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Chardonnay is so popular that it is nearly synonymous with white wine. We feel comfortable with it. It’s easy to say, and it sounds like it ends with a smile. And because chardonnay is so ubiquitous, it can be easy to take for granted. Here are five things to know to make your chardonnay experience more meaningful.
Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy region of France, and takes its name from a small town in the Maconnais, an area in southern Burgundy that makes relatively inexpensive, high-value chardonnays. Because it is now grown nearly everywhere wine is made, and because we label it by the grape variety rather than the place of origin, we tend to forget that appellations such as Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are synonymous with chardonnay.
Chardonnay is one of the three main grapes used in champagne, along with (reds) pinot noir and pinot meunier. A blanc de blanc champagne is all chardonnay, and in my opinion the ultimate expression of the grape. Many New World sparkling wines use a significant amount of chardonnay as well.
California had 93,148 acres of vineyards planted to chardonnay in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual report. The next most common white wine grape was French colombard, far behind at 18,246 acres, followed by pinot gris and sauvignon blanc. (Cabernet sauvignon, California’s main red grape, surpassed chardonnay by a mere 100 acres.)
Winemakers love chardonnay because it is easy to grow. And since its flavors are not as distinctive as other varieties such as riesling or sauvignon blanc, chardonnay has a “blank canvas” aspect that allows winemakers to flex their technique and leave their own imprint on the wine.
David Ramey, who played a major role in developing the current style of California chardonnay, recently explained the grape’s appeal during an interview with sommelier/journalist Levi Dalton on the podcast “I’ll Drink to That.”
“Chardonnay is the most compelling and popular white wine in the world, because it is the red wine of whites,” Ramey said. “It’s so complex, so interesting. And it’s the red wine of whites for two reasons: barrel fermentation and malolactic.”
Which brings us to our next point.
Fermenting the wine in barrels gives added tannin and structure, as well as some flavors of toast and spice, such as clove, vanilla or nutmeg. New barrels impart more of these flavors to the wine, while aging in older barrels gives texture. A generation of U.S. wine drinkers was introduced to chardonnay fermented and aged completely in new barrels, and we came to identify those flavors with the wine rather than the barrel. Today, winemakers tend to ferment only a portion of the wine in new oak, reusing older barrels for the rest. That results in a more balanced wine and saves money on expensive barrels.
The malolactic Ramey mentioned is a secondary fermentation that transforms tart malic acid into softer lactic acid. (Think green apples to cream.) All red wines have this fermentation, but chardonnay is the only white wine that routinely has it. “Malo,” as it is often called, softens tannin and decreases bitterness that can come from the grape skins. It is attributed as the cause of buttery flavors in chardonnay, though there are other chemical factors involved in that phenomenon. Toasty flavors come from the char on the new oak barrels, but the butter on that toast comes from malolactic fermentation. Chardonnay goes well with buttered popcorn, but it shouldn’t taste like it.
New World chard makers have toned down the oak, even to the point of making “naked,” or unoaked chardonnay. Chehalem Winery in Oregon makes one called Inox, for stainless steel, and Virginia’s Chatham winery makes a tasty version called Steel. Many chablis producers traditionally do not use new oak, preferring to let the region’s chalky soils express themselves through the wine.
Ramey is skeptical of the move toward unoaked chardonnay. “Can you use too much new oak? Absolutely,” he said. “But the answer to using too much new oak isn’t fermenting it in a stainless steel tank. Then you take away too much of the nuance. I personally think non-malo chardonnays are a shadow of what they could be, and just because you go through malo doesn’t mean you end up with a fat, flabby wine.”
That blank canvas aspect means chardonnay is a good mirror of its climate and location — the mysterious quality wine lovers call terroir. In warmer climes, it can taste tropical (pineapple, mango), while cooler settings match the grape’s refreshing acidity with flavors of orchard fruit like peaches and apricots. The winemaker’s art is to capture that expression without obscuring it with too much oak or other techniques.
Some of my favorite chardonnay producers, other than the French classics and those mentioned above, come from cooler climates that emphasize racy complexity. Look for wines from Tasmania (Tolpuddle), the high-altitude vineyards of Argentina’s Mendoza (Catena, Salentein), Sonoma County (Gary Farrell, Hirsch, Flowers), Oregon (Domaine Drouhin, Adelsheim), and Virginia (Linden, Michael Shaps).
