Chardonnay 201: Time to Taste

So I got chardonnay from Chile, New Zealand, Russian River Valley and then two from Burgundy- a Bourgogne (lowest end) and one from Macon, so close to both ends of the spectrum.

Most people I know who are serious about wine have told me that the best way to learn a grape is to try as many styles of that grape as possible- different regions, different price points, blended… whatever I could get my hands on- drink it, study it, befriend it. And obviously, education is very important to me. So important, in fact, that I went out and bought five chardonnays from different places around the world to taste and try to really hash out my feelings over this grape.

I mean, I’m a red wine girl- not that I don’t love my bubble or the occasional rose, but generally speaking, 90% of the time, I’m drinking a bold red. But chardonnay… well, depending on where it’s from, can be the white wine for red wine drinkers. Not to mention, in my swampy, DC summer where some days hit 115 degrees in the heat index- sometimes a crisp, cool, refreshing hit of green apples, pear, tropical fruit… sometimes it’s exactly what you need to survive the weekend.

And because of my outstanding dedication to my pursuit of knowledge, this weekend was spent with the grape- I wanted to personally nail down the fingerprint of the varietal, to taste for myself the difference between regions- especially old world vs new world as we wine snobs like to talk about all the time.

So I got chardonnay from Chile, New Zealand, Russian River Valley and then two from Burgundy- a Bourgogne (lowest end) and one from Macon, so close to both ends of the spectrum.

I started with the two French and the California wines- the Bourgogne was about $11, the Macon was $22, the Russian River Valley Chalk Hill was $35. To represent the warmer climate regions, I picked a favorite New Zealand bottle and decided to try a new to me Chilean- each bottle costing about $10. So, let’s get into it.

Tasting notes:

2014 Vincent Sauvestre Bourgogne: Honestly, this should have been a sparkling- a blanc de blanc cremant (sparkling wine made using the traditional champagne method but NOT in Champagne), it just, in my opinion, didn’t have the structure or body I want in a white wine- maybe some bubbles would have helped there? It was a pale straw color, which already had me nervous- it looked more like a pinot grigio than a chardonnay and that made me nervous. I got a slightly tropical fruit nose, but mostly I just got crisp pear, some green apple and a tiny bit of cream. For $11 it wasn’t terrible, but it was easily my least favorite of the line up. Mostly I just thought it was meh.

2014 Macon-Burgy: Ok, so, aside from Chablis, this is the kind of chardonnay that white Burgundy fans get so excited about. And I’m not going to lie, I was a fan- it wasn’t my favorite chardonnay ever, but for a Burgundian style chard, I thought it stood up to its reputation- I appreciated and understood what that term Burgundian meant. Remember, chardonnay grows best in clay and limestone soils- weirdly the BEST wines tend to come from grapes that grow on vines that have to struggle and fight to be able to grow. This wine spent 8-10 months in stainless steel- they never touched oak, they didn’t even walk past an oak tree. BUT, they did go through MLF so while this wine was complex (many layers, wow- more layers than a Victorian woman), there is still a healthy hit of cream that, to me, read like lemon curd and ripe baked apple. It was good- I can’t say it was great or the perfect Burgundy, but I genuinely enjoyed putting this in my mouth. (Yes, I know, that’s what she said).

2014 Chalk Hill- Russian River Valley: I’m not going to say this is the perfect example of a CA chardonnay, I think some others I’ve had in my life seem more ideal- Scribe winery’s chard (they even offer a limited release skin-on that I go crazy for) is probably one of the more perfect bottles I’ve had to represent a large state. However, this Russian River Valley bottle really hit my buttons. It was richer than a Rockefeller in its stunning deep gold color and the nose was nothing but baked apple and baking spices of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Seriously, I smelled this glass and was transported to fall ciders and family holidays wherein we would make more apple pies than even an 11 person family can comfortably eat in 2-3 days. The taste fulfilled the promise of spiced, baked apples more than I could have hoped for but had an acidity that really cut through the richness and allowed me to be able to taste my popcorn. I will say that the alcohol content of this wine, being a new world version and higher ABV, DID make my boardgame day infinitely more enjoyable- Kill Dr Lucky is always funnier when slightly tipsy.

2015 Il Nobilo from Marlborough, New Zealand: This is the chardonnay I’ve frequently turned to in my past- and not only when the board game my fiance wants to play is far too intricate and weird for it to be truly enjoyable. This is a bottle that really turned me around on Chardonnay- it’s proximity to the Equator means it’s going to have tons of tropical fruits on the nose and the taste. I personally thought it was like a pineapple/papaya creamsicle and I absolutely loved it for that. It had just enough acid that I barely noticed the fatty, creamy, unctuous quality of the wine. I can’t say it would have been the ideal food pairing- honestly, it was the tiniest bit flabby when I tried it with white pizza (a challenge every other chardonnay held up to remarkably well). I can say that with buttered popcorn I was a truly happy camper and was thrilled to drink it with no food at all- which sometimes is a bigger challenge- it being harder sometimes to find a wine worthy totally on it’s own rather than with food.

