Ain’t No Fly in Chardonnay

Anything but Chard (ABC) has afflicted the wine drinker for a couple of decades and the trend deserves some perspective. Chardonnay is one of the most notable grapes and pairs well with so many cuisines; it can be crisp, clean and refreshing or deep, rich and complex. When I started seeing articles about the demise of chardonnay and social media took the message viral, I gave the evolution of a wine drinker some thought.

While it’s true that wines made of chardonnay are so common many of the popular ones taste similar, this type of wine can actually be as nuanced and special as any other. It’s possible those within the industry (like restaurant sommeliers and wine store owners) are responding to what they believe is demand and supporting the demise of chardonnay in favor of new and interesting whites that are catching consumer attention. But chardonnay is still one of the most popular grape varietals in the wine world. What probably happens is similar to how we experience other food, drink and even culture for that matter.

Certain chardonnays do in fact taste a bit boring. These are often the lower grade versions (that are also cheaper) and more ubiquitously distributed. Because the grape is so malleable, it can grow in virtually every condition thus almost every winemaker produces it, whether or not he should. An uninformed consumer tries a run of these types of chards and eventually becomes bored by this white altogether. But like most wines, this variety is site specific. It thrives in cooler climates, like Burgundy where it originated. Chardonnay from this area like Premier Cru Meursault and Hudson Vineyard from California’s Carneros district are quite different. Long Island can also produce distinct Chardonnay, such those from Peconic Bay Winery or Wölffer Estate Pearle. None of these wines could ever be considered boring.

At the pinnacle of this wine lies Le Montrachet. The vineyard is just twenty acres within the Puligney-Montrachet commune of Burgundy—the heart of the heart of chard, so to speak. The twenty six or so producers here create what many consider to be the world’s best dry whites: Montrachet averages about $700 per bottle. At that price, you’d expect an exceptional wine, but this is where ABC comes in. Like most things, price is not a guarantee of excellence. There are always mediocre wines at every price, even a few expensive Montrachet can sometimes underwhelm. At several hundred dollars a bottle that would be a major turnoff. What’s a wine lover to do, especially if s/he can’t get a four-digit chardonnay worthy of four digits or more?

Don’t give up. Rather than turn to other grape varieties, find wines made from chardonnay that are proud to be chardonnay, “P2bC” instead of ABC. Values are more difficult to find in the P2bC wines, but they are well worth the discovery. Along the way some interesting non-Chardonnay wines may even pop up to help shape an overall perspective on whites. Consult a wine retailer or sommelier at your favorite restaurant and start the conversation.

Other areas known for good chardonnay include the Chablis region in France, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Anderson Valley in northern California, Casablanca Valley in Chile and northern Italy’s Alto-Adige. A few of my favorites include:

2011 Salomon Gruner Veltliner Von Stein Reserve (Wachau, Austria)
2011 Russiz Superiore Friulano (Friuli, Italy)
2010 Chablis Fourchaume 1er Cru, Domaine Jolly & Fils (Burgundy, France)
2009 Meursault Les Charmes 1er Cru, Domaine Michelot (Burgundy, France)

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