In every large crowd of wine lovers, there are the ABCs. I know as I was once one of them. They are the resistance, the folks that are proud of their polarization and happy to flaunt it.
You can easily tell who they are. They reveal themselves when you order Chardonnay.
You see that questioning squint. The raised eyebrow. The negative wag of their head. Or that knowing but negative look that they silently communicate to their dining partner.
The Anything but Chardonnay crowd can be very vocal as well. And helpful, selfishly so.
“Can I make a suggestion?” A dramatic pause to capture everyone's attention. “With the menu tonight, I think we need a different wine, don’t you?” “Have you tried an Albariño or Viognier (how do you pronounce that?) or maybe a rose? You know, everyone likes a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”
Your waitperson gives a small nod of understanding to the ABC and gives you the big eye, putting you on the spot. The silent messages come fast: “Your guest has a point; Be nice; Are you really going to stay with the Chardonnay?”
Like me, ABCs probably grew up on American Chardonnay from the 70s and 80s. A lot of juice from carefully cultivated Chardonnay was drowned in fresh oak barrels. I didn’t want to drink oak, yet many did. Some still do. I think many winemakers made Chardonnay as a sideline to their true love, fine reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Pinot Noir.
And then there is malolactic fermentation. The optional second fermentation. It reduces acid levels to give smoothness, yields a buttery flavor and unfortunately, can contribute to further minimization of the fruit flavors.
And the wine makers reinforce this trend. They don’t seem to focus on the Chardonnay. It’s all about the butter to some of them. They even write that on their labels. Chardonnay is just the bread to transport their butter. Their customer wants butter. I ask you: Is Chardonnay popcorn?
Critics know this when they describe Chardonnay. They speak of acidity and long finishes, not the fruit. If the grapes were picked over-ripe with low acidity, they are “deliciously smooth”. And then there are the inorganic words like “flint” or “wet stone.” I’m not an expert in flints or wet stones nor do I want to lick one to find out.
Reformed ABCs are different, usually found in major urban areas that enjoy fully stocked wine stores. They readily disclose that their palates are quite sophisticated now, suggesting a personal growth opportunity for you. Their gym toned bodies don’t tolerate anything flabby. “I prefer a wine with more acid, thank you very much.”
No American Chardonnay for them. Just French. Usually from a favorite village. “Chablis please.” “Montrachet tonight?” They exchange knowing glances describing the acid levels of Chablis or a good Burgundy white that, in their minds, trump the fruit profile.
I found full redemption when I first started to make wine. I made sure to pick when the grapes were optimally ripe—not trying to force harvesting to a BRIX sugar number that had nothing to do with the flavor of the grapes.
What was that stuff in my fermentation tank? It was unfamiliar. It was fresh. It tasted like…fruit. Tropical fruit. With a hint of lime. It was like the clouds parting and the sun shining its bright light upon my glass.
And then I discovered that there are a number of American winemakers out there that carefully select their grapes and make Chardonnay in small lots. What a revelation. The fruit is back! Less oak or no oak. No butter. These artisan wines are wonderful, reflecting both the grape and the vineyard.
So I say to you ABCs: Put down that Sauvignon Blanc! Redeem yourself. Find the fruit in American Chardonnay. It will be well worth the effort!
Paul Morrison is very biased in his opinions. He is the managing director of JL Wood, a Napa based maker of luxury Chardonnay wines, and prefers his own wines.