2015 Alta Delta from the Central Valley in Chile: This was another nice surprise for me. This region is a little over 100 miles south of Santiago, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains- so they go through the benefits of diurnal temperatures (wide swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures). This one was a bit of an enigma to me- I definitely got some flavors of melon, a tiny bit of apricot (stone fruit), a little lemon/lime zest… but I think I detected a bit of papaya too? I couldn’t find much information online about this wine so I’m guessing it spent a little time in oak, given it’s hints of baking spice, cream and a tiny little hint of vanilla. I also didn’t notice much minerality, a  little surprising from this kind of mountainous region, but not insane or unbelievable.

So there we are- 5 wines, 2 vintages, and the real constants in flavor were that each wine had at least a little pear or apple. After that common trait the big difference was between Old World perfectly fruit and mineral driven lushness, and the more oaked and tropical versions from CA, NZ and Chile- wines that were reminiscent of pineapple upside down cake in a mostly great way. I’m not sure this is the best expression of chardonnay I’ve ever had, but I genuinely enjoyed drinking it- and that’s still a good reason to drink it- even if it’s not “technically” correct based on the other bottles I tried- it was a definite outlier… but still one I’m likely to drink again because it was fucking delicious.

 

Chardonnay 101: Not Just for Real Housewives

Chardonnay rocks. There, I said it- red wine-obsessed Meg loves this grape. To me, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine, as well as for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid. It’s also a prime example of the versatility of a grape and the impact the winemaker, climate and the terroir can have on a wine.  

Chardonnay rocks. There, I said it- red wine-obsessed Meg loves this grape. To me, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine, as well as for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid. It’s also a prime example of the versatility of a grape and the impact the winemaker, climate and the terroir can have on a wine.  The difference between a chardonnay out of Burgundy in France vs New Zealand is massive- a white Burgundy is going to have flavors of lemon, pear, green apple, probably some minerality (think about licking a flagstone from your garden- that’s what I mean by minerality); it’s going to be complex, have tons of acid and a crisp finish. But go closer to the Equator, to New Zealand and you’re looking at a wine that’s going to burst with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and melons. Plus, it’s probably spent some time aging in oak and that’s going to give it flavors of toasted nuts and cream.

Before I get into the wine tasting portion of this post, let me give you some more information on the grape.

Around 800 AD Emperor Charlemagne owned some vineyards in Burgundy. Apparently the Emperor also was a bit of a hot mess- just a total slob at the dinner table and his wife got sick of him having red wine stains all up in his beard, so she ordered white grapes to be planted in their Burgundy vineyards. And because chardonnay is a much heartier and easier to grow varietal than the area’s famous pinot noir, it really took off and became, until 1976 and the Judgement of Paris, the quintessential chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows just about everywhere, from temperate to fairly cool climates- but it does do best in soils full of limestone, clay and chalk. The vines start budding very early in the season so frosts are a concern, but it takes about an extra week to ripen over pinot noir letting it really develop the high sugar content into high acidity- which is what makes it such an incredible wine to pair food with.

A lot of people talk about the buttery and vanilla qualities of chardonnay- frequently that’s their reason for disliking it. Here’s the thing, the vanilla and butter qualities are coming from malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF, or I’ve heard a bunch of experts call it just malo, is the process of taking the sour, pucker worthy acid of the juice and rounding it out into it’s more buttery/creamy tones. This happens when the acid in wine is introduced to certain bacteria that basically eat the malic acid in grapes and give off softer, rounder, more buttery lactic acids.

And when talking white wines, especially chardonnay, you gotta talk about oak. A lot of white wines don’t spend any time in oak, stainless steel being the most common while others actually use cement or clay- the idea being that most whites are just too delicate for oak- it overwhelms the gorgeous but light floral and fruity perfumes. But chardonnay- that’s a heartier grape and oak can really stiffen up that backbone.

Oak barrels have tiny, pretty much microscopic pores that allow oxygen in, slowly exposing the wine to oxygen. Add to that, American oak is more porous than French oak, and that begins to explain why Sonoma- especially the Russian River Valley- produce chardonnays with such distinctive flavors of vanilla, cream, baking spice and caramel- not only is that a characteristic of American oak barrel aging, but the more porous the barrel is, the more MLF the wine experiences.

Sips of Information on Chardonnay:

Flavor profile: Fruit up front (pear, green apple and lemon in cooler climates, pineapple, tangerine, melon in warm climates. Oaked: smoke, vanilla, cream, baking spices (nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon).

Most famous regions: Burgundy (check out Maiconnaise, Pouilly Fuisse), California’s Sonoma (Russian River Valley), New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Oregon, Washington

Best Food Pairings: Buttery popcorn. Seriously, you might be downing beers or something while sitting at home and watching your favorite movie, but I promise, next time you sit down for a favorite flick, just pour a chardonnay- any chardonnay will work. The acid in the wine is going to cut through the butter of the popcorn, the fruit is going to be refreshing and keep you awake, even if the movie is a little boring. If you’re really worried about the quality of the movie being more in line with Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, go with a new world Chardonnay- they tend to be higher in alcohol content, so maybe, just maybe, you won’t notice so much.

