How did the question of chardonnay become so polarizing? Some say “anything but!” while others find it to be their most esteemed and comforting libation.
Chardonnay is the prime example why you should not let the first impression of a grape define how you feel about it. As with much of wine, complexity is the rule. Chardonnay is the most-planted varietal in California and it accounts for the largest share of wine produced in the state. While there are a few cliches that dominate, there is also variety to be found.
In California, the most common style of chardonnay is something that's oaky or buttery or tastes like tropical fruit — maybe canned pineapples. Or perhaps all three. This is actually a fairly new phenomenon, though. Chardonnay like this wasn’t common as recently as 30 years ago.
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Chardonnay comes to us via Bourgogne (Burgundy) in France, where it is the main white-wine grape. In Burgundy it makes crisp, tart wines — wines that align to the apple-flavored part of the fruit spectrum. Burgundian winemakers — being closer to the Swiss Alps than they are to the beach — have relied upon certain techniques, such as the use of oak barrels, to add some weight to the flavor of their wines. Winemaking is a subtle craft, and winemakers out of necessity often follow tradition. When Californians started to take to chardonnay in a big way around the 1980s, wineries here tended to emulate the model of Burgundy, lock, stock and barrel. California grapes (mostly) bask in the warm sun, though, and employing Burgundian élevage on our fruit is liable to result in fat wines. But it turned out Americans liked these rich, creamy wines, and a trend began.
Buttery, oaky chards may have their place on the menu, but they just seem inappropriate for summer activites (especially in L.A.). They are kind of heavy, and they have a tendency to be difficult in pairing with foods — they tend to overpower stuff. Are they appropriate by the pool or at a picnic, where you tend to want beverages that are crisp, cool and refreshing?
Perhaps the zestiest of chardonnays come from Chablis, the farthest-northern outpost of the Burgundian landscape. It can get pretty cold there, and there are leaner examples of chardonnay, wines that feature a lot of citrus-y acidity and very focused, zesty green fruit flavors — wines that are excellent with food. This type of wine pairs magnificently with oysters, in particular, as well as such L.A. faves as sushi, fish tacos and grilled chicken. How about shawarma?
What has been slowly emerging in California is the potential for the production of super-crisp, mineral-driven chardonnays. There are historical examples such as Stony Hill, which has been making oak-free chardonnay since the mid–20th century, but it seems that things are getting really interesting now. For zingy domestic chards, look for labels such as Lioco, Sandhi, Liquid Farm or Donkey and Goat. For value, you probably want to check out basic Burgundy whites (Bourgogne Blanc), perhaps wines with the word Mâcon on the label. Or even better, hit up your local wine merchant for suggestions and see what they can dig up.