Back in the late 1980s, after my interest in wine ignited during a day in Napa, I splurged on a $40 tasting sponsored by wineries of another California county and held at a hotel in what is now called the District’s West End. It seemed like an ideal chance to explore and learn about wine, and indeed it shaped my preferences to this day. I swirled, sniffed and sipped my way around the room, listening to other tasters and quizzing winemakers, hoping to learn not just how to appreciate wine but also how to talk about it.
The chardonnays stand out in my memory. One after another, they reminded me of buttered popcorn, which has never been my favorite snack. These wines were heavy and rich, certainly not refreshing. At each table, I asked the winemaker how he or she would pair the wine with food. Almost everyone answered, “Chicken in a cream sauce.”
My “takeaway” from that tasting, to use popular government parlance, was that chardonnay is boring.
That was also the time of the ABC movement, when wine fiends wanted “anything but chardonnay,” preferring crisper whites such as sauvignon blanc. To be honest, ABC (which also meant “anything but cabernet” or “anything but California”) was just another rebellion by the oenoscenti against anything popular in favor of the outré. Think orange wines today.
But I fell for it. To this day, I tend to shrug when offered a chardonnay. Send me your Rieslings, your grüners, your sauvignon blancs yearning to pour freely. Chardonnay is a “winemaker’s wine,” in that it grows well enough anywhere in the world and tastes like whatever barrel or technique the winemaker throws at it. All too often, the results are disastrous.
Yet when I taste a really good one, I sense the thrill that makes chardonnay America’s favorite wine. And chardonnay has changed since I first became bored with it. Winemakers have shunned that buttery style (popcorn in younger wines, turning to butterscotch with age) in favor of crisper, more acidic wines, with less new oak and even less reliance on malolactic fermentation, which turns crisp malo acid into buttery lactic flavors.
More often than not, my chardonnay wake-up call comes from Chablis, the region at the northern end of France’s Burgundy that once gave its name to basic white-wine plonk. Ancient sea beds known as Kimmeridgian soil give the wine pronounced minerality. (To wine lovers, “Kimmeridgian soil” is one of the sexiest phrases ever.) Chablis, where vines have been grown at least since the Roman era, is also one of the first regions in the world to define “climats” — individual vineyard plots with their own terroir based on their aspect to the sun, the degree of their slope or where the ridges and swales fall. One can revel in the subtle differences among wines from the 47 vineyards labeled as grand cru or premier cru, considered the finest in the region. In other words, Chablis is a wine geek’s heaven.
I favor Chablis over more famous white Burgundies to the south for three reasons: Chablis is affordable compared with Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet; winemakers in Chablis are more judicious in their use of new oak barrels, preferring to let the grapes and soil show in the wine; and there is just enough complexity in the appellations (from Petit Chablis through Chablis, to Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyard designations) to keep a wine geek fascinated.
“I always find it interesting when people say they don’t like chardonnay, since the grape itself has a pretty neutral flavor profile,” says Kathryn Morgan, a master sommelier who consults on restaurant wine lists in Washington and who recently visited the Chablis region. “Chardonnay tends to taste like where it comes from and what you do to it.
“For those of us who like a sense of place in our wines, Chablis is the ultimate expression,” Morgan says. “You can smell the Kimmeridgian chalk as soon as you get out of the car in the rain, and, since [the Chablis] area struggles to achieve ripeness, the tart and subtle — and usually oak-free — nature of the fruit can’t possibly cover it up on the palate.”
Chalk it up to that Kimmeridgian soil or to winemaking style, but Chablis should warm the heart of any chardonnay skeptic.