03/06/07 – March Madness (Chardonnay)

By Jesse on March 5, 2007


This week we move on to Chardonnay, sometimes described as “California’s most widely-planted white grape,” largely because it is.  Like most grapes whose names sound French, Chardonnay’s traditional homeland is France — specifically the legendary region of Burgundy (or Bourgogne), the same appellation famous for its Pinot Noir.  Chardonnay is Burgundy’s sole white grape, and in that cool region it produces crisp, light wines that contain bright fruit and mineral flavors.  It’s also in Burgundy that some (not all) producers incorporate oak into the winemaking process.  When Chardonnay production exploded in the “new world” (California, Australia, Chile, etc.), it was warm-weather Chardonnays leading the way with their buttery oakiness; this is consequently the taste that many people associate with Chardonnay (a passage on the Wine Varietals Index says that “the natural varietal ‘taste and smell’ of Chardonnay is surprisingly unfamiliar to many wine drinkers, as its true character is often guised with dominating winemaking signatures” like buttery oak).

Chardonnay is extremely important in California; it’s uncommon to find a winery that doesn’t make one.  Be wary of assuming that all California Chards are made in that oaky, “new-world” style, though.  As we discovered during our California regional tastings, a lot of the Chardonnay made in this state still does reflect that buttery oak motif that became so popular in the eighties.  More recently, however, producers have been reigning in the oak and experimenting with a lighter, more old-world (Burgundian) style of the wine.  Additionally, much of the fullness of the wine also has to do with the ripeness of the grapes, which is directly related to climate — and as we know, the climates of California’s various wine regions vary dramatically.  So there really is no longer a “California-style” Chardonnay.  We’ve made a lot of progress.

Chardonnay is also the top white grape in Australia, where it is often blended with Semillon (try to avoid blends this week, just in case your wine gets chosen for the taste-off).  Along with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay is the top white grape in Chile as well, and is also big in South Africa.  Again, its traditional homeland is Burgundy, that storied wonderland that encompasses such familiar names as Chablis, Macon, Pouilly-Fuisse and Cote de Beaune .  Please feel free to bring a Chardonnay from anywhere in the world…. for the blind bottle, we’ll probably choose one from France, California or Australia, just to keep things simple.  (I have a bottle of Italian Chardonnay that I really loved when I tried it at a tasting, for example, but I think I’m gonna pull a Davis and leave that one at home.)

We’ll be meeting at Leah‘s house in Santa Monica.  Chill them whites, and we’ll see y’all enophiles on Tuesday at 9:00!