“It’s impressive for me to say ‘chardonnay’ and ‘good’ in the same sentence, except for when I say, ‘Good thing this isn’t a chardonnay!’” says S.D. of Loxley when I asked her opinion on a good bottle. She, like me, finds OK ones at tastings, but never ones that blow her mind.
It has been a struggle for me. Finding the right chardonnay has been a task, especially when I was randomly trying whatever bottle was on sale. It has not been my favorite wine, though at tastings I will admit to finding some I didn’t mind, but only once did I leave with a bottle at the end of the night.
Chardonnay is said to be the world’s most popular white, so what am I missing? It turns out there are plenty of chardonnay haters out there. Maybe they just haven’t found the right ones. Maybe they have a mental block that prevents them from opening their minds to it, kind of like how the merlot business was destroyed by one movie. You know the one I’m talking about.
Chardonnay is an easy to grow grape originating in the Burgundy region, though it is now grown everywhere wine is produced. It’s thought of as a blank canvas, meaning the wine really is shaped more by the winemaking process than the grape itself. Don’t blame the terroir. This wine is either a make it or break it (in my case, usually break it) because of the person at the helm. But the terroir always comes through. Warmer regions produce a more tropical taste (pineapple perhaps) while cooler environs may taste a little peachy, or as I’ve experienced in many wines, pear-y.
Oak is another polarizing point. New oak barrels impart a sometimes overbearing woody flavor, while older barrels add texture during the aging process. You can’t say you dislike oaked chardonnay. You can only say you dislike the ones you’ve had. They can be vastly different. But the oak versions usually hint at vanilla or can be described as toasty. Those using zero oak tend to use stainless steel.
I find the description of a wine as “buttery” a bit off-putting. That comes from a secondary fermentation process known as malolactic fermentation. It’s an act usually reserved for red wine, but it finds its way into whites like chardonnay. Basically it turns malic acid into lactic acid, which softens up the otherwise harsh wine. Oak can give it toast, “malo” can give it butter. Go too far with either process and you get buttered toast. The buttery ones I’ve tried were a little over the top for my taste, but they have their fans.
I have a friend we will call Sugar Bear who is really into chardonnay. He says, “We drink a lot of oaky, buttery chards. Usually if the tasting notes say grapefruit or citrus, we stay away from it.” He recommends a 2012 Del Dotto Reserve, which averages at prices I’d not be willing to try, but he also mentioned the more moderately priced (and readily available) Rombauer.
My good friend Todd is from the Napa area and knows wine as well as anyone I know. I trusted him with finding me a good one in the $20 range. He didn’t hesitate with a 90-point Rodney Strong. This may be the answer I needed.
Locally I hit up the grocery stores and returned with some less-expensive bottles. I’ve had the Woodbridge before, and felt it was better suited over ice with Sprite. I avoided that one. I found a cheap Dark Horse that I just couldn’t get into. This one had the butter and the oak that just did me in.
I had better luck with grocery store wines the next day with a pair of chards under $15 each. The first was the Sterling Vintner’s Collection. It was smooth with a touch of vanilla behind pineapple and peach. The second wine was a 2018 Chateau St. Jean, brighter, tart, with a bit of lemon, an example of an unoaked chardonnay. We started the evening with cheese, of course, and I found the crisp, Chateau St. Jean paired better with the delicious triple cream, while the Sterling toned down the chalky English cheddar. My preconception was the opposite.
What these both were great with were oysters. I had an oyster soup going with butter, heavy cream, celery, onion and lots of flat-leaf parsley. A splash or two of the oaked wine enhanced the cream flavor, and a squeeze of lemon at the end brightened the dish. Paired with the Sterling, you would get the creaminess of the soup, and a sip of the St. Jean really brought out the lemon.
I know they are out there — good chardonnays that make many people happy. My not-so-intense quest has been going on for a couple of years now. The problem with blindly searching is that they may as well be in three categories: oak, no oak or oak with butter.
The ones without the influence of oak tend to make it known on the label. These will be the citrus-heavy wines that sort of lack what many consider chards to be. Finding oak that doesn’t wear out its welcome can be tough, but that’s where the gold is. I’m looking for the malolactic chardonnay that doesn’t taste like Orville Redenbacher’s. I’m always looking for affordable suggestions. I’ve found some good ones. I just want more.
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