Chardonnay may be one of the more versatile wines on the shelf. We have at least one for every season, a wine that embodies the region and climate in which the grape was grown (the terroir, if you will), as well as the method in which it is aged and the maturity of the wine as you drink.
This white grape has been a popular wine for years but more recently experienced a major fall from grace with the average wine-drinking crowd. Both young and old, experienced and novice, began turning their noses from the glasses of the once-revered white wine for no more reason than deciding they didn’t care for it anymore. You hear horrific words like “buttery.” The hatred for French oak barrels is a recurring theme, which may have started this downward turn for chardonnay.
This kind of reminds me of the way microbrewers at some point went overboard with their use of hops. Hops became the answer to masking the foul taste of crappy beer. A decent India pale ale (IPA) had to compete with a trend of what tasted like foul hops tea and yesterday’s “next big thing” went down the toilet. Mass producers of chardonnay latched onto the “oak is good, more oak is great” mindset and the result was an influx of wines that tasted like chewy butter juice.
It doesn’t take much to ruin a reputation (Look what Paul Giamatti did to merlot!), but there have always been good chardonnays. One must know what to look for, even in the limited grocery store options. Pairing is also as important, because one chardonnay may go great with one thing while another may not. Remember each vintage takes on ALL of the characteristics from grape to bottle so there is a vast difference in styles of this wine.
A little bit of oak can be a good thing but the winemaker must know what he is doing. It’s a touchy subject as to the aging in the oak and there is certainly an art to it. Those not using oak broadcast it loud and proud these days and almost every bottle will tell you whether or not it hit the barrel. This does not ensure the wine will be spectacular, but many are getting fine results using stainless steel and even concrete.
All oak aside, the first step in choosing a “naked” chardonnay is latitude and altitude. If you can picture what fruits grow in that climate you will have a better understanding of the wine you are about to buy. For instance, in the cooler northern climates you may find notes of crisp apples and wonderful citrus. In warmer climates you should experience a little more tropical tastes such as pineapple, or even banana traveling farther south of Sonoma or Napa.
Once you factor in the New World oaked methods, the wine becomes creamier with hints of vanilla or butterscotch. Don’t say you hate it. Just decide what you’re going to eat with it.
Pairing foods with chardonnay can be tricky. Eat what you like, but certainly some things won’t stand up to the acidity and boldness. If there is one dish that most chardonnays are made for it is chicken. A broad range of chardonnays go well with chicken, from an oaky bottle with white meat and a buttery sauce to a citrus-tinged vintage from the north aside lemon beurre blanc.
Cheeses that pair well are the sturdier varieties. The often-neglected cheddar is a classic with these wines. Just avoid anything too light.
A full-bodied California wine can really make shellfish pop. The tropical flavors of warmer climates are great with oysters (especially on the half shell) and crab cakes.
The buttery versions are great with creamy soups as well as asparagus, roasted veggies and perhaps heavier fish like salmon steaks. But hey, just like stripes and plaids, beer before liquor, Panchos and Lefties, some pairing rules are made to be broken. As soon as an expert tells you what to eat, a pot-stirrer slaps some mayonnaise on a peanut butter and banana sandwich and the world calls him a genius. Eat what you want.
I have come up with a few recommendations in the $10 to $20 range. Sure, you can drop $98 on a 93-point French bottle that is a safe bet, but most of those are almost guaranteed to be better than good. The most I have ever spent was $40 and I was more than satisfied with my purchase.
Don’t be scared of the chardonnay. She’s making a comeback!
Josh Cellars Chardonnay 2013
This California chardonnay is a safe bet in the oak category, which works to counteract the fruitiness. Search the Mobile grocers and find it for about $11. Not too buttery, this is a great introduction for someone who fears the oak.
Butternut Chardonnay 2013
This 100 percent French oak is a step further than the Josh. This is a bigger wine blend from several regions of California that tastes as the name implies. They say “Like your mother’s chardonnay, only better” on the bottle, website, print ads, etc. My mom’s a teetotaler, so I wouldn’t know. Try this one to see if you like oak.
Meiomi Chardonnay 2013
Here’s a blend from the California coastal counties (the name means “coastal”) of Monterey, Santa Barbara and Sonoma. Fermented in French oak and stainless steel, these guys have had good results with the blend. Closer to the $20 price tag (you’ll find it higher in some stores), get this one if you know what you like or want to step out of your comfort zone.
La Crema 2014 Sonoma vs. Monterey
The Monterey is fruitier and more floral than the well-balanced Sonoma. It also ranges $3 or so cheaper when you approach that Andrew Jackson price point. Very good wines that have not seen the barrel; forget the word “creamy.”
Joel Gott 2014 Chardonnay
Another California unoaked blend, this is the best value under $15.