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      Chardonnay
       excerpetd from: Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, Second Edition
       Copyright 2002 by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher

    Chapter One

    Chardonnay

    America's Third Ocean

    Spring Mountain Chardonnay 1976. Delicious! Huge, yet crisp, but also soft and very creamy, filling mouth with big creamy taste. Very complex, with contradictory tastes. Lots of pepper. Very much a Chardonnay.

    Cuvaison Chardonnay 1978. Delicious. Classic Chardonnay nose, very buttery. Green-gold. Half alcohol and half butter, huge and plump. Massive aftertaste comes back up and gets you. Thick yet clean, a little wood but not overwhelming wood. Knocks your socks off.

    Guenoc Chardonnay 1980. Delicious! Big and rich and creamy, filled with sunshine and butter. Long finish of nutmeg and wood.

    Kistler Chardonnay 1980. Delicious, but shocking in its bigness. Massive and oaky. Long oak finish. Powerful, chewy, very American.

    Ah, the Chardonnay of our youth. "Powerful, chewy, very American"--those words from our notes back then said it all. Chardonnay has been the world's greatest white-wine grape for centuries. It is, after all, the grape of the famous white Burgundies of France. In the 1970s, California winemakers discovered just what was possible with this grape in the New World. They took the big, superripe grapes provided by California's perfect weather, then fermented and aged them in oak barrels and produced wines that offered a uniquely American taste and, in a sense, a reflection of the American character: bold, unrestrained, and outsized.

    We look back on those chewy Chardonnays with the affection of a first crush. As it happens, we fell in love with Chardonnay at about the same time the rest of the country did. Chardonnay became America's sweetheart. Americans now drinkabout 400 million bottles of Chardonnay a year. It is far and away the country's most popular "varietal" wine--that is, a wine named after its grape. America became a nation of three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Chardonnay.

    This is both good and bad. Let's get to the good part first: Chardonnay can be a terrific wine, soul-satisfying and just plain delicious. We--and, we'd guess, most wine lovers--have had more great experiences with Chardonnay-based wines than with any other white. Not only that, but if you enjoy Chardonnay, there's no reason to settle for a simple "glass of white wine." There are excellent, flavorful Chardonnays out there, some of them remarkably inexpensive. And some expensive Chardonnays still have the kind of character, class, breeding, and personality--even the drama--of the Chardonnays we first fell for.

    What does a fine California Chardonnay taste like to us? It's big, rich, ripe, and buttery. It's mouthfilling, so you have to take small sips. It has a little bit of toastiness, vanilla, maybe some butterscotch and some cream, and it's almost chewy. Sometimes your nose can pick up hints of fruit--grapefruit or pineapple. Its tastes are broad, rather than focused and sharp, with maybe a hint of oiliness, which doesn't sound so good but adds texture and complexity. The very best Chardonnays have all of this power going on in your mouth, but when you swallow, something miraculous happens. The finish is a clean, light one that lingers for several minutes, like the essence of plump, sweet grapes.

    Now that is Chardonnay. But now the bad news. As America's affair with Chardonnay grew, wineries began producing a great deal of yucky Chardonnay. ("Yucky" is one of those highly technical wine terms that we will use throughout this book.) The recipe is easy. Get some second-rate vineyard land with plenty of sun. Let the vines grow and grow and don't prune back much, which will leave you with plenty of grapes but little flavor. (Imagine that every vine has only so much flavor in it. The fewer the grapes, the more flavor each grape has.) Let them get overripe, which produces a great deal of sugar--and, later, alcohol--but breaks down acids, leaving the wine simple and flabby. Maybe leave the wine slightly sweet, too, because, as the old saying goes, Americans talk dry but drink sweet. During fermentation or after, maybe throw in some wood chips for flavor. Now, you can still call that Chardonnay, because it is, indeed, made mostly from Chardonnay grapes. There you have it. Sound good? No, it doesn't sound good to us, either, but America's demand for Chardonnay is so insatiable that bad Chardonnays sell, too.

    The other bad thing that happened is that critics began hammering California Chardonnay for being too woody, too buttery, too big. It doesn't go with food, they said, and it won't age well, either. There's even a name for the critics: the ABC Club--Anything But Chardonnay. Ever sensitive to the market, some winemakers began to rein in their Chardonnay. Pretty soon, American winemakers were boasting about their "French-style" Chardonnay, meaning the wine had more restraint, a bit more lemon-acid taste, which made them better with food, and less obvious flavors of wood. And sometimes those can be great, too. You can see the change in our tattered old notebooks:

    Chalone 1979. Delicious! Really fantastic. French in its complexity and terrific finesse. Ripe, full-flavored, complex, fruity, and woody without a wood taste. Long, lemony finish. Yellow, Chardonnay look and a classy lemony nose. No real butter as such, just fruit. Nutmeg, vanilla, and smoke on the nose and in the finish.

    Many of the less-oaky wines were delicious, but all of this created such a split personality for Chardonnay that wine drinkers have a hard time figuring out which is which. We get letters every week from readers who are looking for Chardonnays that have wood or Chardonnays that don't have wood, or just wondering what the fuss is about.

