I am always amazed by “I never/I only” wine-drinkers. I encounter them all too frequently when they come into the shop looking for a specific wine. I quickly discover that my suggestions for an alternative selection are futile when the customer informs me they will only drink this one wine.
Oh, how terribly boring. These wine-drinkers are like 4-year-old children faced with a new dinner option. “I don’t like it! I won’t eat it! What is it?”
Astonishingly, I even encounter a few wine professionals who fall victim to this ideology, although they are more likely to enter the “I never” subset (as in: “I never drink Napa cabernet!”) because they think they know better, or their vast years of experience have led them into some archaic belief system.
Maybe you know one of these “I never/I only” people. Or perhaps you are one of these people. If that’s the case, stay with me … this article is for you.
The most-common wine manifesto I face is: “I never drink chardonnay.” This is so rampant in the wine world that it’s hard for me to believe sometimes that chardonnay is still the No. 1 varietal in the country. The reasons why people have abandoned chardonnay are usually valid or, at the least, understandable—but they are also terribly short-sighted.
As one woman at a recent tasting explained to me: Those lean, crisp styles aren’t real chardonnay. I clutch the pearls; let out an audible gasp; and try to stay calm. “No, no,” I say, almost trembling at the misinformation. “The wine you’ve come to associate with chardonnay is the actual impostor here.” She is not alone in this thought. In fact, most desert-dwellers I talk to have the same thought-process. How can I blame them when every restaurant wine list from here to San Diego (with some fabulous exceptions) offer six whites by the glass—and four of them are overly oaked, creamy, carnival-midway explosions of buttered, fried, caramel-vanilla dipped flavors of something-or-other? There is no awareness that this same grape can produce wines with razor-sharp acid, bright mouth-watering citrus fruits, and a finish that makes your palate say, “Thank you, sir; may I have another?”
These styles are not as elusive as you may think—but they are hiding in plain sight. For every anti-chardonnay drinker, there is a bottle of Dauvissat or Patrick Piuze Chablis or Ceritas Trout Gulch Vineyard chardonnay just waiting to be discovered. Even in Napa, the heartland of overly contrived chardonnay, Steve Matthiasson is crafting an affordable, gloriously lean and zippy incarnation called Linda Vista. And in Sonoma, the chardonnays of Lioco, Porter-Bass and Scribe are breaking the age-old California interpretations. I implore everyone who has a myopic view of this little grape to give it another go. (Or, as I say to my picky-eater kids: Follow the three-bite rule.)
What most people don’t understand about chardonnay is that it is a very neutral grape in terms of flavor. Its flavor profile is nowhere nearly as overt as, say, sauvignon blanc or riesling. And yet this is the very reason it produces some of the most expensive wines in the world. You know them as Meursault, Montrachet and, of course, Chablis. You see, chardonnay was chosen by the Cistercian monks centuries ago to be planted in Burgundy because of its propensity for high acid and its neutrality. What those smarty-pants monks knew, even way back then, was that this land—and each specific parcel of land—was unique in its composition. They firmly believed that what grew on this plot of land was going to taste different than what grew on any other piece of land. And that’s what mattered—the place. The grape was simply a catalyst to show what the land could do. The flavors and aromas of the grape shouldn’t outshine the flavors and distinct qualities that were inherent in the dirt—so they needed a grape that could be the bridesmaid to the more-important element.
But this is a double-edged sword, because just as chardonnay’s transparent nature was a bonus for the vignerons of France, it was also a tool for winemakers looking to make their mark in the new world. Chardonnay is easily manipulated and malleable to an eager winemakers’ every whim. When the masses demanded bigger, bolder, richer wines, chardonnay was an easy accomplice. All of a sudden, the market was flooded with wines that were stylistically so far removed from its ancestors that it was hard to remember they were ever even related.
If all of this isn’t reason enough to get you to abandon a negative viewpoint on chardonnay, then I’m left with no choice but to pull out the big guns. Yes, that’s right: I’m going to wine-shame you. Hear me when I tell you that no experienced, knowledgeable wine aficionado would ever, ever disrespect the white grape of Burgundy. In fact, most wine professionals and sommeliers will tell you that this region and its noble grape are the Holy Grail—so revered that, in fact, it’s many sommeliers’ “stranded on a desert island wine.” Yours truly is included in that bunch.
I realize I’ve singled out chardonnay here, but there are many other “I never/I only” wine-drinkers out there, and we’ll explore this more on another day. In the meantime, if you’re part of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd, I hope you take away one thing from this: Wine is about so much more than just the grape.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with more than 15 years in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.