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 MADE SIMPLE
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.
Want to throw a wine-tasting party for your friends? It’s easy. Set the date, buy the wines and whatever tasting markers you like, as detailed below, chill your wines to about 50 to 55 degrees (about halfway between refrigerator temperature and room temperature), and let the good times roll. Soon you’ll be partying your way to an unshakeable understanding of what you really think about Chardonnay.
âž¥ Buying the Wines
For your tasting party, you will need several bottles. Skip the big-box store this time—you need the help of a good wine merchant. We’re blessed with lots of wonderful wine shops here in the Twin Cities. If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with a great wine shop, call in advance and ask: Do you have Premier Cru Chablis and Meursault? (Pronounced: Shab-lee and Mer-so.) If they say yes, that’s one of our many great local wine shops. You want to end up with:
1) A “naked” Chardonnay made with no oak and no malolactic fermentation. This will taste tart and clean and fruity. Good names: Hendry, Iron Horse’s Unoaked Chardonnay, Sierra Vista Vineyards unoaked, Pepi Chardonnay, Morgan Winery’s Metallico Un-Oaked, Kunde Estate Nu Sonoma Valley, and Snoqualmie’s Naked Chardonnay. There are also a bunch of Australian ones, usually called naked, un-wooded, or un-oaked Chardonnays.
2) A wine made without oak, but with malolactic fermentation. This will be soft and gentle. Names to look for: Toad Hollow, Kim Crawford’s New Zealand Unoaked Chardonnay, or Kim Crawford’s Marlborough Un oaked Chardonnay.
3) A buttery, classic Napa Valley Chardonnay, one made both with oak and malolactic fermentation, such as one from Rombauer or La Crema. (If in doubt, look for words like “buttery” and “vanilla” on the label.) You should taste both toast and butter.
4) A French Chablis, which is a Chardonnay grown in the northernmost reaches of Burgundy where the soil is so full of limestone and ancient seashells that it’s literally white. The wine itself tends to be steely and mineral-scented—a crystal stiletto. There are scads of Chablis producers, and just about all are good. Some names: Verget, Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils, A&F Boudin, Vaillon, and Domaine Vocoret.
5) A well-built French white Burgundy. A lot of critics think that white Burgundies—which are always Chardonnays from Burgundy—are the best white wines in the world because of their complexity, elegance, layered fragrances and good structure. Basically, anytime you see the word Montrachet (pronounced montra-SHAY), such as on Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, etc., or the word Meursault, that’s the good—and pricey—stuff.
Chardonnay has been prized over the centuries precisely because most versions go very well with food. Your Chardonnay tasting could be either a cocktail party or a full-fledged dinner party.
Cheese. Because Chardonnay varies so wildly, pairing with cheese can be tricky. Smoked Cheddar will go well with the most lavishly oaked bottles, while fresh goat cheeses and some of the really rich triple-cream Brie-like cheeses will go with the chalkiest, unoaked ones, like Chablis.
Fish. Any kind of salmon works well: hot-smoked salmon, cold-smoked salmon (aka lox), salmon spread, or poached salmon.
Fruit. Fruit is essential: Green grapes, pears, and apples all go nicely with Chardonnay and help you cement the association between the wine’s apple scents and real apples.
Meat. An entrée featuring chicken, pork, most seafood (except very oily fish like mackerel), turkey, pheasant, or veal are all great choices. Stay away from very dark sauces: Roast pork tenderloin is great with Chardonnay; pork mole wants a darker wine.
Chardonnay tastes best at 50 to 55 degrees. If it’s too cold you lose a lot of fragrance—too warm and it smells too strongly of alcohol. Chill your bottles for about an hour before serving and they should be the right temperature. Ideally, set out two glasses per guest, so people can compare two wines at one time, as well as enough stemware to hold your tasting markers. (Be sure to set out a pitcher, vase, or bucket for people to empty their glasses into.)
Pull the corks, or untwist the screw tops which are increasingly common on “naked” Chardonnays.
Taste the wines in the order in which they are presented in the previous shopping list. Basically, you want to start with the naked grape and progress through the variants in order of complexity. Pour each of your guests an inch of each wine in order and encourage them to swirl and sniff; while they do this, explain what you are pouring.
Your first wine, your “naked” Chardonnay made with no oak and no malolactic fermentation, should give you a baseline of what the Chardonnay grape tastes like, in its simplest, purest, more floral guise. Notice any particular fruit scents? Is it tart? Dry? Sweet? Does it finish, that is, linger on your palate after you swallow it, or does it vanish?
