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Chardonnay, Back From the Brink

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; Page F05

As summer cools into autumn, it's time to open progressively bigger wines to better match the heartier dishes likely to be gracing your table. Among whites, that means chardonnay.

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Did we just hear a yawn? Chardonnay's popularity in the late 1980s was followed by a backlash against increasingly over-amped levels of alcohol (which can be mistaken for sweetness) and oak (which is about as appealing as chewing on toothpicks). However, if you've been in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) camp over the past decade, you might not have noticed that many winemakers have responded by moderating those levels, achieving more delicious and food-friendly results.

Chardonnay is not only America's most-planted varietal but also the world's second-most-planted (behind Spanish Airen, used in brandy), reflecting the ease with which it is grown around the globe. We think of it as the Tom Hanks of wine grapes: incredibly popular, and versatile enough to play a wide range of roles (from dry to sweet and from still to sparkling) under a range of aliases (such as Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuisse and white Burgundy) with varying accents (including French, Californian, Italian, Australian and South African). It usually takes the spotlight, yet it's neutral enough to play alongside chenin blanc, Semillon and even sauvignon blanc.

The chardonnay grape also takes direction well. If it's dressed up with a judicious amount of oak from its time fermenting and/or aging in barrels, you might find buttery, toasty and/or vanilla notes. If it's not, you'll appreciate its lean minerality. And when the grape is botrytised, it's a sweet revelation.


If you prefer unoaked chardonnay, look to regions where that style dominates. Burgundy's northernmost region of Chablis produces steely, dry and elegant white wines from mostly clay and limestone soil that also contains minuscule fossilized oysters, which contribute Chablis's notable minerality.

All three of the following wines are aged in stainless steel.

The crisp acidity of the 2006 Joseph Drouhin Chablis ($20) makes it a perfect match for oysters on the half shell. It cuts through richness even better than the slightly mellower, yet still lovely 2005 vintage. Both also pair with lighter fish and shellfish, and even a Caesar salad. While a $300 Raveneau Chablis offers an eye-popping example of Chablis's ultimate potential (albeit through the use of oak), even Karen's pick this week -- the 2005 and 2006 Domaine Laroche Saint Martin Chablis ($30) -- illustrates richness, elegance and complexity. Though it's also an ideal match for oysters, it turned our dinner of sauteed end-of-season soft-shell crabs into a memorable feast.

Lightly Oaked

In the early 1980s at Jeremiah Tower's Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley, Andrew was excited to try his first sip of chardonnay from the relatively undiscovered Central Coast pioneer Edna Valley Vineyard. He found it an epiphany of balance and finesse, with its hint of smoke from the barrel. Recently Andrew took a trip back to the future by tasting the 2006 Edna Valley Vineyard Paragon Chardonnay ($16; $10 at Calvert Woodley), which still holds its own as one of the best-value chardonnays around, and named it his pick this week.

Other lightly oaked chardonnays worth exploring are the 2006 Kali Hart Vineyard Chardonnay ($14) from California and two from Washington State: the 2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay ($13; $8 at Calvert Woodley), which is another steal for the price, and the 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Chardonnay ($18), which is fermented in American oak barrels, delivering bright apple and pear fruit flavors upfront with a light vanilla and butterscotch finish.

Moderately Oaked to Oaky

Note, if you haven't already, the rule-of-thumb correlation between oakiness and price: The less expensive the wine, the less likely it is to have spent time in expensive oak barrels. The following oaked wines should continue to age well for the next few years, or even longer.

They pair best with creamy dishes, pastas, scallops, shellfish and chicken.

The 2006 Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay ($36) from New Zealand's Auckland region is 100 percent barrel-fermented, then barrel-aged for 11 months, but you'll still sense some of the same high-acid tropical fruit flavors you'd expect to find in a local sauvignon blanc. Satin-textured and full-bodied with notes of apples and peaches, the 2006 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve ($40) from Napa Valley's Carneros region is largely (90 percent) barrel-fermented before spending about 10 months aged sur lie in oak.

The lusciously creamy 2006 Iron Horse Corral Vineyard Chardonnay ($45) is fermented in small, new French oak barrels. Our favorite producer of domestic sparkling wines made in the traditional method, Iron Horse also produces the impressive Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine ($38) from 100 percent chardonnay, and the two illustrate the different heights to which a single vintner can elevate the grape.


Before you typecast chardonnay as pairing only with savory food, recall the sweet 2007 W├Âlffer Late Harvest Chardonnay ($37/375 ml), redolent with honeyed apricots, which we've praised in this column previously.

Indeed, given the right director (winemaker), chardonnay can be successfully cast into a wider range of roles than virtually any other varietal.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat" and the forthcoming "The Flavor Bible," can be reached through their Web site, http://www.becomingachef.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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