Authors just love Chardonnay. They write about it all the time. In the more than 12 million books Google has digitized so far, Chardonnay is mentioned more often than any other wine varietal.
Grape scholar Carole Meredith says Chardonnay is “the result of a natural cross-pollination between Pinot and Gouais Blanc” that took place in northeastern France centuries ago. According to Meredith, whose group at UC Davis did the DNA research that established Chardonnay’s ancestry, at least 15 other grape varieties have Pinot and Gouais as their parents. These include Aligoté, Melon, Auxerrois and Gamay.
Chardonnay probably was named after the village of Chardonnay, north of Mâcon in Burgundy.
It grows well all over the world. In the past few years, I have tasted Chardonnay wines from Argentina, Australia (Barossa Valley and Margaret River), California (Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, Sonoma), Chile, France (Burgundy, Languedoc), New Zealand (North and South Islands), the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China, Oregon and Sicily. Not surprisingly, the character of Chardonnays from these disparate regions varies considerably.
Experts say that differences in climate and soil account for variations in Chardonnay’s flavor. One commentator opines, “Broadly speaking, warm regions such as California, Chile and much of Australia tend to give more tropical styles. Temperate zones such as southern Burgundy or northern New Zealand create wines marked out by stonefruit notes. The very coolest Chardonnay vineyards (those in Chablis, Champagne, Germany) lean towards green-apple aromas.”
Winemaking techniques also have a great influence on flavor. Winemakers may encourage newly fermented Chardonnay to undergo a bacterial process called malolactic fermentation, which tends to mute acidity and give the wine a “buttery” feel. Decisions about the use of oak barrels have a big effect, too.
My wife and I have been enjoying a lot of Chardonnay recently. Three elegant wines from California stood out among them. Now, like those thousands of authors who have been mentioning Chardonnay so frequently in their millions of books, I, too, must write something on the subject.
Richard Arrowood rightly has been described as an “iconic winemaster.” He earned his reputation making wine at Chateau St. Jean and then at Arrowood Winery, from which he retired in 2010.
A few years before retiring, Arrowood and his wife, Alis, purchased a parcel of undeveloped land on a western-facing slope of the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County where they created a new, organically certified vineyard and began making small quantities of ultra-premium wine. The Arrowoods named their establishment Amapola Creek Vineyards & Winery for a creek that flows through the property. (Amapola is Spanish for poppy.)
Mr. Arrowood produces red wines from grapes grown in and near his mountainside vineyard. He makes Chardonnay from grapes grown by his friend Joseph Belli in the Russian River Valley.
Arrowwood’s Amapola Creek Chardonnay 2012 ($45) is a subtle elixir, pale straw in color. A whiff of yeast mingles with oak fragrances in its bouquet. The flavor is bright and refreshing, with citrus overtones and a touch of minerality. Hints of bitter orange and vanilla augment pearly pear and honey essences. Music lovers sampling this excellent offering might compare its flavor to the sound of a cello playing softly in the upper middle register. Mr. Arrowood reveals that his Chardonnay was fermented in French oak barrels and then aged for 11 months in the barrel, where it completed malolactic fermentation.
Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a wine lunch presented by Chappellet Winery. Cyril Chappellet, son of the founders, was host. As guests arrived, we were offered glasses of Chardonnay to whet our appetites. I was stunned. The Chardonnay was great, and I vowed to drink more of it.
Gleaming a pale gold in the glass, Chappellet Napa Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($35) presents a welcoming bouquet of banana and citrus. Its complex flavor includes elements of pear, peach, banana, honey, vanilla and honeysuckle—with tasteful oak, a twinkle of citrus and a kiss of lemon rind in the background. This is an altogether delightful wine, a wonderful exemplar of the suave California Chardonnay style.
Grapes for Chappellet’s Chardonnay come from the cool area close to San Pablo Bay at the south end of Napa County. We understand that the wine was “aged on its lees for eight months in one-third new French oak barrels,” and “a significant portion of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation.”
Chateau Montelena is one of those grand old California wineries devastated by Prohibition. Founded by Alfred Tubbs in 1882, it prospered for decades, producing as many as 50,000 cases of wine annually. Tubbs’ descendants began making wine again after 1933, but the winery never regained its former eminence. They sold out in 1958.
In the early 1970s, Jim Barrett discovered the property in Calistoga and “fell in love with its stone chateau and overgrown vineyards.” He replanted the original vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon and refurbished the winery. As the Cabernet vines matured, Chateau Montelena focused on making Chardonnay from purchased grapes.
In 1976, a panel of French experts did a blind tasting of wines from France and California. Everyone expected the famous French wines to trounce rude American upstarts. But no! Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay was judged the winner among the whites. It’s a great story that later was recounted in a book called Judgment of Paris.
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2011 ($50) is the color of dry straw. Its poetic bouquet melds oak, vanilla and minerals. Bright in flavor, it is full of lush, creamy fruit—peaches, melon, banana—with highlights of minerals, honeysuckle and delicate vanilla. A touch of lemon rind provides contrast. The wine is as good as its story.
The next time you attend a gallery opening or museum reception, reach for the Chardonnay. Do not be put off by its popularity. It is likely to be elegant and tasty. And as a curator once told me, Chardonnay won’t stain if you happen to become tipsy and splash a glass on a painting.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert at RBCalvert@att.net.