By The Glass
Chardonnay offers great versatility
May I introduce you to a great new wine? It's called chardonnay. Oh, you've heard of it before? I'm sure you have. It's only the most popular white wine in the country, with so many different expressions that it can satisfy almost any white-wine drinker.
It is an amazing grape that can be grown all over the world. I mean everywhere: India, Thailand, Canada, Tasmania, China, Uruguay and Russia. It can thrive in almost any climate. It is made into eiswein in Canada when temperatures get below 10 degrees, and yet it also grows on the high plain of Tierra de Castilla in Spain, where temperatures can scorch the feet at 120 degrees.
It is also quite expressive when it comes to the wine-making techniques used or not used. It is quite delicious when high in acid, without aging in new oak barrels. Just take a look at classic chablis or some of the un-wooded versions from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. In this sense it simply expresses where the grapes come from and the soils in which it is grown. Great chablis can smell like sea shells and chalk.
At the other end of the spectrum, chardonnay can be richly flavored with oak, exhibiting buttery, toasty and spicy character influenced by new-oak aging. It can even be made into some of the greatest sparkling wine (champagne, of course), using secondary fermentation in the bottle. Blanc de blanc champagnes like Krug Clos du Mesnil are some of the greatest in the pantheon of winedom.
Add to this the myriad flavors that the grape itself can conjure depending on climate. Cool-climate chardonnays tend to be more citrusy, zesty, green appley, herbal to a point, minerally, refreshingly acidic and steely. Warm-to-hot-weather chardonnay can be filled with tropical fruit essences, poached apples and pears, floral aromatics and decadent richness (read: higher alcohols). The former style is quite dry; the latter can be perceived as "sweeter" because it seems to have sweet fruit character and quite often is allied with new-oak aging. There is always an exception that proves the rule, but virtually all chardonnays are made "dry."
The greatest of chardonnays are also wines with longevity. Who ever said that white wines don't age? Chardonnays are some of the longest-lived of all dry whites. I can recall tasting some from the late 1920s and they still tasted like chardonnay. It's an amazing thing, considering they did not have any residual sugar to help them last.
With all of these things going for chardonnay, it is easy to forget how versatile it can be with food. My favorite pairings tend to have butter, mushrooms, lobster, scallops, bacon, lemon, oysters, chicken (Poulet de Bresse), risotto and herbs. And if you are not a red-wine drinker, a big, burly, oaky chardonnay works fine with a grilled steak.
It is no wonder the world loves chardonnay. From Montrachet to Meridian, there is a chardonnay that will please your palate and your budget.
Chardonnay standouts: 2005 Robert-Denogent Pouilly Fuisse La Croix Vieilles Vignes ($30) How shall I put it? It tastes like it would cost double the price. Yummy!
And 2005 Evil Chardonnay, Australia ($10) is fun, flavorful and, dare I say, sinful.
Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier and wine educator with Southern Wine & Spirits.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org