Do you remember your first time? Do you remember your worst time?
Obviously I’m talking about chardonnay. My first experience with (American) chardonnay was at my girlfriend’s parents. Think fancy New England house where the wine came in cut crystal glasses. The Californian chardonnay, which was undoubtedly expensive, was fat, buttery, and so loaded with oak flavors that I may as well have been gnawing on the sideboard. Here’s what’s wrong with America in a glass, I thought.
Profligate, indulgent, coarse.
I tried not to grimace with each sip. The fairy tale of the Little Mermaid came to mind—how each step she took was like walking on sharp knives.
We all make sacrifices.
Over-oaked chardonnay may have turned a generation off to what is one of the world’s great wines. Countless times I’ve heard people say they don’t like chardonnay, only to have their worldview flipped when given an example that is fresh and lean.
Chardonnay is a chameleon. Or more precisely, it’s like a piece of Play-Doh—it’s waiting to have something done to it. Isolated and untouched, it has no form and no special character. For winemakers, the grape is perfect for expressing terroir, the sense of place where it’s grown—everything from topography to soil to climate. It is never truly one thing, but a multitude.
Of course, the French know what to do with chardonnay. They’ve been working with the stuff for centuries (though French winemaker esteem took a hit when DNA fingerprinting suggested chardonnay didn’t come from wild French vines after all, but is the offspring of pinot noir and a variety from Croatia called Gouais). Burgundy is the place. In terms of temperament and price, most of chardonnay is represented here.
As an example, compare and contrast: The sub region of Chablis is famed for its bone-dry, fresh ’n’ flinty wines, while the village of Puligny-Montrachet produces much richer and denser examples.
Oak! They sometimes use oak, but don’t be afraid. It can be used skillfully, like a chef salting food. The best Burgundies are refined and elegant, aged for decades—and are also exceedingly expensive. Fortunately, Burgundy comes at all price points. Liner & Elsen (2222 NW Quimby) have one for $13.50 (a Domaine Gueugnon Remond Mâcon-Charnay) if you want to try out a base model.
Chardonnay is relatively easy to cultivate, which explains why it’s found in every corner of the wine world. It’s here, in Oregon. It’s been in the Willamette Valley since the 1960s, but only really caught on recently. When the wine haut monde waxes lyrical, there’s even talk of chardonnay being the future of the Valley. I’ve heard winemakers complain that there aren’t enough good grapes to go around.
Domaine Drouhin, Open Claim, JK Carriere, Big Table Farm, Evening Land, Bergstrom—there are too many Oregon producers to list. Probably the best I’ve tried is Beaux Frères ($75, beauxfreres.com). It was like a matryoshka doll in the way the layers of flavor unfolded, and all the while it buzzed in my mouth. As good as a Burgundy? The courteous answer is that Oregon chardonnay is treading its own path these days, and isn’t trying to imitate our French cousins.
FOUR TO TRY
Laurent Cognard Montagny Clos du Vieux Château, 1er Cru, 2016
A Burgundy that gives a sense of how smooth and complex a chardonnay can be. It lights up the mouth with green apple, lemon, and vanilla bean, and has a finish that goes into next week. $37 at Division Wines, 3564 SE Division
Holden Johan Vineyard Chardonnay, 2015
Pure class that punches above its weight. Rich, intermingling flavors of citrus, honey, and herbs. $33 at 1856, 1465 NE Prescott
Stratera Belle Pente Vineyard, 2015
A micro label based in Yamhill-Carlton run by chardonnay devotees. Fanatics, even. All they produce is single-vineyard chardonnay in tiny quantities. $37 at Division Wines, 3564 SE Division
Swick Wines Wyd? U Up?
I haven’t had time to try this yet, but it came highly recommended from trusted sources, and Joe Swick—part class clown, part visionary winemaker—crafts intelligent natural wines. Besides, what other wine is made for a booty call? $25 at Pairings, 455 NE 24th