Time to stop beating up on domestic chardonnay

Wine — By KF Louis on April 12, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Overheard at least 5x yesterday at the tasting tables of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine show: “I CAN’T STAND American chardonnays, because they are too…oaky, syrupy, monodimensional, unbalanced, (enter adjective here)…”  Also heard at least 5x by servers of chardonnay(with insecure, apologetic tone):  “Our wine is more BURGUNDIAN in style , unlike those other producers that make versions that are too oaky, syrupy, (enter adjective here)…”

Mind you, I am talking about premium chardonnay here — I was at a premium event, where nothing but $25+ chardonnay was being poured, and almost all of it represents the best of the top end of the chardonnay market.

Before spending yesterday under the glitzy white tents, I had thought the assualts/apologies for the “1990s style” of California premium chardonnay were long over.  And that consumers are well aware of the amazing diversity and quality in domestic chardonnay styles available.

But I was wrong.

So many people are stuck in chardonnay’s spotty American past.   And to me, that’s sad.  Domestic premium chardonnay ($15+ a bottle), as a whole, has never been better and more diverse than it is now.  And it’s not just California that’s producing the good stuff — Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, are doing quite well.

So if you are one of the folks who has an impression of U.S.-made chardonnay that could stand an update, I suggest you head to your local wine shop or wine bar and ask to sample a few of the latest leading chards — there’s something for everyone.

And to provide some initial guidance, I’ve picked out a few wines for you ranging from $15-25, intended to counter the ‘classic complaints’ I’ve heard over the years:

Chalone:  Never trendy, always apropos

Robert Cook - Chalone lover since 1990, Chalone Winemaker since 2007

Also at the Pebble extravaganza, I met up with Robert Cook again, winemaker for one of the country’s most hallowed producers of domestic chardonnay — Chalone Vineyard. What I love about Chalone is that it skipped the style change that many wineries endured during the burgeoning 1980s and 1990s, where even smart producers gave in to the gauche style that sold really well back in that day.  Instead, Chalone stuck to its roots year on year, decade on decade, producing what they’re calling lately a BURGUNDIAN style chardonnay.

What does “Burgundian” really mean to an American winemaker?  Essentially it is a quick way of saying his chardonnay is well made, leveraging all the best practices of the winemakers of Burgundy who had a couple hundred year head start in getting it right.  “We prefer to call ours Chalone style, but most people would not know what we mean,” said Cook.


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