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Chardonnay Uncorked

How to Buy It, How to Drink It, and How to Get the Most Enjoyment Out of a Bottle—a Preview of Dara’s New Book, Drink This

Chardonnay Uncorked
Photo by Terry Brennan

(page 1 of 3)


When I started writing about wine 10 years ago, it was not my idea—it was my editor’s. He told me if I added wine writing to my restaurant reviewing, he could get me a full-time salary. So I taught myself about wine—right quick. I thought the method I came up with was sort of clever, so I shared it with my friends. They thought it was really fun—so I shared it with my readers. Then I won two James Beard awards for it. Then New York came calling with a book deal. Now my book is out! It’s called Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine Books, $26). Between its covers are instructions on how to master nine major varietals of wine; the Chardonnay chapter is excerpted here. My goal with the book was to simplify wine without dumbing it down, and to help readers teach themselves to fish, so to speak, instead of relying on a critic to serve them up a fish. I hope you like it.


Chardonnay is so ever-present that starting to talk about it seems goofy, like trying to summarize people. People: They have two legs, nurse their young, started out in Africa, and eventually there was a 24-hour cable-news cycle. Indeed, if Chardonnay has one problem, it’s that it’s too familiar. It defines so much of what’s great about white wine from its original home, France, that it’s been planted the world over, and in some of the places it has ended up, like California and Australia, it has made such exquisite wines that everyone wanted to emulate it—and then, well, things went wrong.

Still, you can’t judge the Beatles by listening to car commercials with soundtracks by Beatles cover bands. And you can’t judge Chardonnay until you’ve sampled its greatest hits, as made the way they’re supposed to be, and determined whether you enjoy the real stuff. That’s how to be a legitimate expert on your own taste, fast, and not the wine-drinking equivalent of a teenager on the Internet who’s unaware that “Help!” had a life before it was used as an advertising jingle.

In addition to sampling the greatest hits in the only place that really matters—your very own mouth!—the best, quickest way to learn about wine is to taste two or more similar wines at the same time. If you’re a haphazard or casual drinker, it’s really hard to remember what that Chablis you had six months ago was like. However, if you have two in front of you at the same time, it’s easy: This one is lemony, this one is buttery. This one smells of apples, and this one smells of apples. Drinking two bottles of the same varietal of wine at a time—two Sauvignon Blancs, two Chardonnays, whatever—will allow you to know your own preference (and what the wine in question tastes like to you) quicker than any other way of approaching wine. An even faster approach to discovering your own taste is to drink five at a time, in a party with your friends. Try five different styles of Chardonnay, for instance, either over the course of a dinner party or during a wine-and-cheese gathering, and you’ll know more about Chardonnay than half the waiters in America.

Will five different Chardonnays really be that different? Yes. Because you know what wine grapes are a little bit like? They’re a little bit like flour—flour, of course, being the main component of spaghetti, croissants, sourdough bagels, and doughnuts, depending on what you do with it.

Like flour, Chardonnay can produce many end products. Depending on where it’s grown and how it’s processed, pressed Chardonnay grape juice can be made into: a noble, robust, silky white Burgundy; a chalky, utterly dry Chablis; a fat, ripe, ice-cream-lush Napa Valley Chardonnay; sour, headache-making plonk from anonymous corporate farm fields; or the driest possible champagne.

How can this be? The same way flour can be made into Frosted Flakes. Some materials in life just respond well to human manipulations, and others don’t. Chardonnay happens to be the most malleable of all wine grapes, which makes it an excellent place to note the winemaking in wine. Of course, like any superhero, Chardonnay can be used for good or evil. As noble as some versions are, Chardonnay also makes much, and maybe even most, of the foulest plonk at your local wine store, mainly because of the misuse of those winemaking tricks.

It’s popular to dismiss Chardonnay these days. You’ll find hipsters at almost any wine bar groaning for “ABC–anything but Chardonnay!” Which to my mind is about as dopey as a teenager whining, “I’m so tired of French food—it’s so French!” Chardonnay is as foundational to wine as French food is to Western cuisine. If you think you don’t like Chardonnay, but you do like other white wines, you just haven’t found the right Chardonnay for you.

Here’s how to find that right Chardonnay. Buy five or six of the most representative styles of Chardonnay (more on that in a second) and have your friends over for a wine-tasting party. Before the party, spend just a little time learning about the differences between those styles (more on that in a second, too). After this short tutorial, you and your friends will try examples of the wines, in the company of things I call tasting markers (yes, more on those to come), which will fix in your mind what Chardonnay really smells and tastes like. All of this will enable you to decide for yourself whether Chardonnay is for you, and if so, what style it is you like.

So chill your wines, gather your friends, set out some food, and find out, once and for all, what you really think about one of the most important wines on earth! Whatever you decide, you’ll have experienced Chardonnay in the only way that matters: in your very own mouth.
Ready? Here goes.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Jan 9, 2010 07:57 am
 Posted by  winespeak

Not sure if our little wine group will "buy" this system, however I am going to push it. Regards. Ron

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