Ignore the backlash -- chardonnay can be a sublime experience
by David Marglin
My enthusiasm for wine is extreme. Fortunately, I get to drink a lot of it.
Given the way wine loosens the tongue, I happen to think that everyone who
likes drinking wine should feel comfortable talking about it. And that's what
this space is for.
First, some demystification: if you like wine, you don't need to know lots of
fancy words and descriptions, and you don't need a thousand bottles in your
cellar. All you really need is a smidgen of knowledge and some trust. Learn to
trust your own instincts and taste buds, because you're the only one
experiencing the unique interaction of the wine with your mouth, heart, and,
I view this column as a conversation about wine, so let me encourage you to
respond: tell us what you liked, and what you disagreed with, what we've missed
and what changed your life. (You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
We're going to begin with the world's most popular white-wine grape:
chardonnay. The popularity of chard (pronounced "shard") has created a backlash
in recent years: some drinkers proudly refer to themselves as ABC (Anything But
Chardonnay) people. These chardon-naysayers find the wine too popular, the
flavor too generic. Some claim California chards have
too much oak, others
allege that chardonnay generally does not have enough
acidity to stand up to
But chardonnay, even the cheap kind (as in "Bartender, I'll have a glass of
chardonnay"), is extremely approachable. Drunk young, it lets you taste the
sunshine. With some age, nuances and complexities come out that can make it the
most sublime drinking experience on the planet. (Chardonnay, for example, is
the only grape used in the great white Burgundies.)
Noteworthy and eminently drinkable chardonnays are being produced all over the
world -- in the US, Spain, Italy,
New Zealand, South Africa, and
Chile. Still, when it comes to value,
California chards often win. For under
$20, you'll be quaffing a wine better than anything the Romans or Greeks ever
put in their goblets.
Speaking of quaffing, my thinking is that chardonnay, like revenge, is best
served cold. Real cold. The best white Burgundies, the Montrachets and
Meursaults, may want only slight chilling, but chardonnay at room temperature
can often be overwhelming. It tends to be a big wine, filling your mouth with
powerful fruity flavors
by powerful oak and wood notes); when
the wine is cold, some of those abundant flavors are restrained. Let the wine
arrive gradually at its full potential in your glass. Don't hesitate to feel
the bottle when it's presented to you in a restaurant, or to ask for an ice
bucket or a marble wine sleeve. (I don't recommend dropping ice cubes into your
glass, I've done it in a pinch.)
The key to choosing a chardonnay is deciding whether you want a heavier wine,
with lots of oak and butterscotch flavors, or the leaner, crisper version
currently in vogue.
French chards tend to be on the leaner side, more spare and subtle, seamless
and silky; American and
tend to be heavyweights, with huge
waves of oak and powerful acidity.
The fruit notes -- be they pineapple, melon,
lemon, or whatever -- fairly leap out. The biggies can be harder to pair with
food; if you're at a restaurant, ask a server about the characteristics of the
chardonnays on the wine list.
Believe me, there are loads of great values out
there. And you will never be embarrassed drinking any of the wines listed
A note on my ratings: they're highly subjective, and range from no stars
(better you should drink antifreeze) to five stars (life is great!). The prices
listed are for retail stores;
bottles are, of course, subject to availability,
though the price shouldn't increase. These are not restaurant prices,
which can vary widely.
*** Chateau de La Greffiere Macon La Roche Vineuse (Loire) 1995 ($9.99)
Old-vine chardonnay in the Loire valley? You bet. Mellow and balanced, a great
wine that opens in the glass. A sleeper.
*** De Loach Sonoma Chardonnay Russian River Valley 1995 ($14.99)
Known more for reds than for chard, De Loach hand-harvests grapes for this
supple, oaky chardonnay. Less fruit than I like, but
butterscotch aftertaste makes for a dandy. Delectable with pasta or
***1/2 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay 1995 ($19.99)
Crisp and lean, with a supple, zesty finish. I will match it against any
under-$20 chardonnay in the world.
**** Jed Steele "Steele Cuvée" 1995 ($21)
You'll find Steele on wine lists
at restaurants all around town, including the
Good Life and Mistral. Plenty of oak and vanilla. Real smooth.
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