Is Chardonnay The Chameleon of Wines?
Cuvée Ray: Uncorked
Chardonnay: The Chameleon of Wines
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by chameleons. How did they know when they were standing on something green to turn green and when standing on something brown to turn brown. It still fascinates me. I now realize it’s kind of the same thing that in the wine world is called “terroir” which loosely means the entire environment in which the grapes exist. And like a Chameleon, Chardonnay, perhaps more than any other premium grape, can grow well in a wide variety of environments and in doing so, it can take on a completely different character. Depending on where Chardonnay is grown (and the corresponding winemakers’ choices in how it is made), you literally would think you are drinking a wine made from different grapes.
That’s why so many people love Chardonnay…there is a style to meet every taste. Love big, buttery, oaky wine? Chardonnay. Love a wine with lush ripe fruit? Chardonnay. Want a tart apple, steely, mineral driven wine? Yup, you guessed it, chardonnay.
How can one grape be so versatile? Two things. First, like I said, Chardonnay can grow well in a wide variety of environments/terroir and like the chameleon it takes on different characteristics depending on its environment. Second, the chardonnay grape is a fairly neutral grape in that it doesn’t inherently have very strong smell or taste characteristics. Think of Chardonnay as a blank canvass on which the terroir and the winemaker can paint whatever picture of Chardonnay they want.
There are thus endless styles of Chardonnay ranging from tight, tart, lean, citrusy mineral driven wines to lush, full bodied, tropical fruit driven wines to oak, oak and more oak wines. While it is theoretically possible to pin particular wine regions to particular wine styles, there are so many microclimates and winemaker choices that result in different flavors and profiles, in my mind, this becomes a fool’s errand. The best way to find the style that suits you, is good the old-fashioned way… trial and error. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. And, you may find that you like some style of Chardonnay you hadn’t tried or appreciated before.
That said, here are a couple of general guidelines you may find useful if you embark on this Chardonnay journey.
Cooler Regions Produce Leaner Wines and Warmer Regions Produce More Lush Wines: Simple science meets common sense. The warmer the climate, the more fruit can ripen and the more they ripen the more sweet they become. And since fermentation is basically yeast converting sugar into alcohol the sweeter the fruit, the more sugar there is to convert to alcohol and the more alcohol in a wine. And alcohol in wine gives it that full bodied feel in your mouth (the term “full bodied” in wine just means a heavier mouth feel like comparing the feel of whole milk to skim milk). Cooler wine regions produce less ripe, less sweet grapes thus the wines tend to be leaner and more austere which allows flavors other than the fruit to take more of a center stage. This corresponds loosely to a major dividing line in the wine world: Old World wines (those from Europe) versus New World wines (those from the U.S., South America, Australia and New Zealand). The reason is simple: Old World wine regions tend to be cooler and the wines from those regions have less bold fruit forward than the warmer New World wine regions which produce more in your face fruitier wines.
Winemakers in Europe are More Hands Off than Winemakers in the New World: There were and are lots of rules and regulations about what winemakers can do with wines they make in Europe. That along with many hundreds of years of wine making tradition resulted in European wines relying more on the grapes and the terroir to do the talking in their wines than in the New World. Unfettered by many wine laws and unencumbered by centuries of wine making tradition, New World winemakers let their wine making freak flag fly. So they tried all sorts of new techniques, employing extensive use of oak, techniques to draw more fruit flavor from the grapes, and doing other things that, well are just no-nos in Europe (not just with Chardonnay but other varieties as well). And Americans tend to like bold and big things so the winemakers aiming for the American market obliged and produced fruitier more oaky wines versus the more restrained, mineral earthy driven wines of the Old World.
Bottom Line Gross, But Useful Oversimplification: If you are looking for big bold, fruity or oaky Chardonnay, think California or Australia. If you want a more nuanced Chardonnay with less fruit, more earth and mineral and less oak, think France (Italy has some pretty darn good chardonnay as well).
One could go on for days exploring different styles of Chardonnay, but I think you get the basic point. Chardonnay is the chameleon of grapes and I urge you to explore the wide pallet of styles this chameleon can display.
(week of 7/15/2018)
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CUVÉE Ray Uncorked: Wine isn’t complicated!! And its enjoyment doesn’t belong to some elite club (even though some folks try to make it that way by employing incomprehensible jargon and let’s face it, an approach that is, well, snooty). First and foremost, wine is just a beverage and it’s a beverage that has been part of human culture for thousands of years. For our friends in say Italy, Spain or France, wine is just a part of everyday life…as it should be here! So each week, CUVÉE Ray: Uncorked will explore a new wine, wine region or topic and like Toto, we will pull back the curtain of wine mystery and share our love of this truly wonderful beverage.
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