THE GOCHISO GOURMET: A White Wine for All Palates

I’m not sure if there’s still this wine backlash going on; ABC or “Anything But Chardonnay,” or this rejection of Chardonnay by up-and-coming wine enthusiasts. It may have started when the trend was to produce massive, palate-coating, maximum-extracted and concentrated Chardonnays that you needed a spoon to “eat” more than sip. Wines so big that even lardo couldn’t match their intensity and concentration. And never mind the pallets of new oak that seemed to also be concentrated in each bottle. Is this an exaggeration? Well, maybe a wee bit, but there did seem to be a point where Chardonnay seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and pushing the 15 to 16 percent abv (alcohol by volume) limit. It became so concentrated that even lobster in vanilla sauce or roasted pork with grilled stone fruit seemed to wilt with these large wines. Thankfully, New World producers seem to be exercising restraint with their vinification procedures (Old World producers are limited by climactic conditions). So there’s a Chardonnay for every palate.

2003 Querciabella Batar photos courtesy of Ryan Tatsumoto

The Benchmark

Probably the greatest expression of Chardonnay comes from Burgundy, France, in the Cote d’Or or “golden slopes,” specifically in the southern end or the Cote-d’Beaune. The seven Chardonnay-based Grand Cru or top-level wines are grown within the villages of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton.

Just below these seven top wine (Charlemagne, Corton-Charlemagne, Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Batard-Montrachet, Criots-Batard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet) are the Premier Cru (often listed as 1er Cru) and these are the wines that may make their way into my personal wine cellar (I would love to fill my cellar with Grand Cru Burgundy, but would have to sell off all of my other possessions). Then below the Premier Cru wines you have the Village-designated wines that for the most part, are affordable.

While white Burgundy can have a richness rivaling even the biggest New World Chardonnays, they also possess a great minerality to them (terroir) and most have that unmistakable “funk” on the nose just after uncorking the bottle. It’s almost like walking into a clean barn or poultry coup if it has “good” funk or may be as fragrant as a true working farm for that “bad” funk. In most cases, that initial fragrant hit blows off if the wine is decanted or let to sit for a while. What most good Burgundies also possess is a seamless flow over the palate where one flavor sensation flows into the next without interruption so that it gives the taste buds a “seamless” quality. Because these wines aren’t extracted to the hilt, they also usually finish very pleasantly without any bitter edges. Their main drawback is that most Premier and Grand Cru wines need to sit and rest before uncorking. Quietly and coolly. For a while. Okay make that years. Many years. If you uncork a bottle just after its release, unless you decant it and let it sit for a couple of hours, you won’t be rewarded with the complexity that fine Burgundy is known for. While most New World Chardonnays can be thoroughly enjoyed upon release, modifying a statement from that distinguished Frenchman Paul Masson; you should not open a white burgundy “before its time.”

Slightly higher northwest of the Cote d’Or sits Chablis. Real Chablis. Not the stuff you find in Mylar bags within wine boxes on supermarket shelves. This is real Chablis. No, make that real good Chablis. And it too is made with Chardonnay grapes. Except the expression here is totally different than what you find in the Cote d’Beaune. Partly due to the Kimmeridgian clay soil, partly due to the paucity of oak during vinification, partly due to the cooler growing climate. Therefore Chablis has a crisper quality due to the higher acid levels and less pronounced ripe fruit flavors compared to wines from the Cote d’Beaune. Due to the marine clay soils, the earthy qualities are more chalk and limestone in nature than the pebbly qualities found in southern Burgundy. And some feel it has a distinct lamb’s wool quality. There are also seven Grand Cru wines (Vaudesir, Valmur, Le Clos, Blanchot, Grenouilles, Les Preuses and Bougros) and many Premier Cru designated wines just below the Grand Cru with the generic Chablis designation just below that. Once again, the downside is that the acids in the wine take time to soften, on the order of years so like Paul Masson would have said…

