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. Yes, red wine-obsessed Meg loves chardonnay. Yes, it’s a white wine for people who like the structure and body of a red wine. But, it’s also perfect for foodies who want a lot of fruit and acid with their meal. And, it’s a prime example of the grape’s versatility, the impact the winemaker, climate and terroir have on a wine.  

For example, if you try a chardonnay from Burgundy and compare to New Zealand, the differences will astound you. A white Burgundy is going to have flavors of lemon, pear, green apple, probably some minerality. It’s going to be complex with layers of flavors and have tons of acid and a crisp finish. But closer to the Equator, like New Zealand, it’s going to burst with tropical fruit flavors like pineapple and melons. Plus, it probably spent some time aging in oak, gaining flavors of toasted nuts and cream.

About The Grape

Around 800 AD, Emperor Charlemagne owned vineyards in Burgundy. Apparently the Emperor was a bit of a hot mess- a total slob at the table. Eventually his wife got sick of him having red wine stains in his beard. Ever practical, she ordered white grapes be planted in their Burgundy vineyards.

Burgundy is famous for the much harder to grow red, pinot noir (red Burgundy). But, chardonnay is much heartier and easier to grow, so it really took off and became the quintessential chardonnay.

Chardonnay grows just about everywhere, from temperate to cool climates. However, it does best in soils full of limestone, clay and chalk. The vines start budding very early in the season, but it takes about one week longer than Pinot Noir to ripen. The long growing time lets it develop the high sugar content into high acidity- which is what makes it such an incredible wine to pair food with.

Why Does It Taste Like Butter?

A lot of people talk about the buttery and vanilla qualities of chardonnay- frequently their reasons for disliking it. But, 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 eat the malic acid in grapes giving off softer, rounder, 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, they’re too easily overpowered. Now, a lot of wine makers are using stainless steel to avoid oaky flavors. Then again, for people who think the wine is too delicate for oak, they are trying cement or clay. These alternatives to oak help to bring out the wines’ light floral and fruity perfumes. But chardonnay isn’t so delicate and the oak can really stiffen up that backbone and develop flavors.

You see, oak barrels have tiny, microscopic pores that allow oxygen in, slowly exposing the wine to oxygen. Additionally, American oak is more porous than French oak, and that explains why Sonoma produces 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: In colder climates, you’ll get fruit up front (pear, green apple and lemon. If it’s from a warmer region, look for pineapple, tangerine and melon. If it’s been oaked, you’ll get smoke, vanilla, cream, baking spices.
  • 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. I promise, next time you sit down for popcorn and your favorite flick, just pour a chardonnay. The acid in the wine cuts through the butter and the fruit is going to be refreshing to keep you awake, even if the movie is boring. And if you’re watching a terrible movie, like Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 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. This is a great pick for a summer barbecue. The wine is crisp and refreshing, but pairs with most summer foods. 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. It also stands up well to sweet/salty/hot barbecue sauce.

Meg’s Picks: I personally love Il Nobilo from New Zealand. It’s crazy affordable, around $11. It’s fruit-forward with tropical creamsicle flavor that makes me feel like I’m on a white sand beach in paradise. And let’s face it, when I’m on my couch in 100 degree weather, feeling guilty that I didn’t go to the gym, a bit of paradise goes a long way.

Check out my other post, Chardonnay 201. In this article I taste some of the wines from around the world and see if I’ve figured out the grape at all.