Anything But Chardonnay, No Way!

Chardonnay on the vine at Champagne Mercier in Epernay, France
Chardonnay on the vine at Champagne Mercier in Epernay, France

All images courtesy Christine Campbell

Is it just me or has Chardonnay been virtually ignored lately?  Have you heard the phrase “ABC…Anything But Chardonnay?”  I have - a few too many times for my liking so I set out to learn and understand more about what some call the worlds’ greatest grape.  Truth be told, I have recently come through a decade of abiding by the ‘ABC’ rule and had turned my attention and money to purchasing the ever-increasingly popular, Pinot Grigio.

Having just received my WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Advanced Level 3 award with Distinction, I have come a long way from my starting point of wine appreciation when I was 19 years old (legal drinking age in British Columbia, Canada).  Chardonnay was my grape of choice, and I fell in love with those butter and vanilla flavors - tasted wonderful and very ‘adult’.  Fast forward 21 years and 2 years of wine education, after that dalliance with PG, I am thrilled to say I am back in love with Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is one of the most expressive grapes in the world as it can take on flavors that the terroir (soil and surroundings) lend to it. The grape also openly reflects wine making decisions, such as the use of oak, aging on lees, French or American oak barrels, stainless steel aging and so on.  These are all conditions that the Chardonnay grape expresses beautifully.  Chardonnay is also responsible for just under half of the grape varieties used in the making of Champagne, and I love Champagne.  So, the “Chardonnay Chronicles” were born – my own personal search for very good, balanced expressions of the Chardonnay grape.  A few of my favorites:

Wente Morning Fog
Wente Morning Fog

Wente Vineyards 2011 Morning Fog Chardonnay, my California pick, is from the San Francisco Bay area.  This is the Chardonnay that stole my heart.  Wente Vineyard is America’s longest running, family operated winery and practices sustainability. The "Morning Fog Chardonnay" 2011 is a nice medium lemon color in the glass with aromas of red and green apple, lemon peel and a touch of vanilla.  It is mild in acidity and the palate has notes of honeydew, butter and vanilla along with the citrus notes from the nose. Balance of flavors to acidity are spot on.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery 2011 from Washington State from Columbia Valley is another fine example.  This wine, aged for 7 months in both French and American oak, incorporates lees stirring so its complexity is very high.  In the glass, the wine is a pale lemon/gold with aromas of light vanilla, ripe apple, peach and mango with a hint of baking spice.  The is mirrored on the palate, but with more vanilla and banana flavors.  WOW.  Upon learning about Washington State’s AVA’s in my WSET class, I understand that the Columbia Valley AVA has potentially more daylight sunshine hours than California and gets little rain, which equals some delightful ripe tropical fruit flavors.  Fantastic.

Chablis Jean-Marc Brocard 2012
Chablis Jean-Marc Brocard 2012

Kim Crawford 2012 East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand sources their grapes from the famous Marlborough region and Hawke’s Bay.  In the glass, the wine is a pale, straw lemon color with aromas of fresh nectarine, peach and some citrus notes.  On the palate, this is a high acid, mouth-watering wine with stone fruit flavors and a hint of hazelnut – very refreshing.  This Chardonnay is a fine example of a wine that has not seen oak - a move that has been popular with New World producers. The taste of the grape is what shines through and makes this one a star.

Jean-Marc Brocard 2011 Premier Cru Chablis Montmains is my French selection.  As all wine from France, it is named after the place, not the grape variety.  Chablis is the northern most location in the Burgundy region in France, known for its  "flinty" or "steely" taste. This wine did not disappoint.  It is a bright lemon-green in the glass with aromas of lemon, lime and Granny Smith apple.  This is a fantastic, refreshing wine with super high acidity and light body.  Calling out for light, subtle flavors to accompany it, it is absolutely perfect paired with fare such as oysters on the half shell. Lovely.

The Chardonnay grape is here for the long haul - a classic, noble grape variety for good reason.  It can express itself in the glass in exciting ways, to me, more than any other grape variety.  Here’s to a glass of delicious Chardonnay wine!