Chardonnay? In August? Those are two distinct questions, and in response to both of them an increasing number of wine lovers would respond with a firm "no thank you."
The problems that have turned many consumers against Chardonnay -- especially at this time of year -- stem from a long-standing tendency of winemakers to craft it with a specific set of techniques that leave a very strong signature on the finished wines. Indeed, the signature is so prominent that the wine trade actually has a name for the resulting flavor profile: the "International Style" of Chardonnay.
If you want to make Chardonnay in the International Style, you ripen your grapes thoroughly to increase richness and alcoholic content. Then you ferment and age the wine in new oak barrels, adding tannin and masking the primary fruit flavors with notes of caramel, vanilla and wood smoke. While the wine is aging, you keep it in contact with the spent yeasts from the fermentation, stirring them frequently in a process the French term batonnage in order to make the wine creamier.
Also in pursuit of creaminess, you'll want to employ a process called malolactic fermentation, which will transform the wine's edgy malic acid into soft, buttery, lactic acid. Finally, you want to bottle and release your wine relatively late, to harmonize all of the secondary notes you've added. This will further suppress the primary fruit character, -- but, then, the first line on your resume as a maker of International Chardonnay would read "Willing to sacrifice fruit flavors."
The problem with all of this is that consumers are deciding -- in ever-greater numbers -- that they are not willing to sacrifice fruit flavors. Moreover, they are deciding that they've had enough of the whole buttery, creamy, smoky profile and that they would like some natural minerality and acidity along with their fruit. They are voting with their feet in retail stores, heading away from the Chardonnay aisle and toward Sauvignon Blancs, Rieslings and -- above all -- Pinot Grigios (the primary virtue of which is that they are the perfect antithesis of International Chardonnays). Diners are also voting with their pocketbooks in restaurants, which are responding by shrinking the Chardonnay sections of their wine lists and bulking up on fresher, leaner, fruitier offerings.
So, should we conclude that this consumer movement, known in the trade as A.B.C. ("Anything But Chardonnay"), is on its way to stamping this grape with a big R.I.P.? The answer is no, we should not, and the reason is that the wine business is, after all, a business. Winemakers ultimately must either sell their wines or answer to investors when they can't.
In response to softening demand for the International Style, Chardonnay producers around the world are backing off the oak, the malolactic fermentation, the batonnage and the delayed release cycle. This shift started slowly and sporadically in the late 1990s, but has gained both speed and scope. Plenty of full-blown Internationals are still available, but they are declining in number even as fruity, refreshing Chardonnays have increased from curiosities to near-regulars.
I've been waiting to write about this shift until enough truly refreshing Chardonnays were available. I also waited until this month to recommend wines that will prove the point, since the hot temperatures and light foods of summer offer the sternest tests of any wine's refreshment value.
I, for one, would no sooner drink a big butterball Chardonnay in August than I would fire up the oven to slow-cook a cassoulet. So if you, for your part, are in rebellion against the butterballs, I want to assure you that there are dozens of delicious new Chardonnays now available. I invite you to try them at this most trying of times. Reviews of the best appear in order of preference, with regions of origin, approximate prices and importers indicated in parentheses:
Domaine Alain Normand (Macon La Roche Vineuse, Burgundy, France) 2002 ($16, Vintage '59 Imports): An absolutely superb Macon, with classic apple and stone-fruit notes and fine minerality.
Kim Crawford (Marlborough, New Zealand) "Unoaked" 2003 ($18, R.H. Phillips): Substantial and vividly fruity but perfectly balanced with crisp acidity, this is -- as usual -- an exemplary wine in 2003.
Waipara Hills (Marlborough, New Zealand) "Unoaked" 2003 ($15, Country Vintner): Zesty lime and grapefruit notes, with excellent clarity and cut.
West Cape Howe (Western Australia) "Unwooded" 2003 ($16, the Country Vintner): A delicious, cleverly made wine that balances a little sweetness in the peach-flavored fruit with just the right dose of crisp acidity.
Thibert-Parisse (Macon-Prisse, Burgundy, France) "En Chailloux" 2003 ($16, Kacher Selections): Wonderful fruit recalling ripe apples and white peaches, with superior balance and classic minerality.
La Chablisienne (Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France) 2002 ($14, Monsieur Henri): Offering amazing class for the money, this features tart apple fruit with an abundance of the chalky mineral notes for which Chablis is famous.
Siefried (Nelson, New Zealand) "Unoaked" 2003 ($15, Robert Whale): Juicy and delicious, with very fresh fruit and lots of crisp acidity.
Omrah (Western Australia) "Unoaked" 2003 ($15, Robert Whale): This features apple and peach notes, with excellent balance and light mineral edging.
Lamblin (Petit Chablis, Burgundy, France) 2002 ($15, Country Vintner): Not quite up to the Chablisienne, as it is a bit too green to rank it higher on the list, with tart apple fruit and strong mineral notes on top of the green apple notes.
Yalumba (South Australia) "Unwooded" 2003 ($10, Negotiants U.S.A.): Substantial and generously fruity, with notes of papaya and pineapple but also clean and crackly, with fresh acidity and a clean finish.
Cantele (Salento, Puglia, Italy) 2003 ($11, Vias): A cool wine from a hot place, with crisp pear and apple fruit and the lightest touch of oak.
Castillo de Monjardin (Navarra, Spain) 2003 ($13, Winebow): Pure, well-focused peach fruit with fine acidity and a fresh, light finish.
Plozner (Grave, Friuli, Italy) 2003 ($13.50, Empson): Delightfully fresh, this features crisp apple fruit with nice lift from a faint effervescent prickle.
Tortoise Creek (Vin de Pays d'Oc, France) 2003 ($9, American Wine Distributors): Vividly fruity, thanks in part to the screw cap, with tropical fruit notes and a crisp citrus edge.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.
Whereas big, oaky Chardonnays work with relatively few foods (e.g., lobster, scallops, swordfish, boudin blanc), the fresher wines featured here are much more versatile, working well with crab and richer shellfish dishes, most moderately robust preparations of fin fish, chicken and turkey, light-meat dishes involving pork or veal and even salads incorporating these meat or seafood components.
-- Michael Franz