Unconventional Food Pairings: Steak- I promise, the full body rises to the occasion while the high acid helps to cut through the fat in the meat and some of the creaminess of the sauce. This is a great thing to take to a summer barbecue when you want to enjoy the crisp, refreshing qualities of chardonnay, but don’t want the wine to completely overpower your meal. Not to mention, it’s also going to be ridiculously good with the creamy potato salad and coleslaw you’re eating alongside the t-bone, and can handle the juxtaposition of sweet/salty/hot barbecue sauce you might want to dip your meat in.

Meg’s Picks: Il Nobilo from New Zealand was like a fruit-forward tropical creamsicle that made me feel like I was on a white sand beach in paradise… not on my couch in 100 degree weather feeling guilty that I didn’t go to the gym… and I loved it for that.

Next post- Chardonnay 201- it’s time to taste some of the wines from around the world and see if I figured out the grape at all.

Welcome To Somm Bitch

There are some amazing wine writers out there- fabulous blogs and websites where a person can learn everything they ever wanted to know about wine, beer, spirits… you can learn how to grow grapes, how to make wine, what is organic or biodynamic wine… why should you pair pinot noir if you feel like a red instead of a white… There is so much information at the tips of your fingers, of varying levels of complexity and depth.

So why the hell am I adding to that almost overwhelming number of writers who feel like their words are interesting and important enough to take your time reading?

Well, the really honest answer to that is probably a simple, because I want to.

So maybe the real question is why the hell should you read this blog, either along with or instead of the other ones out there? Because while I adore wine and take it as seriously as anything else in this world (i.e., not particularly seriously), I feel like I’m still towards the beginning of my journey. I’m not coming to you as a seasoned professional with 10 years as a Sommelier or years of importing wine. I’ve only just recently passed the first level exam offered by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust- I have three more levels and a thesis to go before I get my Diploma. And while I’ve been cooking semi-professionally for about 11 years now, I’ve only been drinking for about 8 (yep, I’m a recovering Mormon)- and only got “serious” about it three years ago.

So I’m studying- I’m reading, I’m watching videos, listening to podcasts. I’m swirling, sniffing, sipping all over the place, as many wines, beers and cocktails as I can as I try to unlock some of the magic, the romance and the mystery that is in every bottle I open. That’s it- I’m trying to strip away some of the pretension and insanity and really figure out this amazing world of wine.

And maybe the most important reason why you should read this blog is because I want to have some fun while I’m doing this. I want to keep it real- I’m tired of wine reviews that constantly use words and phrases like “elegant finish”, “angular” and “opulent.” What the hell do any of those things mean? Well, who knows, maybe I’ll spend some time trying to figure that out (I’m really interested in exploring the terms “chewy” and “unctuous”). But let’s cut out the bullshit in wine tasting- I honestly believe you can drink and appreciate and know wine as an educated person, without becoming an insufferable snob that waxes on about “mouth feel” and phenolic compounds while refusing to use words like “delicious” and “complex” and “bangin”…

Look, there is a place for that kind of formality. If I was a Sommelier at a Michelin star restaurant, or if I was writing for the Guild of Sommeliers, I would write more like that. But that’s not what I want to do here. I’m not above a boxed wine (I mean, fuck Franzia Chablis, yes- but bring me some Bota or some Black Box and you’ve got a Saturday afternoon in the pool in my opinion). I love a screw top on a busy weeknight, especially if I’m cooking and forgot to open before my hands are a giant gummy mess of bread dough or pasta sauce. And I like to compare my spicy red wine from Ribera del Duero to my bigger than life, sometimes abrasive and often megalomaniacal personality and occasionally I’ll even rank a series of wines based on how likely I’d be to have sex with it if it was a person.

Because wine should be fun to drink, fun to taste and fun to talk about. If you’re looking for a really academic perspective, this is not going to be the blog for you. If you want to learn some things about wine- how it’s made, why it tastes the way it does, what the difference is between Chardonnay from Burgundy and Napa Valley with a more than healthy amount of snark and strong opinion… This might be one for you to bookmark and follow.

If you want someone who isn’t afraid to call out the supposedly “delightful” flavors of “cat pee” and “lawn trimmings” in a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or the way that smelling barnyard funk in an Old World red is basically the best thing ever… you just might like reading this. If you want to play the occasional game of “Marry, Bang, Kill” with food pairings or talk about just how hot it is that Stephen Amell (Arrow on TV) went and rehabbed a winery in WA state… we’ll probably get along really well.

If any of that sounds good to you then join me for my journey into the world of adult beverages, my education, my job working in marketing for a national retail chain, my cooking and my quest to find the mythical “dry Riesling” (something I believe is only enjoyed by unicorns and leprechauns), then welcome to Somm Bitch. I’ll have opinions, I’ll have some recommendations, I’ll have more than a few drinks… and most importantly, I think we’ll have some fun together.

Slainte!