Vail Wine Ink column: Spring is coming, which means it’s time for chardonnay
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2014 Sandhi Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay —Rajat Parr, a sommelier who works with the Michael Mina restaurant group, has been busy making wines that seek balance and finesse in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County. This bottling, for less than $40, is a great example of the “new California” style of chardonnay. A blend from some of the great vineyards in the region, one can taste the fruits of the region — Meyer lemons, crisp apples and more — in the glass.
There is a commercial for light beer that is currently airing on television broadcasts of the NBA. It shows a girl perusing the chardonnay selection in a neighborhood bodega. The know-it-all owner of the store suggests she might be the kind of girl who “brings a flame thrower to a bonfire.” She replies (though the audio is garbled, at best), “Or beer to a chardonnay party.”
Leaving aside the parental pandering of the bodega’s “sage” owner, the implication seems to be that real women — those with cojones — drink light beer rather than chardonnay. At one time, it was just the smart set, sommeliers and such who preferred wines from more exotic and refined grapes, who talked trash about chardonnay. Now it seems the great grape is getting it from both sides.
And you know what? Both sides are wrong.
Chardonnay is satisfying, versatile, food-friendly and quaffable on its own. And with the seasons changing from winter to the sunny days of spring, I say let the haters hate.
I’m going to have a glass of chard.
A Supple Grape
Do you like Champagne? How about white Montrachet? Or Chablis? If you do, then you are under the influence of chardonnay in any or all of three completely different expressions of the grape.
In the Champagne region of France, chardonnay is used to make the sparkling wines that are the hallmark of the appellation. The wines are made by putting them through a secondary fermentation with a liqueur de triage, a mixture of yeast and sugars, that is introduced in the wines after they are bottled. The result is the magical production of carbon dioxide, or those bubbles that we know and love.
Puligny-Montrachet, in Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune region, is home to some of the most luxurious white wines on the planet. Made (almost) exclusively from 100 percent chardonnay grown in Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards, these wines are influenced by production methods that include barrel aging and secondary malolactic fermentations, or ML, that create a “softening” of the wines. These techniques enhance the natural flavors and create a lush, sensual, textural experience that is one of the wine world’s great joys.
Just to the north, in Chablis, chardonnay may be fashioned and fermented in steel tanks with little or no oak used at all in the winemaking process. This allows the wines to remain crisp and acidic. It also allows the wines to reflect the terroir. The wines are often described as having the taste of chalk, or “wet stones,” on the palate. For some, these wines are the best expression of chardonnay. Earth and grapes, nothing more.
From the northern tip of the Champagne region to the heart of Burgundy is a distance of about 150 miles as the crow flies. And yet in those 150 miles, less than a three-hour drive, you can find three distinct and exceedingly different wine styles from the same grape: chardonnay.
Which Chard To Bring to a Bonfire?
So when you go to your local bodega — and may I suggest that rather than the beer joint on the corner you seek out a wine shop or at least a full-service liquor store — try to think about what style best suits you. Do you want something that is steely, crisp and clean, the kind of wine that you can see through? Or do you prefer a little more weight, maybe some oaky flavor, a wine that will coat your mouth with a bit of butter?
First, stay American. There are a ton of great chards from these shores. If you want bubbly, try a Blanc de Blancs from a California producer, such as Schramsberg, or a Gruet “Sauvage” Blanc de Blancs from New Mexico. Less expensive than Champagne from the more prominent French houses, if you bring a bottle of bubbles to a chardonnay party ’taint no one’s going to argue.
If you like a lighter, crisper style of wine, then look for unoaked chards. The “Mer Soleil” Silver from the Santa Lucia Highlands is made by the Wagner family who make Caymus. This wine is fermented and aged in steel and small concrete tanks and sees no oak at all.
And if you want a little bit o’ butter, then maybe a DeLoach or a La Crema Chardonnay may be down your alley. Both makers are not shy about using oak to age their wines, and both have bottlings from top vineyards in the Sonoma Valley that will serve the purpose.
Don’t be afraid. Springtime is the right time for chardonnay.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.