Chardonnay


To any wine drinker, it comes as no surprise that for several decades, chardonnay has been one of the most successful white wines in the world. The wine’s easily understood, appealing flavors—vanilla, butter, butterscotch, buttered toast, custard, minerals, green apples, exotic citrus fruits—are matched by equally effusive textures—creamy, lush, and full-bodied. (The Marilyn Monroe of white grapes to be sure.) We are talking here about the majority of chardonnays in the world; of course, lean, racy, lightning crisp Chablis (all chardonnay) remains a brilliant sensorial exception to the norm. But chardonnay’s popularity is, indeed, relatively recent. Wine drinkers are often surprised to learn that as of the mid-1960s, there were but a few hundred acres of it in all of California (by 2011, there were 95,000 acres!). Ditto for most of the rest of the world. Little, if any, chardonnay existed in Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, Spain, or Italy, not to mention Oregon, Washington State, and other parts of the United States. In fact, the only places chardonnay reigned were its homeland—the small Burgundy region of France—and Burgundy’s northern neighbor, Champagne. (See Burgundy). It was here, probably sometime in the early Middle Ages, that chardonnay arose as a seedling—a natural cross of the white grape gouais blanc with the red grape pinot noir. Small as it was in terms of production, Burgundian chardonnay proved prodigious in its ability to inspire winemakers worldwide. Today, chardonnay is virtually ubiquitous. (Though I think it’s fair to say that few wines among the millions of cases now produced ever manage to hold a candle to the best Burgundian versions). Stylistically, chardonnay is often said to be a “winemaker’s wine”—meaning that winemakers like it for its capacity to be transformed by lots of winemaking techniques. Barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, sur lie aging, and so on—chardonnay often gets the whole nine yards of technical possibility. Of course, there’s a hitch. Today, too much chardonnay tastes manipulated, diffused, flabby, overoaked, and overdone. In a sea of these sad behemoths, however, the finest chardonnays remain among the world’s most luscious and complex dry white wines.

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