Chablis & The Trendy Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a great grape that can make a wonderful wine—just not as often as many people think. The word Chardonnay has become synonymous with white wine and is perhaps the all-time blockbuster of “trendy” wines. The question is, why would you want to drink or not drink a wine simply because it’s trendy? I’ve never been a big fan of trends. But if one must be trendy, I think it should be limited to things like having a Nalgene bottle to match each of your Patagonia fleeces. It definitely should not have any bearing on the food you eat or the wine you drink.

When I first started bussing tables in 1979, the common call for a glass of white wine was, “I’ll have a glass of Chablis.” Whereas today, “What do you have for Chardonnay?” is by far the most-asked question in my restaurant. Chablis has not only fallen off the charts, it now represents the antithesis of good wine. So how and why did Chardonnay replace Chablis?

The comically ironic reason goes something like this:

In the mid 1970s the government of France expressed disdain for their time-honored regional and village names being used as generic terms for wines made in the United States. Most notably: Champagne for sparkling wine, Burgundy for red wine, and Chablis for white. America appeased the French by labeling their wines by the type of grape (or varietal, in wine lingo). As with most things bureaucratic, this happened slowly and was first mainstreamed by a wine-fluke-turned-marketing-phenomenon in the mid-eighties called White Zinfandel. Although White Zinfandel is a poor representation of American winemaking, it did play a huge role in helping reintroduce wine to the American table. Like wine coolers, White Zin became too sweet for most and we turned to the next new (or so we thought) hot item: Chardonnay, loaded with butter and oak.

The interesting note is that the appellation of Chablis, located at the northern point of Burgundy in France, grows and produces almost solely one grape varietal. A varietal called Chardonnay. Yes, it seems there is a trend conundrum for all of those who only drink Chardonnay and would never be caught drinking something as gauche as Chablis, for they are one and the same.

Well, they are and they aren’t. Although the two wines are made from the same grapes there are two major differences between them: growing region and winemaking practice. Chablis is a relatively cold growing region. Grapes grown in colder regions don’t have time to develop as those in warmer climates do and tend to be higher in malic acids, which are typical in green fruits like Granny Smith apples. White wine makers in northern Burgundy generally make their wine in stainless steel vats that impart no flavor into the wine. The end result produces a wine with crisp clean flavors that truly express the flavor of the grape and the soil it was grown in—a wine that cleanses the palate between bites of foods, especially foods naturally high in fats like salmon and shellfish or dishes served with cream or butter sauces.

California Chardonnay vineyards are much warmer and produce fruit with more sugar and less acid. Most American Chardonnay producers manipulate their wine to be big, oaky, and full of butter to please the public. So, how does one get butter and oak into the wine? First, a process called malolactic fermentation is forced. This fermentation changes malic acids into lactic acids, giving the wine a creamy mouth-feel and a slight flavor of butter. Secondly, to impart the oak flavor the wines are made in new oak barrels (some even add oak chips to the wine and then filter them out). Both of these processes can be used to create a great wine. The problem is, like a cook who is heavy with the salt, too often the true flavor of the grape/wine is completely masked. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic American Chardonnays on the market—but you really have to look for them. Too many tend to taste alike and don’t really go well with a lot of foods. Any good winemaker will tell you that a great wine starts with well-farmed, ripe grapes; from there the less one does with it the better.

The next time you’re looking for a bottle or glass of wine I would invite you to look for and try a French Chablis. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. I would also recommend looking over the choices and possibly experiment with something different. Remember there are hundreds of grape varietals available. Experiment a little and you’ll find you enjoy one type by itself while relaxing in front of the fire, another with your salad, and yet another with that main course you’re so well known for. Developing this repertoire may be the longest thing you’ll ever do… but life is still too short to be stuck on one wine. Here are a few “other” white varietals to look for: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio), Viognier, and Vermentino.

When you do venture into new wines, remember a couple important thoughts: The only true test of whether a wine is good is if you, the individual, like it. If you’re halfway through your meal and your glass is still full, you probably don’t like it. If you look down and your glass is repetitively empty, chances are you liked it. Simple stuff.

Nobody knows everything about wine. Don’t feel intimidated by what you don’t know; you would be surprised how little the rest of us really know.

And lastly, there is nothing elitist about wine. The grapes are grown, picked, crushed, and bottled by some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll ever meet.

Cheers & Enjoy.

Patrick Hurd is the proprietor of the Rainbow Ranch Lodge in Big Sky, 995-4132.