Tuesday, June 5, 2012

demystifying chardonnay

It’s very common to hear a customer in a restaurant or wine bar saying, “I’ll just have a glass of the Chardonnay.” If the customer is American, odds are this means they want a big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnay. If the customer is European, a Chablis with its laser precision, crisp stone fruits, and minerality may be what she is requesting. That these two opposing wine styles are created by the same grape lends to the mystery of Chardonnay: no white wine grape seems to be better known but less understood.

Unraveling the styles of Chardonnay today requires a bit of understanding of the origins of this prolific grape. This classic Vitis vinifera variety traces its roots back to eastern France (perhaps in the town of Chardonnay in the Mâconnais, whose name translates in Latin to “a place of thistles”), where it came about due to a natural cross-pollination between Pinot Noir and the ancient, nearly extinct Gouais Blanc. Pinot Noir likely evolved from wild Vitis sylvestris vines in the region around modern-day Burgundy. Gouais Blanc is thought to have originated somewhere in the Balkans; the emporer Probus of Dalmatia is said to have brought the grape to Gaul in the 3rd century. In the eastern French countryside peasants made a simple quaffing wine with Gouais Blanc. Given time and proximity, the crossing of Pinot and Gouais Blanc was inevitable. These two parent grapes gave rise not only to Chardonnay, but to many other grape varietals used for making wine in France today, such as Auxerrois, Jacquere, Romorantin, Gamay, Riesling, and Colombard. Chardonnay proved to be very vigorous and easy to cultivate, adapting to almost all soil types and climates, so it soon gained quite a presence in the area.

The Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny

Prior to the founding of the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098 by the Cistercians, many grapes grew all over the limestone escarpments of the Côte d’Or and the chalky soils of Chablis. The Cistercians, however, noticed differences between parcels of land and the resulting expression of terroir through the wines they produced; this expression was, to them, clearly a message from God and needed to be cultivated and understood. Thus the monks needed grapes that served as blank canvases, allowing the goût de terroir to be easily demonstrated through wine production… grapes which were never to be blended lest God’s message became muddled.
The Chardonnay grape was an obvious candidate for a white grape. It has relatively neutral characteristics when made into an unmanipulated wine. Simple and pure aromas of stone fruits and citrus, medium to full body, medium acidity, medium alcohol percentage. This middle-of-the-road nature allows it to be superbly terroir-expressive. The Cistercian monks adopted Chardonnay readily and purportedly planted it in Chablis at Pontigny Abbey in the 12th century, from which it spread to the rest of Burgundy.

Given this origin of Chardonnay in Chablis, and the heavy reliance in general on tradition in Burgundy, it comes as no surprise that the wine style there leans toward the pure, unadulterated Chardonnay we expect from the region. The most traditional producers use very little oak and tend not to put their wines through malolactic fermentation at all. This generates a highly acidic wine notorious for its perfect pairing with oysters. Currently there is a division in Chablis between the traditionalists, who espouse maintaining the “Chablis style” by avoiding oak entirely, and the modernists, who embrace oak barrel aging claiming the result is a better, more marketable wine.

Chardonnay growing regions in the world, courtesy of The Wine Wise Company.

Chateau Montelena
From Chablis, Chardonnay spread to almost every winemaking region in the world. Many styles have emerged, but arguably none has gained such fame and opposed so distinctly the Chablis style as California Chardonnay.

In 1882, Charles Wetmore, President of the California State Viticultural Commission, brought clippings from Meursault to his winery La Cresta Blanca in Livermore Valley. Much of these vines were ripped up, however, during Prohibition, but some were secretly saved. Ernest Wente of Wente Vineyards planted some of the salvaged vines post-Prohibition in the 1940’s along with a few other clones. Eventually Chardonnay was being made in a Burgundian style in many vineyards. In 1976, Napa’s Chateau Montelena and Chalone validated California as a serious player in the world of Chardonnay with a victory over Burgundies at the influential blind tasting known as the Judgment of Paris. By 2005 nearly 25% of the world’s 400,000 acres of Chardonnay plantings were located in the state of California. These three decades saw a significant metamorphosis of style, from the pure expression of fruit of the initial 1970’s Chardonnays to the butter-bomb style we all know and love (or hate), evolving in the late 1980’s.

Why this style developed is a topic of debate. Some say the buttery Chardonnays came about as a response to the US pasta craze which hit the country 25 years ago: menus began featuring creamy pasta sauces that paired nicely with a big, round, buttery Chardonnay. Others attribute it to the import of French oak barrels in an attempt to mimic the Burgundian style. These barrels were bought new, of course, and because the winemakers needed to use them immediately they inadvertently doused their Chardonnay with brand new oak. In addition, the higher degree of grape ripeness achieved here in California produced a wine that could withstand more manipulation, and winemakers clambered to experiment with oak and malolactic fermentation to see what would happen to this new type of Chardonnay wine.

Regardless of the reasons why, these two opposing styles of Chardonnay exist in the wine world and are often referred to as “old-world” versus “new world.” Which suits you best is determined solely by your own palate. If you’d like to indulge in a bit of experimentation with Chardonnay, click here to view our flights and comparisons, and pay particular attention to the Old-World versus New-World comparison (for a comparison of styles), and the French Chardonnay Family flight (to experience French Chardonnay and its siblings, Jacquere and Romorantin).


- Sarah

No comments:

Post a Comment