Dan Berger

Divergent styles for West Coast Chardonnay

When Chardonnay is treated to make a simple white quaffing wine, perhaps with a small amount of sugar and no oak influence, it can be a nice drink. Served chilled, it can offer nuances of citrus, hints of tropical fruit, and occasionally even a trace of dried herbs.

But that’s not the Chardonnay we think of when we recall the greatness of French white Burgundies that are best at age 10 or 20; wines that come from extremely limited-production vineyards, where grapes are hand-harvested, the fermentation is carried out in barrels, and where the wine is left to age in oak for several more months.

The editor and I completely agree that the first kind of Chardonnay (not aged in oak, not treated with oak substitutes, and made pretty much as a simple quaffing wine) has a completely different purpose than does the second.

Indeed, you could make a pretty strong case that there is nothing at all that links the two styles of wine.

To make the simpler style of Chardonnay isn’t difficult. You harvest grapes, press them, put the juice in a tank, add yeast to ferment, filter after the last bubbles disappear, bottle it, and it’s ready for market – in a mere two to three months.

I realize it is risky of me to suggest that price determines quality, but in some way it does. That $6 sipping Chardonnay I just wrote about has almost none of the financial liabilities of the second.

You may well get a fine sipping wine that is called Chardonnay for $6 or $18. But any relation to great White Burgundy or a great barrel-aged, limited production, vineyard-designated expression of the soil simply will not happen until you pay about $30 or more.

To begin with, look at the cost of raw materials. Machine-harvested Chardonnay grapes that go into the first kind of wine typically grow in warmer climates, on inexpensive land, produce 10 tons per acre, or more, and are almost never afforded the luxury of closely attended fermentations and aging regimes. The cost for such grapes is a few hundred dollars per ton.

The latter kind of wine, aged in oak, entails a not only thousands of dollars per ton, but a mind-boggling array of different procedures that have nothing to do with the first kind of wine.

Hand harvesting of tiny amounts of fruit (1-2 tons per acre); sorting to remove imperfect berries (reducing an already small harvest); a slow and methodical fermentation that takes a lot longer than the first style of wine; a second fermentation (malolactic) to expand aromatics and reduce acidity and aging in expensive French oak barrels for more than a year all costs time and money.

Then aging the wine further in the bottle, and trying to get consumers to understand that the wine needs more time in the bottle to develop adds to the price.

I tasted a Chardonnay from Anderson Valley in Mendocino County recently that was carefully handcrafted by French-trained winemaker Stephan Vivier, from very small tonnage. It underwent all the same techniques mentioned above. It was the 2015 Long Meadow Ranch Chardonnay ($40) and it displays all of the characteristics that are necessary for this wine to grow into something stupendous.

It calls for additional cellar aging, and eventually it will display its fruit better than it does now. It might be best, in a few years, to decant the wine and serve it not cold but at cellar temperature (cool), perhaps with some seared scallops.

The complexity in this wine is partially a result of the fact that it underwent such a careful aging regime that the wine has utterly sublime complexities.

The first style of wine, by contrast, has no oak so it needs no additional time in the bottle, and in fact would be harmed by such a treatment. The first kind of wine is not necessarily complex as much as it is soft, approachable, and has very little benefit for any foods with which it is served.

And chances are it doesn’t smell or taste like Chardonnay.

It has the benefit of being inexpensive, doesn’t call for any additional cellar aging, and carries all of its flavors on its sleeve, so to speak.

The problem with such wines is that it’s easy to mimic the second of type of Chardonnay, and this is where so much of the confusion lies. Using alternatives to oak, such as imparting oak characteristics by aging the liquid in contact with oak chips, may give the wine a passing resemblance to classic Chardonnay. But one sip reveals the impersonation.

And thus to compare one of these wines to the other it is like comparing Bruno Magli boots to flipflops. Both are worn on the feet. The comparison ends there.

The vast majority of Americans would probably not see any particular reason to purchase the Long Meadow Ranch Chardonnay (and might see it as a huge waste of money) because it is dramatic mainly in its subtlety. And those who love this style of wine might see the unoaked versions of Chardonnay the way Maserati owners view a Yugo.

So clearly it is in the best interest of both styles of wine never to be compared with one another. They share nothing in common. And they each have their own proponents because they see the benefits of the style they prefer, and the detriments of the other style.

Chardonnay has long been parodied. I have seen oak-aged Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Rhône blends and even Chenin Blanc sell to those who love Chardonnay as an alternative to Chardonnay. For me, they are not. Chardonnay at the highest levels is expressive in ways no $6 Chardonnay can ever be.

As much as I like the uncomplicatedness of unoaked Chardonnays, true greatness in that variety is achieved only after creating a path to the depth that only oak-aged Chardonnay can achieve.

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This story was originally published March 19, 2018 12:00 AM.

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