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White nights
Chardonnay shows why itís the worldís dominant grape

Chardonnay is the most sought-after and expensive dry white wine in the world. Period. In its Burgundian incarnations, it reaches sublime heights: Le Montrachet is the greatest dry white wine Iíve tasted, along with its noble cousins, Puligny-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet. Chardonnay is also the grape used to make the more buttery Meursaults and those flinty, un-oaked Chablis.

Most of us, of course, canít afford white Burgundies. But just about every wine region in the world ó including California, Oregon, Washington, Long Island, Massachusetts, upstate New York, British Columbia, Lake Erie, southern France, Italy, Austria, Spain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile ó now makes some good chardonnay. The varietal leads US wine consumption by a huge margin. The bottom line: itís the worldís dominant white grape.

Before 1930, however, very little chardonnay was planted in the Western Hemisphere. Itís difficult and costly to cultivate: unless the weather and growing conditions are perfect, the grapes are susceptible to early frost and late bunch rot. The moment of truth comes at harvest. Unless chardonnay is perfectly ripe ó or almost overripe ó it lacks the distinctive flavors that can make it such a fine wine. The Burgundians are masters of picking the grapes at perfect ripeness.

In 1962, there were about 150 acres of chardonnay planted in California. By 1982, that number had increased to 22,076. But that was just the beginning: by 1999, total acreage had reached 102,000 acres. Thatís a whole lot of grapes, especially when you consider there are only 61,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon in California.

How did this come about? Until about 1971, nobody in the US really understood the chardonnay grape or how to handle it; people confused it with pinot blanc or a mutation of pinot noir, calling it " pinot chardonnay. " (Chardonnay is actually a French descendant of a cross between pinot noir and the obscure gouais blanc grape.) But in the 1970s, the American wine industry, mainly in California, started to see the genius behind Robert Mondaviís varietal labeling ó that is, calling the wine " chardonnay " or " cabernet sauvignon " or " merlot " rather than " hearty Burgundy " or " Chablis " or whatever fanciful name the marketers came up with.

At about the same time, in 1976, California chardonnays began blowing away white Burgundies in Stephen Spurrierís famous blind tastings in Paris. Californiaís winemakers had discovered that chardonnay was its own phenomenon, not just a white variant of pinot noir. The " pinot " was dropped from the name, wineries planted more, and they started targeting women drinkers.

Until the early 1970s, wine was thought of as a dinner accompaniment; it was not, as it is now, versatile enough to be a cocktail in this country. But with the health craze of the í70s in full, er, swing, wine became seen as a healthy choice at a bar ó better for you than hard alcohol, but with just as much " kick. " Chardonnay was sophisticated (you had to know the name of the grape), relatively cheap (thanks to mass production in California), and fairly easy to say (and swallow). Voilà ó it became the pre-dinner drink of choice.

Sadly, this popularity resulted in a glut of mediocre chardonnays, and plenty that were downright poor. When the winemakers figured out that Americans like the taste of oak, many of them took the easy and less expensive way of attaining that taste: rather than aging the wine in oak barrels (especially the expensive French oak), they started throwing wood chips into the fermentation tanks. Today, only 20 percent of the grapes crushed in California are chardonnay, and 80 percent of the resulting wine is bland at best ó and undrinkable at worst.

Still, chardonnay remains a wonderful beverage, especially when itís well chilled. And for between $10 and $20, you can get a bottle that will blow you away. So forget about its image, because chardonnay is not just for cocktail hour anymore. Itís the main grape in most sparkling wines, versatile enough to go with a range of foods, and when it works, its myriad flavors ó ranging from tropical fruit to pears and apples to nuts and honey, with hints of vanilla and even Queen Anne cherries ó are sublime.

A brief note on the wine notes for this column: not all these wines are available, or not at the quoted price. The point of these notes is not to provide a shopping list, but to give an idea of what you might find if you go looking for the type of wine Iíve discussed.

1999 Saint-Véran " Les Deux Moulins " Louis Latour ($9.99). A Goldilocks chardonnay, not too tart yet not too sweet, with Granny Smith apples and a plush finish. Lively, proper depth ó a wonderful wine, year in and year out. Worth looking for.

1998 Geoff Weaver Lenswood Chardonnay South Australia ($10.99). Crisp and green, not fully ripe, but lean and mean. A fine accompaniment to light pastas, Oriental chicken salads, egg or spring rolls, or even a well-sauced Dover sole.

2000 Tenimenti Angelini " Renaio " Chardonnay Montepulciano ($11.99). Smoky, deep, succulent. Like many Italian chards, itís lighter in style, but has plenty of wood, earth, and the usual fruit suspects. Great with smoky meats or tomato-based sauces with plenty of garlic.

2000 Chardonnay Edna Valley Vineyard Paragon San Luis Obispo ($12.99). Quite crisp and mineral-y. Not overly oaked, but most engaging on the palate. A racy wine, fine with fish (shell or otherwise) or tomato sauces. A true value.

1998 Chardonnay Long Vineyard Estate Napa Valley ($55). Steep, super-elegant, with pear, honey, and vanilla. A prime exemplar, competitive with great white Burgundies. More like a Puligny-Montrachet than a Meursault (and about as expensive).

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: August 2-9, 2001

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