Your second wine, your unoaked Chardonnay made with malolactic fermentation should be softer, prettier, and less tart than the first wine. Is it? Do you like the softness or prefer the first wine? Either one is a valid choice, there is no right answer here. The differences between the two should be a little like the difference between cooked and raw apples.
Your third wine, your buttery classic Napa Valley Chardonnay, should be very different, bursting with notes of butterscotch, toast, caramel, and vanilla. Do you taste the difference a barrel makes? Do you like it more or less than the first two wines? Again, there are no right answers, just personal preference.
Your fourth wine, your real French Chablis, should tell you about terroir: It should have mineral scents and be dry on your tongue, as if an ocean breeze just blew through. Is it? Do you like it?
Your final wine is your genuine French white Burgundy. When you’re paying this much for wine you should get the best of every other wine you tried—great fruit, wonderful additions from the use of the barrel, perfect use of malolactic fermentation, and so on. Is this the greatest wine of the tasting, or not even close? Keep telling yourself—and your guests!—that there are no right answers. The point of this party is to figure out what you think about Chardonnay, not to get the “right” answer.
When you’re done with the structured part of the evening, invite people to backtrack through the five wines, tasting each in the presence of food and seeking a favorite.
Questions to ask: What scents can you identify? Apples? Lemons? Do you detect toast, suggesting aging in oak? When you begin tasting the wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation, can you also pick up butter or pound cake? Do some of the wines go better with food, and others worse? Which ones are worth the money, which ones not? Is Chardonnay what you thought it was, or different?
And that’s it! How do you like being so knowledgeable? Are you impressed by your newfound understanding of your taste, liberated to find you prefer the cheap stuff, or depressed to find yourself a fan of the pricey stuff? Welcome to the first day of knowing more about Chardonnay than 95 percent of your fellow Americans. You’re going to be amazed the next time a sommelier or wine clerk asks you what you like and you have a long answer to supply him with. Knowledge is power, self-knowledge is even better, and now they are both yours! Go forth and enjoy.
While wine grapes are a special kind of fruit, Chardonnay is an especially special wine because it shows the winemaking that goes into making it more clearly than any other style of wine. Over the past few thousand years the various French monks, farmers, and tinkerers to whom we owe most of wine culture developed a couple major techniques of manipulating plain old grape juice to make it more special. Three of the biggest techniques are: Malolactic fermentation, aging in oak barrels, and “sitting on the lees.”
âž¥ Malolactic fermentation.
More common in Chardonnay than other wines, malolactic fermentation is a way of converting grape juice’s tart fruit acids to softer acids like those found in milk, giving it a buttery taste. It’s something that naturally happens to some batches of wine, but can be induced by adding the right yeasts, or prevented, depending on the winemaker’s choice.
Aging in oak barrels is a way of preserving wine, using oak’s natural tannins—tannin being a naturally occurring compound found in both wine grapes and oak. In addition to making wine more “ageable,” oak adds flavors of vanilla and toast that some people swoon over.
âž¥ “Sitting on the lees.”
Refers to resting fermented grape juice that still has some grape solids in it upon the dead yeast cells that remained after fermentation. This increases a wine’s aromatic profile and deepens its flavor components in the same way that simmering a soup stock for a long time extracts more flavor from the ingredients.
A structured tasting of five Chardonnays will reveal which of these factors—which soil, which climate, which winemakers’ techniques—create the Chardonnay that most appeals to your own personal taste.
A wine professional may stick her nose in a glass and exclaim, “This wine is bursting with grass, lemon peel, apricots, and fresh-cut apples!” You may stick your nose in a glass and say, “This smells like wine!” The fastest way to get over feeling intimidated by wine-speak is to put a few of the key aroma components of the wine in question in an actual wineglass. That way you can smell an actual wineglass with a dab of vanilla in it and think: vanilla! And then smell your wines and think: vanilla, just like this, or, no vanilla!
To get the most out of your Chardonnay tasting, put some of the following objects in wineglasses:
âž¥ Fresh lemon segments
âž¥ Slices of red and green apples
âž¥ Slices of pears
âž¥ Honeydew melon
âž¥ Toasted bread
âž¥ A vanilla bean or the tiniest drop of vanilla concentrate
âž¥ Minerals, in the form of a few very clean wet rocks from your yard
(feel free to use jam!)
âž¥ Pound cake
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Drink This: Wine Made Simple is available everywhere. Check the Dear Dara blog at MNMO.com for Dara’s latest appearances.