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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Anything But Chardonnay

CHARDONNAY is the most planted grape in Sonoma County with an estimated 16,000 acres. The next most popular white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, has just 2,700 acres planted.  Over a quarter of all California wine is Chardonnay.  It's the best selling wine in the U.S. and is still growing in popularity.

So what's with the "Anything But Chardonnay" folks (the so-called ABC Club)?   Many people have gotten tired of the buttery, oaky flavored California Chards.   Or at least profess to hating the big butterball Chardonnays.  What do I mean by "profess to hating them?"  I hear people say they don't like them but actually do when they taste one.  The conflict is with consumers having been told by the "experts" they aren't supposed to like this style.
Nekked Chardonnay
No oak or malolactic fermentation

Chardonnay is a mass-market wine but has multiple styles and no one can seem to feel neutral about the wine--it's either love or hate.  Chardonnay (and Merlot) became commodity wines. That is, when you ask for a glass of white wine you pretty much expect a nondescript Chardonnay.

Chardonnay, as opposed to Sauvignon Blanc, is a more neutral-tasting grape.  Some of its flavors come from where it's grown but most from the winemaking.   Chard grown in very cool areas can be crisp and minerally with warmer climate Chards having tropical fruit flavors. Chardonnay is also used to make sparkling wines.

About 15 years ago Chardonnay peaked in its butterball style in California. They all tasted the same. Few showed any hint of fruit or acid. But they were great with popcorn! (Gotta love that butter flavor).

Now there are various price ranges for Chardonnay and many styles. Low-end Chardonnay is usually a mass-produced, sweeter, almost soda pop-style wine. For example, the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay is wildly popular, just not wildly true to the chardonnay grape.  That doesn't mean you can't like it or it's seven dollar price.

The more expensive Chards, about $20-up, are more likely to have style plus show finesse and delicacy.  They can be made in the California oaky/buttery/tropical way, be unoaked with all stainless steel fermentation and aging, or be somewhere in between these two extremes.  I believe the in-betweeners will win out as the highly-oaked ones are losing customers and unoaked Chardonnay is often uninteresting.
Expensive and ageable
Image from vinopedia.com

To see a range of styles within quality California Chardonnay try some of these fairly easy-to-find Sonoma wines and decide for yourself:

Traditional California oaky/buttery:
Chateau St. Jean Robert Young or Belle Terre
Clos du Bois
Landmark Overlook
Sonoma-Cutrer

In-between:
Dutton-Goldfield
Rodney Strong

Unoaked:
Iron Horse
Toad Hollow (one of the first California unoaked Chards)
Valley of the Moon

It doesn't have to be Anything but Chardonnay.  Maybe it's just finding the style you like.