lot... or even worst, it was chosen the worst of the lot.
What is Chardonnay?
I'm sure you've tried or at least seen a bottle of Chardonnay at your local market. Supermarkets
carry them, wine stores carry them, there's at least one bottle on every restaurant's wine list. In
fact Chardonnay is the second most common grape varietal planted worldwide. All this from
very humble beginnings since it was sired from the Gouais Blanc - a white grape that's rarely in
anyone's wine vocabulary - and the Pinot Noir or Pinot Blanc - red and white grapes that make
excellent wines on their own. The Chardonnay grape also doesn't have a lot of distinct
characteristic qualities on its own, rather it develops its character from the soil it grows in, from
the oak it's fermented in, from the yeast it ferments on.
So Where Are the Best Chardonnay Grapes Grown?
Arguably, the "best" location to grow Chardonnay is in the Northeastern region of France in
Burgundy. Isn't Burgundy a red wine? Yes and no. Some of the finest Burgundies are the Pinot
Noir based wines from the Vosne Romanee region in Burgundy. But some of the finest white
wines that are Chardonnay based come from the Cote de Beaune also in Burgundy. And what
makes these Chardonnays so special. Like real estate, it's location, location, location. Actually
soil, soil, soil. The top Chardonnay regions or Grand Cru (Montrachet,
Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet,
Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, Charlemagne, Corton-Charlemagne & Le Musigny) all have
shallow soils with an abundance of limestone just beneath the surface with chalk and clay. In
fact, a Grand Cru vineyard can literally sit just across the street from a Premier Cru (2nd level
wine) or even a village designated wine (average wine) with the difference simply being what lies
just below the soil surface. Are they good? Well, I don't claim to be an expert on Grand Cru
white Burgundy mainly because I rarely get to sample them. They're EXPENSIVE! Bleeding nose
expensive in some cases starting just under $100 a bottle up to the several hundred per bottle
price range. And because they age well, even if you could afford a bottle, would be well advised
to let it sit. For years. Because it will take that long for the wine to peak. My affordability price
range lies with the Premier Cru wines which sit just behind the Grand Cru wines and have a
better price point in my opinion. But Premier Cru wines also can improve with age so I usually
won't consider uncorking a bottle until it's about 10 years old.
Of course the denizens living about 60 miles north of the Beaune will argue that their
Chardonnay based wines are the best. This would be the wines of Chablis. Real Chablis. Not that
stuff in Mylar bags sitting in 5 liter cardboard boxes. The difference up north is the
Kimmeridgian limestone found in the soil and the use of stainless steel or old oak barrels for
fermentation. Since Chablis isn't influenced by new oak barrels, it's been said that Chablis is the
pure expression of Chardonnay developing its character simply from the climate and the soil.
And since the climate is colder up north, Chablis retains more acidity than the white Burgundies
of the Beaune giving it green apple and flinty qualities. And the region also classifies its wine by
Grand Cru (Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos and Blanchot), Premier
Cru and Village status though most Grand Cru Chablis wines will set you back about the same as
Premier Cru white Burgundies... unless you love Raveneau like I do which will set you back $$$.
These wines also do age well so I also wait about 10 years before uncorking a bottle.
Finally, Chardonnay is also grown in the Champagne region of France. It's one of the Big 3
grapes in Champagne (the other two being Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and it's bottled as a
blend of the 3 grapes (Brut or Rose) or by itself (Blanc de Blanc). The biggest difference in
Chardonnay "wine" produced in Champagne is that you wouldn't want to drink any of it until
the secondary fermentation in the bottle is completed. The primary fermentation product is
highly acidic and until the dead yeast cells (the lees) adds complexity to the final product, you
probably would spit out the wine. The primary fermentation and secondary fermentation
products are like the caterpillar and the butterfly.
I did start the paragraph with "Arguably" because in a blinded tasting during The Paris Wine
Tasting of 1976, a panel composed mainly of Frenchman (9 French, 1 British, 1 American) chose
the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (produced by Mike Grgich now of Grgich Hills) as the
top Chardonnay. And the French Chardonnays were no slouches either, they included 1 Grand
Cru and 3 Premier Cru white Burgundies.
For brevity's sake, I'll describe stateside Chardonnay instead of New World Chardonnay as
Chardonnay is also widely planted in Australia and New Zealand and has emerged as one of the
most common white grapes in Argentina and Chile. In fact even Old World plantings in Italy
and Spain is common and its use in wine making is rising in South Africa. But I'll limit my
comments to the Golden State.
Since the Golden State has an abundance of sunshine and constant sunshine along with fertile
soil produces ripe grapes, therein lies a potential problem. With Chardonnay, once the grape
ripens it starts losing its acids. Given that the earlier progressive winemakers tried emulating the
winemaking of white Burgundy, they also used new French oak as their fermentation vessels.
Since oak adds buttery richness, vanilla and frank oak flavors to a wine that's already very ripe
with some residual sugar, all you get on the palate is full, rich, oaky, buttery flavors with no
balancing acidity. At least full bodied Cabernets are balanced by their tannins. Therefore it got
to the point where wine drinkers were saying "ABC - Anything But Chardonnay". And these
white fruit bombs are very difficult to pair with food.
So what's a winemaker to do? Either move South (to the Santa Rita Hills in Central CA) where
there's an abundance of limestone soils or move North (to the upper Sonoma Coast and
Anderson Valley) where cool ocean breezes temper sugar ripening and allow crucial acids to be
We did sample a fair mix of French and Californian Chardonnay that night and while most of
the wines were very good (other than my corked bottle of 1993 Bernard Morey Chassagne
Montrachet 1er Cru Les Baudines), these were my favorites of the evening:
2004 Williams Selyem Heintz Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay (4/5)
Rich almost caramelized stone fruit on the nose and a very balanced flow on the palate with a
medium long finish
2000 Littorai Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (4/5)
Mineral and pebble with restrained fruit on the nose and lighter on the palate but with a
seamless flow and medium finish
1998 Francois Jobard Mersault 1er Cru Genevrieres (4.5/5)
Concentrated stone fruit and mineral in harmony on the nose with very good balance on the
palate and a long finish
2004 Morey Blanc Auxey-Duresses (4/5)
Seashell and lime on the nose with medium fruit on the palate and a good palate flow with a
medium long finish