Good chardonnay can be found up and down the price spectrum, including some pricey grand cru burgundies and blanc de blancs champagnes. Two bargain chardonnays I find consistently delicious and easy to find are Cousiño-Macul from Chile and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi from California.
Here are five that show a variety of chardonnay’s expressions. They include two from California’s San Luis Obispo County, an affordable value from an established winery and a stunner from a newer label with a local Virginia connection. We also have a delicious grand cru blanc de blanc champagne and two reasonably priced burgundies.
San Luis Obispo County, Calif., $19
Bishop’s Peak is a second label for Talley Vineyards, a mainstay on California’s Central Coast since the mid-1980s. This chardonnay is fermented primarily in stainless steel tanks, with some in “neutral” or older barrels to give structure without the oak flavors. It bursts with ripe orchard fruit flavors and bracing acidity. Certified sustainable. Alcohol by volume: 13.6 percent.
Distributed by Winebow: Available in the District at DCanter, D’Vines, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s, Beer, Wine & Co. and Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Fenwick Beer & Wine in Silver Spring, Mills Fine Wine and Spirits in Annapolis, Quarry Wine & Spirits in Baltimore, Travilah Square Beer & Wine in Rockville. Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, Mom’s Apple Pie in Round Hill.
San Luis Obispo County, $38
Oceano was created three years ago by Rachel Martin, formerly the director of Boxwood Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., and her husband, Grammy Award-winning music producer Kurt Deutsch. I raved about the 2016 when it was released, and I’m just as enthusiastic about the 2017, which is now reaching the Washington-area market (it is already available in New York City.) Martin and winemaker Marbue Marke enjoy tinkering with the blend from this vineyard just 1.5 miles from the Pacific, near Pismo Beach, mixing different batches of juice from various spots on the undulating coastal hills. The result is a roller coaster in a glass — there’s a lot going on here. Can a $38 wine be a “great value”? Yes, when it’s this good. This is a fun label to keep track of in years to come. ABV: 13.6 percent.
Distributed by Lanterna. The following stores have the 2016, except where noted: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley, MacArthur Beverages, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Wide World of Wines (2017). Available in Maryland at the Tasting Room Wine Bar & Shop at National Harbor (2016 and 2017). Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, Gentle Harvest in Marshall.
Champagne, France, $58
Grand cru champagne, the three little words that say “I love you” to wine fiends. The Soutiran blanc de blancs is so good and complex, combining ripe fruit flavors with a toasty brioche note from extended aging on the lees and a refreshing chalky salinity, that to describe it any further would diminish it. And it is well-priced for a grand cru champers. ABV: 12.5 percent.
Imported and distributed by Simon N Cellars: Available in the District at Cork & Fork. Available in Maryland at Wine Cellars of Annapolis. Available in Virginia at Tastings of Charlottesville, Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).
Burgundy, France, $21
Grape historians place chardonnay’s birthplace in the Maconnais region of southern Burgundy, perhaps even near the town of La Roche Vineuse, so this wine may be as close to the origin story as we can get. It is rich with history and fruit, laced with exotic spice and a sense of timelessness. ABV: 13 percent.
Imported by Vintage ’59, distributed by Winebow: Available in the District at Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Beer, Wine & Co. and Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Wells Discount Liquors in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Dominion Wine and Beer in Falls Church, Swirl & Sip in Fairfax.
Saint-Véran is another district of Burgundy that specializes in affordable, good-quality chardonnay. This wine is not fussy at all, but relaxed and comfortable with its expressive fruit flavors and a hint of caramel and toast. ABV: 13 percent.
Imported and distributed by Elite: Available in the District at Connecticut Avenue Wine & Liquor, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Wine Bin in Ellicott City, Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Dominion Wine and Beer in Falls Church, Grand Cru in Arlington, Libbie Market in Richmond, Norm’s Beer & Wine in Vienna, Unwined in Alexandria, Vino Market in Midlothian, Whole Foods Market (Alexandria, Arlington, Reston).
Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.