New World Wines

I won’t dwell on Chardonnays from the Golden State since I’m sure everyone has tried a glass and even has their favorite Napa, Sonoma or Santa Barbara version. I’ll simply say that growers are finding distinct qualities of finished wines depending on the region where the grapes are grown. The Central Coast in the Santa Maria Valley has an abundance of limestone soils and this translates to that same terroir ending up in the finished wine. I find many of these wines to have distinct aromas of seashells and chalkier earth aroma than the pebbly minerality found in wines from the Sonoma Coast and if the wine is big but without any distinct earthy qualities then I assume it’s from Napa Valley.

Chardonnay is also grown in New Zealand and Australia. In fact Chardonnay was New Zealand’s most widely planted wine grape until they found out that Sauvignon Blanc made exceptional wines in the land of the kiwi. Due to its cooler climate, kiwi Chardonnay usually has crisper acidity, almost like Chablis, though they do employ new oak so their Chards are like a cross between Chablis and the Golden State. The Land Down Under does have the ability to make very memorable wines though unfortunately a lot of what is exported was as much lab created and vineyard created. Taking a quote from George Hendry of Hendry Winery in Napa Valley, “I don’t make wine, I grow wine.”  If you sift through the masses of wine, there are excellent renditions from Down Under as evidenced by a recent blind Chardonnay tasting I attended. One of my faves was the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay.

2004 Bouchard Meursault 1er Cru Genevrieres

Other Worldly Chardonnays

Given its propensity for growth, it’s no wonder that Chardonnay is also propagated in Old and New World regions alike other than the U.S. and Burgundy. Italy has had a long tradition of Chardonnay growth though part of its lack of notoriety stems from the grape itself. It commonly was confused with Pinot Blanc and vineyards still have both varietals interspersed among each other. In fact, yours truly brought a bottle to the blind tasting from the famed house of Querciabella that was primarily Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Blanc — I’m not sure if the blend was intentional or unplanned but in any case, my bottle was sadly corked. In southern Italy, the Sicilian house of Planeta makes a pure Chardonnay that’s a blend of Old World terroir and New World fruit.

Argentina and Chile are also increasing their acreage of Chardonnay every year and they’ll soon be at the same point that the Golden State was about a decade or two ago. Of course the key is to let the earth speak and let the fruit speak and not let new oak get in the way of the two. Paired with white meats or hearty seafood, they’re a shoo-in for dancing with the stars… culinary speaking of course.

At the blind Chardonnay tasting I mentioned, here’s my faves with my own 5 point rating for each:

2007 Domaine LeFlaive

Macon-Verze (4.5)

With the unmistakable “good”  funk on the nose with a perfect balance of mineral, fruit and acid with a seamless flow over the palate and a very long finish.

Francois Jobard Meursault 1er Cru Genevriere

2004 Bouchard Meursault

1er Cru Genevrieres (4.5)

Loads of minerality with lemon curd and a pleasing balance of fruit, earth and acid with a seamless flow over the palate and a long finish.

1992 Francois Jobard Meursault 1er Cru Genevrieres (4)

With a dark golden hue and a nose with baked stone fruit and citrus curd, then a balancing underlying minerality, this almost 20-year-old had a rich but not cloying finish.

2004 Leeuwin Estate Margaret River Art Series Chardonnay (4)

With ripe mango-pear on the nose with soft buttery oak on the palate and a seamless flow over the palate and a very long finish.

The two Chardonnays I brought:

2004 Aubert The Quarry

2004 Aubert

The Quarry Chardonnay (3.5)

A lot more oak on the nose than I remember from other Aubert Chardonnays. It had a nice stone fruit and mineral was also there, but it was overshadowed by the oak and with a slightly bitter finish.

2003 Querciabella Batar (corked)

Primarily Chardonnay with a touch of Pinot Blanc named after the famed village of Batard Montrachet… unfortunately this bottle was corked.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco, a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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