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APRIL 2012: Chardonnay Showdown

wine_chardonnay.jpgIf you've poked around this site enough or follow me on Twitter, you know that I'm an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) gal when it comes to white wine. Somehow when I started drinking I never found myself, unlike most other beginners, on the Chardonnay Bandwagon. It just never captured my palate, usually too boring, flabby or oaky. It is assuredly not very impressive that I preferred Pinot Grigio or Sauvgnon Blanc, if a choice was to be had. As I began my wine education, I had plenty of exposure to this ubiquitous grape, tasting versions from all over the world and still, with the exception of Chablis, none of those bottles have convinced me to switch my allegiance from my longstanding and current favorites – Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. Or Albarino, Pinot Grigio (from Colli), Sauvignon Blanc (from Sonoma), etc. You get my point.

I like my whites, fresh, aromatic, fruity with bright acidity and NO oak. You see my problem with Chardonnay. Sure, some California winemakers have been trying to capitalize in recent years on the backlash against the "oak/butter bombs" of the 80s and 90s...with mixed results. There are wineries like Chamisal and Morgan that are doing it right; however, many are making a stainless/non-malo version to appeal to people like me, which does not necessarily use the grape to its best advantage. I don't hate oak, I'm just seeking the best balance between the fruit and the winemaker's vision. Stainless to be stainless is just the flip side of the over-oaked equation. Wine made to fit a marketing slot.

Where is all this yammering going? Well, the tasting group I belong to decided this month to hold a tasting featuring a grape 75% of the group didn't like and/or rarely purchased. Chardonnay was a slam dunk. Zinfandel was a close second. Of the 130 bottles of white wine I own, 3% is Chardonnay. Four lonely bottles. I have more 100% Marsannes (5), a Rhone grape almost exclusively used for blending. Needless to say, I was somewhat excited by this endeavor, but I wasn't holding out any hope that it would change my mind. When I'm out and about tasting, which happens a lot, I taste everything, even occasionally Chardonnay. So, believe me, lack of exposure is not an issue. Finding the right balance and complexity is.

Since almost none of us drank Chardonnay regularly, each of us bringing a favorite to the table was not an option. We enlisted the two lovers of this grape, who also have very good wine knowledge, to purchase some well-regarded (read expensive) examples to see if cost/big scores could change our minds.

chardlineup.jpgThere were 9 bottles: 3 from France, 1 from Napa, 1 from Sonoma, 3 from Santa Barbara and one from the Chalone appellation in the Central Coast. The most expensive was $75, the least $25. All saw some oak. I wished there had been a Chablis or stainless version in the lineup for comparison.

Of course, that bottle may not have been as obvious as we thought. With the exception of the Napa wine, the oak influence was fairly restrained, if at all overtly noticeable. The color of the wines was much lighter as well, not the deep, golden hue we were all expecting. As the evening went along, it became apparent that we had found a whole segment of Chardonnay, a sort of middle-of-the-road, that towed the oak line quite nicely. That being said, the organizers purposefully chose bottles that skewed away from the overblown CA style we all knew and loathed. The point of the evening was not to torture us, but to find examples that would make us believers.

Though there were some lovely wines I was happy to have in my glass, for the most part, I went away feeling the same way about this grape as when the evening began – not understanding what all the fuss is about. Wine is about fruit and Chardonnay just doesn't usually have enough complexity of flavor without the use of oak to make me sit up and take notice. And since I don't like oak in my white wine, we are still at an impasse...but admittedly a smidge more open-minded thanks to Liquid Farm, the evening's clear winner.

liquidfarmchard.jpgIt hit all the right notes, with lovely aromatics, complex fruit flavors, great balance and a lengthy finish. Plus, no new oak, though clearly not a stainless version either. I can't be sure (have found nothing to confirm on the Internet), but I am guessing neutral barrels were used, which allowed the fruit to shine while still delivering the smooth, round mouthfeel one expects from this grape. A step in the right direction, at least if winemakers want to capture my attention...and that of the 8 other, burgeoning wine lovers in our group.

Listed group favorite in descending order:

2010 Liquid Farm White Hill – Santa Barbara – $36 – 78% group approval – 1st for me
2010 Melville Vineyards Wente Clone – Santa Barabra – $30 – 70% – 5th
2010 Bedrock Wine Co. Brousseau Vineyard – Chalone – $26 – 66% – 2nd
2009 Peter Michael "Belle Cote" – Sonoma – Sonoma – $75 – 66% – 3rd
2008 Saarloos & Sons Daughters – Santa Barbara – $28 – 64% – 6th
2008 Louis Jadot Chassagne–Montrachet – Burgundy – $47 – 63% – 7th
2009 Ramey Winery Hyde Vineyard – Napa Valley – $60 – 61% – 4th
2008 Robert–Denogent Les Pommards Saint Veran – Burgundy – $32 – 8th

I was able to pick out the French wines (yay me) and the most alcoholic (the Peter Michael at 15%) and the Napa, the oak was a dead giveaway but not offensively so. The 3rd french wine was from the Macon and I didn't write the name down because it was clearly spoiled. All the wines were popped and poured, which may be the reason the French versions were not as popular, as they generally need more time to open up. The top three wines definitely had more acidity and freshness as well as brighter aromatics. Youth, to some extent, assuredly played a role. The older wines were more muted on the nose and thus didn't really encourage tasting, though once on the palate they picked up steam. Might have been more fair if all had been from the same vintage, but since this was merely a tasting to spark Chardonnay love, it wasn't a priority.

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