Chardonnay: one of the most versatile grape varieties
“This is my favorite wine so far this summer,” my wife said as she finished a glass of Argyle Nut House 2019 Chardonnay. Never mind that the summer solstice had not yet arrived and when she opened the bottle was still spring, although exceedingly hot. The Chardonnay had resonated and was a favorite.
And rightly so. This wine is a solid example of the delicious chardonnay quality from a single vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Aged 18 months in French oak, the wine was fresh but lush with a round finish. It was a style of Swiss chard that works wonderfully with food and appeals to wealth-loving palates.
Later that week, a crowd of happy people, gathered for the first time in months around the gardens and pool area of 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, crisp blanc de blanc and a rosé champagne, were also delicious but in a completely different way from what Oregon has to offer. And the beauty of both was the fruit of Chardonnay, Ruinart’s emblematic grape. The Blanc de Blanc was made from 100% Chardonnay and the Róse was a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But make no mistake, these are wines driven by the balance of the white grape variety, Chardonnay.
The beauty of Chardonnay is that it dresses so well in so many different costumes. It can be elegant, as was this sparkling Blanc de Blanc from Ruinart. It can be flinty and crisp like a stony Chablis that goes perfectly with oysters. It can be rich, golden, and round like a buttery interpretation of California or Oregon, and it can be stark and sharp like an unoaked version of New Zealand. And that doesn’t even take into account the breathtaking and life-changing white wines of the region of France which is the global sweet spot for Chardonnay, in Burgundy. What is amazing about Chardonnay is that it can be so varied and unique depending on where it is grown and how it is touched by the hand of the winemaker.
Chardonnay is perhaps the most versatile grape on Earth. Although its origins are in Burgundy, it is rustic and grows well in many different soils and terroirs around the world. Winemakers have always loved it because they could put their mark on the grape and, when the intention is to create wines that reflect the skills of a winemaker, that makes for a perfect canvas.
Interestingly enough, Chardonnay is a relatively recent star in American wine. Although there were some minimal plantings in the early 1900s in California, it wasn’t until the 1950s that grape bottlings started to hit the market. The most significant event in the rise of Chardonnay to the status it enjoys today occurred in 1976 when a bottle of Napa’s Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay won the Judgment of Paris. This victory, which came to the detriment of many worthy French Burgundians, helped bring Chardonnay into the lexicon of American wine consumers. And now, almost half a century later, it’s the dominant white variety for American consumers.
There was a time, around the turn of this century, when wine connoisseurs rebelled against the popularity of Chardonnay. The “Anything But Chardonnay” or ABC movement had become the fashionable way to say no to the established queen of white wines. Too woody, too viscous, too manipulated was the cry as insiders turned to Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc or other more acidic varieties as their pale choice.
Never mind, no one disdains the great wines of Burgundy Meursault or Montrachet (pronounced Mon-Rashay) made from 100% Chardonnay. There was also no aversion to great Champagnes also made from Chardonnay. The movement was based on the condemnation of the whole for the actions of a few. These winegrowers who, reacting to the tenor and the tastes of the time, had raised the woodiness and manipulated the wines too much to appeal to a certain aesthetic.
When people criticize Chardonnay, it is often a response to “flabby” wines. These are wines that are too woody, very alcoholic and unbalanced. And they are right. Many Chardonnays, especially those that have been mass produced in lower price ranges, have traded their balance for a disgusting, overused flavor. The oak, the alcohol and an overly buttery style mask the quality of the grapes. In the late 90s and early 90s, some wines from California and Australia were made this way to take advantage of the Chardonnay craze. In fact, they were responsible for creating the “Everything Except Chardonnay” backlash that followed.
But there are also Chardonnays from both regions which are balanced, fatty and delicious, in addition to being lightly buttery. This is often the result of wine making using a process called malolactic fermentation, combined with generous time spent in high quality oak barrels.
Malolactic fermentation or, MLF, is it sometimes called, is a secondary fermentation. winemakers use the practice to modify the tangy and hard “malic” acids naturally present in grapes into a smoother, more rounded “lactic” acid. This can transform the taste of a Chardonnay and, more importantly, how it feels in the mouth.
Chardonnay has remained and remains the best-selling white wine on the planet. Nationally, Chardonnay sales in 2020 were around $ 2.8 billion in wine sales, just behind Cabernet Sauvignon ($ 3.2 billion), according to Nielson figures.
While America adores Swiss chard, the huge growth in sales is also a byproduct of the growth in the consumer market itself. Today there are great Chardonnay wines from all over the world and as the standards and quality of Chardonnay improve in places like South Africa and South America, our love affair with the grape variety will continue.