Last month, Chuck Furuya arranged a blind tasting of chardonnay at Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar (500 Ala Moana Blvd., Restaurant Row, Honolulu), mainly for several vintners who were in town for The Kahala Hotel and Resort’s For The Love of Wine Festival. The instructions were simple: Bring one bottle of chardonnay per person, but conceal the identity of the bottle, and make sure it is at a drinkable temperature. Of course, one also needed to be present at said date and time, something that escaped all of the winemakers. Oh well, there were still 12 of us with chilled bottles in hand, and sometimes the last thing you want is a winemaker who is upset because his wine wasn’t chosen as the best of the lot … or even worse, 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 and wine stores carry them and there’s at least one bottle on every restaurant’s wine list. In fact, chardonnay is the second most common grape varietal planted worldwide. It comes 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 and 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 (second 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, you 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. These 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 has been said that it 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 age well, so I 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 three grapes in champagne (the other two being pinot noir and pinot meunier) and it is bottled as a blend of the three 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 started this section by saying “arguably” because in a blinded tasting during The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a panel composed mainly of Frenchman (9 French, one British and one 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 one Grand Cru and three 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 California) 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 maintained.
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 Meursault 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
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.