The Surprising Ways of Chardonnay

Winesday
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In this brief warm respite from the hell of snowstorms and finals, I’m celebrating with one of my favorite white wines: chardonnay.

To wine lovers, chardonnay is often thought of as the great “chameleon.” This because chard is particularly low in varietal character, meaning that, more than any other grape, its taste hinges on the land where it’s grown and what the winemaker chooses to do with it — not the grape itself. But this is not an insult to chardonnay. In fact, chardonnay is the world’s most planted white variety of quality. Because of its versatility, chardonnay can assume a tremendous spectrum of flavor and texture, comprising some of the most complex and beloved white wines across the globe.

With every wine, each winemaker must make the critical decision whether or not to age in oak barrels. In both red and white wines, barrel aging will impart flavors that are, well, oaky. Stainless steel tanks, on the other hand, can keep a wine more fresh and light. Second, a winemaker must choose to use either new or used oak, as well as French or American oak. New oak barrels will heighten the woodier notes, whereas used barrels are more neutral. Similarly, American barrels strengthen tastes of oak, vanilla and toast, while wines aged in French oak are more subtle.

Another important choice every winemaker must make is whether or not the wine should undergo malolactic fermentation. This process converts tart malic acid into softer lactic acid. Chardonnay subjected to malolactic fermentation develops a lush, creamy texture and a fuller body, famously expressing a buttery character. Left alone, chardonnay remains more zippy, acidic and refreshing.

With this knowledge in mind, my friends and I are enjoying two chardonnays — one from Burgundy and another from Napa. Like pinot noir is for red, chardonnay is Burgundy’s noble white grape, providing practically all of the region’s white wine. But don’t assume each white Burgundy tastes just like the next. In truth, studying the diversity of chardonnay offered across Burgundy can be an eye-opening endeavor to the effects of terroir, oak and fermentation processes on a wine.

Tonight we’re starting off with a bottle of 2012 Alain Pautré Petit Chablis. Chablis remains one of Burgundy’s most idiosyncratic wine-making towns, notably using stainless steel tanks rather than oak. Their wine is known for its signature “gout de pierre à fusil,” or “taste of gunflint,” along with its high acidity. Chablis traditionally boasts so much acidity that the majority of wines experience at least partial malolactic fermentation to make them approachable. Petit Chablis comes from the town’s outermost vineyards, and is starting to gain recognition as a hidden gem among French wines.

The Alain Pautré is made in the customary Chablis fashion — 100 percent stainless steel fermented and 50 percent malolactic. With a pale straw color, this Petit Chablis enjoys a more savory bouquet of wild herbs. The wine surprises you on the palate much like sour candy does, with an initial tartness soon fading to notes of lemon drop, lime juice, green apple, wet stone and of course, gunflint. This mineral-y, citrusy Chablis paired beautifully with our Brie cheese, which itself comes from the neighboring département of Seine-en-Marne. Ultimately, a perfect wine for the warm months ahead.

Next, we’re savoring Aviary Vineyards’ 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay. California creates chardonnay in such a different style from Chablis that as you sample the two side by side, you may be shocked to discover they’re actually made from the same grape. California cultivates more chard than any other wine grape, transforming it into a rich, chewy, full-bodied wine that carries its weight year-round. But California’s stylistic proclivity for American oak and malolactic fermentation has turned traditionalists off to New World chardonnay. Indeed, when taken to extremes these “meal in a glass” chards can be tough to swallow.

But the Aviary chardonnay is no such wine — classically Napa, but still entirely quaffable. Bearing a more golden hue than the Chablis, the Aviary chard smells of white flowers and vanilla. The thick, buttery mouthfeel immediately screams California, along with the strong tastes of oak and toast. Although completely dry, the wine suggests notes of Teddy Grahams, honey and cantaloupe.

Chardonnay on the whole is notorious for inviting polar reactions among its drinkers. People quickly dismiss the wine as either bland or over-the-top. Others would take a glass of chard with them to their graves. Ironically, it is not that uncommon to hear somebody say, “I hate chardonnay, but I LOVE white Burgundy.” Little do they know they’re denouncing the very wine that they claim to cherish!

Both the Domaine Alain Pautré “Petit Chablis” 2012 (Chablis, France) $18 and the Aviary Vineyards “Chardonnay” 2012 (Napa Valley, California) $19 are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown Street, New Haven).

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