Once teetering on extinction, the most popular grape in the U.S. today comes in a surprising array of styles
By Michelle Locke
Chardonnay is the diva of diversity.
Corseted, but not too tightly, in French oak, the wine is full-bodied, rich, and lavish. Stripped down to its essence in stainless steel tank fermentation, it’s sprightly and fresh with a zingy bite of green apple.
So it’s hardly surprising that chardonnay reigns as the queen of white wine, the most popular single varietal, red or white, in the United States and one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world.
But did you know chardonnay was almost wiped out in California during Prohibition because the thin-skinned grape couldn’t survive the journey back east for the still-legal home winemaking that kept the industry alive? Or that prior to 1968 chardonnay production in the Golden State was so low that the variety was put into the “miscellaneous” category by state agricultural officials?
Turns out chardonnay’s back story is as multi-faceted as the wine it produces.
“If people say, ‘I don’t like chardonnay,’ then they’re not drinking the right chardonnay,” says wine expert and author Leslie Sbrocco, who calls versatile chardonnay the “basic black,” of wine. “There are lots to choose from. You can go from completely bone-dry, unoaked, mineral-y styles all the way to lush, big and full.”
Chardonnay is named for the French village of that name in Burgundy. Genetically, it’s a descendant of a red grape, pinot noir, and gouais blanc, a rather undistinguished white grape. Chardonnay is the primary grape of white Burgundies as well as blanc de blanc Champagnes. Chardonnay has been planted in California since the late 1800s, but production was limited. After Prohibition, the grape was largely uprooted to make room for thick-skinned varieties.
In 1962, the French government went to the trouble and expense of diverting the new Paris-Lyon auto route away from the chardonnay grapes blooming in the 18.5-acre Le Montrachet vineyard, a hallowed source of white Burgundy.
But in the ‘70s, as the renaissance of California winemaking dawned, chardonnay began to make a comeback. In 1976, the grape took another leap forward at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting when California chardonnays took four of the six top places.
White House wine
Shafer Vineyards scored an early success in 1980 when its chardonnay was poured for a state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the first Shafer wine served in the White House. But the 1985 vintage earned a disappointing 67-point rating from Wine Spectator, prompting one of Doug Shafer’s three attempts to resign, he recalls in the recently published winery history, A Vineyard in Napa. Luckily, Shafer stayed put, taking the advice of his father, winery founder John Shafer: Figure out the mistakes, stop making them and “get back to work.”
One of the improvements was to source the grapes from Carneros, which is at the southern end of the Napa Valley and gets the cool weather that chardonnay needs to stay fresh and lively. Doug Shafer, working with winemaker Elias Fernandez, also began minimizing the juice-to-skin contact to keep flavors pristine, putting whole clusters in a Champagne-style press which gently pushes out the juice.
In recent years there’s been hot debate over chardonnay styles, with a backlash against very ripe and oaky styles that spawned the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. Even that didn’t do much to dent chardonnay’s dominance, although it has prompted producers to offer leaner, racier styles.
Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay steers a middle course. The wine does not go through malolactic fermentation, a process that amps up the buttery factor, sometimes producing wines that are criticized as “fat” or “flabby” — hardly diva attributes. But Shafer chardonnay does spend some time in French oak, producing an elegant wine that balances the lushness of tropical fruit with a bright acidity.
Bright and Beautiful
Wondering what style of chardonnay suits your palate? Master Sommelier John Ragan, wine director for Union Square Hospitality Group, suggests one way to sample the many personalities of chardonnay is to take your taste buds on a tour of Burgundy.
Alexander Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers,” thought so highly of the chardonnay produced by Le Montrachet that he said it should be drunk “on one’s knees, with hat in hand.”
Start up north in Chablis and you find wines that are high in acid with green orchard fruit flavors. Move on to bottles from Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault where there is more limestone in the soil and the wines “have a little bit more generosity to them, a little bit more body.” For a third take, head south to Poully-Fuissé and Montagny for wines that “reflect the sunshine. They’re a little bit riper, a little bit rounder.”
What’s next for chardonnay? Ragan thinks winemakers are resisting the itch to add elaborate touches to the wine. “Obviously, there are a lot of non-negotiables. You need great clones planted in great terroirs, the right climate,” he says, “but if you have all of that you don’t necessarily need to put a lot of makeup on it.”