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Monday, March 8, 2010

Wine School! (Class #6 – Chardonnay)

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Chardonnay, the ubiquitous white.

Chardonnay is the United States' most popular wine—and perhaps the most popular in the world. Walk into almost any neighborhood bar or five-star restaurant. Nine times out of 10, the "house white" will be Chardonnay.

The history of Chardonnay is somewhat unclear, but there is a town by the same name in Mâcon in the Burgundy region of France. A group of monks in Chardonnay were the first to cultivate the grape for "mass production and distribution." Today, almost any white from Burgundy will be almost entirely of that grape.

Chardonnay is a hardy, flexible grape and the flavor changes radically depending on terroir. Cooler climate chards tend to be crisper and tarter, while warmer climes make for fruitier, creamier wines.

To keep things simple, you can expect to run into three basic flavor profiles of Chardonnay: minerally, oaky, and buttery. Here's an illustration of each:

Louis Jadot 2008 Mâcon-Villages (France) – $9-11

Alamos 2008 Chardonnay (Argentina) – $9-11

Kendall-Jackson 2007 Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay (California) – $12-14

First up is the Louis Jadot. In French wine nomenclature, the best wines are named after their growing place. Pouilly-FuissĂ© is the home of the best white Burgundies. These wines tend to run $25 and up. However, "Mâcon-Villages" means the grapes can be from anywhere in Mâcon—the region in which Pouilly and FuissĂ© are located. Eevery bit as good—less than half the cost.

This wine has a very light, citrusy nose with a little scent of something like licorice. The taste is very clean and a little tart, like green apples. The finish is very crisp and pleasant. This is a classic French Chardonnay, which tastes more like Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnays from other places in the world. Extremely refreshing and light.

The Argentinean Chardonnay gives us the "oak" profile. Over the last several years, Argentina has become known for Chardonnay. The Alamos starts with a nose of ripe peaches, but the taste is a radical shift. As crisp and light as the French is, this one tastes big. The flavor is peaches, toasted almonds, and oak you can't miss. You'll know exactly from here on out what someone's talking about when they mention oaky. The finish is smoky and lasts a long time.

Finally, bring in the butter. California chardonnays became parodies of themselves through much of the 90's, as the winemakers went overboard with "oaking" their wines. They've settled down a bit, and "buttery" Chardonnay is becoming more common among California wines. Some California winemakers are swinging to the other end of the spectrum and producing "unoaked" Chardonnays—attempts to get back to the Burgundy tradition.

The Kendall-Jackson smells sweeter and heavier than the Alamos, much more like peach cobbler than peaches. The flavor has a bit of sweetness and more of that peach flavor, but with a creamy vanilla taste. The Alamos had a stronger flavor, but the K-J was richer and fuller. There was a little bit of oak on the finish, held in check by the creaminess.

What to eat with these? If I were drinking one on its own, I'd go with the Louis Jadot. I'd also have this with just about any kind of lighter fish or shellfish. An oaky chardonnay will pair more effectively with something smokier, like grilled chicken or veggies, or even a filet if you want white with a steak. The buttery chardonnay—predictably, goes more effectively with creamier sauces, richer fishes, and almost anything you can picture with butter.

Next up, we dare return to big red territory—Syrah.

Class dismissed.

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