One of the most common things heard at wine tastings these days has to be the phrase, “I don’t like chardonnay,” usually accompanied by a shudder and a look that says, “Ugh, gross!” This is a serious #fail, and here’s why:
Chardonnay is one of the most versatile, shape-shifting grape varieties in the world, producing wines in a huge range of different styles, so it’s crazy to dismiss the entire variety. From steely, mineral, zippy numbers with lime and apple flavors to the rich and opulent masterpieces that taste of honey and caramel — insist that you don’t like chardonnay and you’re doing yourself out of a ton of fun.
You know, there’s a pretty good chance you’re already drinking chardonnay and loving it, without even realizing… White Burgundy is made from the chardonnay grape. It’s also the sole variety in chablis — so if you’ve ever knocked back a bottle of the good stuff, you’ve been quaffing chardonnay in one of its finest forms. Partial to a glass of bubbles? Chardonnay is one of the three grapes that make up the Champagne blend (pinot noir and pinot meunier are the other two), so chances are there’ll be a third, a half, or even more chardonnay in the bottle. A Champagne with “Blanc de Blancs” — literally "white of whites" — on the label is 100 percent chardonnay.
In fact, chardonnay is one of the most widely planted varieties in the world. From the cool conditions of northern France to the sunnier climes of Western Australia, everybody wants a piece of the action. Why then, has it got such a bad rap?
In the 1980s, chardonnay was having a moment. It was wildly popular, and producers were trying to bang out as much of the stuff as possible — making it fast and cheap, and ultimately slinging shoddy versions of it out into the world to poor, unsuspecting wine-drinkers everywhere. But the bigger offender by far was the use of oak. Or, the misuse of oak.
When handled properly, oak can coax out riper fruit flavors and kiss the juice with nuances of vanilla and sweet spice. But in the wrong hands, it can lead to astringent, woody, over-the-top wines that are, quite literally, hard to swallow. In the 1980s and early '90s, oak was in fashion, and to keep up with demand winemakers were shoving oak chips into fermentation tanks, bashing them around with a stave, and bottling the juice with no time for ageing or resting. The resulting “oak bombs” were unleashed on the market, shattering palates and chardonnay’s name simultaneously. Its popularity dwindled, and the “Anything but Chardonnay” generation was born.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and things are very different. Producers are all about quality over quantity, often opting for the unoaked style — clean, lean wines of clarity and elegance — or ageing under oak with care and discipline, producing beautiful bottles with flavor, complexity, texture, and body. Just delicious.
As Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles puts it, "Chardonnay is the king of white wines and one of the most versatile varieties in the world. If the wine is well made and the right barrels are used; I dare someone to tell me it doesn’t taste amazing."
It’s time to leave your prejudices behind, stop repeating, “I don’t like chardonnay,” and get tasting. Here are some top-picks to get you started.
Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay 2014 ($12.95)
For examples of chardonnay from outside of France and the U.S., try New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay area. The high sunshine in New Zealand’s oldest wine region makes this a chardonnay hotspot, and some seriously top-notch unoaked styles can be found here. Try this one for an approachable style of fresh, crisp citrus and grapefruit, with focused white stone fruit flavors and a soft finish. A great match for seafood, or to enjoy on its own.
Patrick Piuze Petit Chablis 2013 ($17.99)
For purity and minerality, look to cooler climates like Chablis. This example is one of the best around. A showstopper of a wine, displaying complex lemon, grapefruit, and floral notes on the nose, with a palate offering gunflint minerality and a slender, lean mouthfeel. Purity is key here.
Hope Family Treana Central Coast Chardonnay 2014 ($24)
For richer, more full-bodied styles, try lightly oaked chardonnays from California's Central Coast. The warm Californian sun brings out vibrant aromas of lush tropical fruits, baked apple, and caramel in this wine, with a hint of sweet spice. Flavors of peach and pineapple combine with a creamy butterscotch and vanilla finish; this is a great example of oak done well. Perfect in the cool night air of a summer evening, preferably with some pork straight off the barbecue.
Jean Rijckaert Viré-Clessé 2012 ($27)
For that dinner-party white Burgundy that has to impress, try something different from the Mâconnais — like this unique wine of power and elegance, a beauty marrying texture with flavors of citrus zest and peaches. The grapes are 100 percent handpicked and the wine is aged in neutral oak and bottled without fining, filtration, or addition of sulfur.