Hey, hello! Long time no see! For people just joining in today, I'm a writer and software developer in Chicago, who as one of his New Year's resolutions decided that 2016 was the year I was finally going to get better educated about wine; and the first project this year I'm taking on in order to do so is to do thoughtful tastings of the world's twenty most popular types of grapes, which I've been taking on in chromatic order, from the darkest reds last January to finishing the lightest whites in May. This is week 13 of the project, which means that I've already gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti (Sangiovese), Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Beaujolais (Gamay), Cabernet Franc, White Zinfandel, and Gewürztraminer; and that means it's time for me to finally try one of the most popular types of wine in existence, the often praised but just as often insulted Chardonnay.
The child of a type of grape native to France and one originally native to Croatia, that the Roman Empire brought with them when setting central Europe, two of the big reasons that Chardonnay has become so popular is first because it's so easy to grow (it's cultivated in more different wine regions on the planet than any other single type of grape), and because it's so "malleable," which means that its flavor and texture changes radically based on what kind of soil and weather it's grown in (which together is known as a wine's "terrior"). For that reason, this is a perfect type of wine to use as a base if you want to sample different brands from around the world; Chardonnays from cooler climates tend to taste like apples and pears, while those from hot areas have strong hints of tropical fruit like bananas and mangos. (And for what it's worth, this is also one of the most popular types of grapes for making sparkling wine as well.)
But of course any American who grew up in the 1970s will know of Chardonnay's special significance to this country; along with White Zinfandel, it was one of the wine types that first turned California's wine industry into a world-class one, and eventually so exploded in popularity that there are now more Chardonnay grapes grown here than in France itself. But this is also what caused the backlash against Chardonnay; for not only does this grape type take on much of the terrior of wherever it was grown, it's also highly influenced when aged in oak barrels, giving it a buttery taste that became a favorite of '80s casual wine drinkers. That led to massive infusion of oak into the cheaper brands of Chardonnay in that decade, leading to the rise of the so-called "butter bombs;" and by the '90s it was common to hear people order "ABC" when choosing a wine at dinner, standing of course for "Anything But Chardonnay."
Like last week, I thought it would be good to sample two different types of this wine at once, to give me at least a small sense of what kind of variety I might find out there; for one I picked an oaked Chardonnay from the warm region of Napa Valley, the kind sold at grocery stores for under ten dollars, then for the other I picked an unoaked version from the cool region around San Francisco, which was $15 and came specially recommended from my neighborhood Binny's, not to mention getting a score of 90 from "Wine Enthusiast" magazine. (It's also worth noting that, with its 1883 incorporation, Wente is one of the oldest wineries in California to even sell Chardonnay in the first place; plus its vineyards are also an entertainment destination, including a thousand-seat amphitheater that has hosted such big musicians as James Taylor, Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, and a lot more. Not a bad way to move some bottles of wine!) You can read my detailed tasting notes below, but basically I discovered that there's a lot of validity to what I read about Chardonnay types; the cheaper brand from the warmer climate was indeed the drinking equivalent of literally pouring butter on my popcorn at a movie theater (which is not necessarily bad, don't get me wrong), while the more expensive brand from the cooler climate has the kind of sharp and crisp nature you would expect from apple juice, and turned out to be pretty easily my favorite white wine I've so far tried in this project. Don't count Chardonnay over yet! These were both quite delightful drinking experiences, and I imagine would especially go well on a hot day spent outdoors.
Napa Valley, California
Look: Clear and fairly yellow, with no legs whatsoever.
Smell: An exact match to what I “expect” wine to smell like, based on attending all those hippie parties my parents threw back in the '70s, with a strong sour/savory aroma and a powerful strength.
Taste: Yep, it's buttery all right! I have to admit, I didn't quite know what to expect after reading about this so-called buttery nature in all my pre-tasting research; but it's quite literally like a lighter, drinkable version of putting butter on your popcorn at the movie theater, a sort of velvety drinking experience that unfortunately overpowers any distinct flavor this wine might have. A mass-market taste for a mass-market brand, the type of wine you often see on sale for eight bucks at your neighborhood grocery store.
“Morning Fog” Chardonnay, 2014
Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay, California
Wine Enthusiast Score: 90
Look: A bright, pale yellow, barely noticeable.
Smell: A subtle, dry, crisp aroma, with a slight sour/savory edge.
Taste: An enjoyably dry and light taste on the tongue, with the distinct taste of pears, suprisingly thicker in consistency and mouthfeel than the more highly oaked Meridian. A sharp, acidic aftertaste, which I mean in a good way. Bright and delicious; the best white wine I've so far tried this year.