    When people talk about wood or oak in good wines, they're talking about wooden barrels. Some wines, especially white wines meant to be fresh and fruity, never see the inside of a barrel. They're treated to stainless steel tanks and they're crisp, fragrant, and delightful. But most Chardonnay, like most good red wine, spends some time in oak barrels, which doesn't just give the wine additional flavors but also extra depth and complexity. Whether the wine is fermented in oak or just aged in oak matters. How long it's in oak matters. The size of the barrels matters. So does the kind of oak itself. We find that American oak imparts more dramatic flavors than French oak, which lends more elegance and finesse. New oak has more power than old oak, whose flavors have been depleted over the years and are mellower. "High-fire" barrels, which have been subject to more fire or charring in the barrel-making process, have more vanilla, toast, and caramel tastes than "low-fire" barrels. How much wood a wine gets--more generally, how a good wine is made--is a reflection of the character and vision of the winemaker.

    There's a lot of magic in the process, but there's a lot of method, too. Consider the wine-making notes about a Napa Valley Private Reserve Chardonnay made by Ed Sbragia, winemaker at Beringer Vineyards: "All of the juice went into small French Nevers oak barrels, most of them new, custom-toasted to caramelize the neutral sugars in the wood and contribute a sweet vanilla note to the wine. The wines were fermented and aged in these barrels, and the lees [spent yeast cells] were hand stirred back into the wine every week for about six months. . . . We also put the wines through 100-percent malolactic fermentation to further enhance their dense, creamy mouthfeel. The wines were aged in barrels for over nine months before we made the final assemblage."

    You don't need to understand all of that. The point is that winemaking is an art, and a highly personal one. But you know what? In the long run, nothing matters more than the fruit. As Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal, John always told reporters: "No matter how good a writer you are, your story won't be great if you don't have great reporting"--the raw data, the facts that go into a story. It's the same way with wine: it all starts with the fruit. Even a great winemaker can't make great wine from so-so fruit. California can produce great Chardonnay fruit--big, plump, rich fruit that can stand up to, and even benefit from, some oak. That's why we tell people that the problem with many Chardonnays isn't that they're overoaked, but that they're underfruited.

    Unfortunately, too many people have made peace with the idea that Chardonnay is a simple, inoffensive wine that's slightly comfortable instead of genuinely good. In tastings year after year we have found many substandard Chardonnays that taste vaguely familiar, like "strawberry" soft drinks made entirely of artificial flavors. The wines have little body or mouthfeel. Many have a hot, alcoholic taste and more than a hint of sweetness. Tellingly, Dottie said at one point during a tasting, "They all taste warm," so John made sure the refrigerator was working properly (the bottles had been in there all day). No matter how well chilled, they'd taste too warm. In fact, many Chardonnays taste pretty much the same. Dottie calls them "paint-by-numbers" Chardonnays. They aren't unpleasant, but there's little about them that tastes like grapes. Instead, it's as though they were made in a lab and put together by computer, the way paints are mixed at Home Depot.

    You don't have to settle for that! In our most recent tasting of Chardonnays under $20, we found quite a few--some far under $20--that were tasty, well-made wines. Some were woody and some were not, but they had this in common: They tasted as though they were made with ripe, plump grapes with good acids. "Fresh and alive," we wrote about one. "Good fruit left alone." This was Callaway Coastal, which cost just $7.99 at the time. Another fruity, delightful Chardonnay also came from an old favorite, Louis M. Martini Winery. "Quite juicy," we wrote. "Lots of ripe fruit." It was just over $10. About our favorite, we wrote: "It's green-tinged, with lime on the nose. There's some mango taste, a little bit of sourness. Quite crisp. More crisp fruit than wood. Classy. Tastes colder than the others! Expensive?" Nope, not expensive at all. In fact, it was just $9.99. What was it? Bogle Vineyards, whose Chardonnay had been our best value the year before.

    We should mention one wine that wasn't among our favorites but that rated a solid Good on our scale. It was simple and a bit sweet, but easy to drink and pleasant. We thought that a bottle of this wine, put in a big tub of ice by the pool, would be lovely on a hot day and we wrote: "Everyone would like this." We were certainly right about that: It was Kendall-Jackson 1999, which cost $9.99 at the time and which pretty much everyone does like. In fact, K-J--reliable, widely available, and inexpensive--helped make Chardonnay America's sweetheart.

    Of course, in that huge display of Chardonnays at the store there are many over $20, too. What's the difference between a $15 Chardonnay and a $35 Chardonnay? The answer should be something more than "$20." Think about what your everyday Chardonnay tastes like--some creamy, citrus fruit, a little bit of wood, nice mouthfeel that's a bit like meringue. A more expensive Chardonnay should give you that, of course, but much more. It should be a different experience, more than just a pleasant wine. Are American winemakers crossing that bar? We visited several stores and bought the first fifty we could find between $20 and $50 for a blind tasting. For our under-$20 tastings, we focus on wineries that produce enough each year so that their wines are widely distributed and generally available. But for this tasting, we decided not to restrict ourselves that way. Pretty much all more expensive Chardonnays are made in limited quantities, and some high-end wineries specialize in Chardonnay. So we picked up the first fifty, regardless of how big or small the winery was. That meant we picked up well-known names like Mondavi and Beringer, but it also meant we bought less well-known wines and a few that were new even to us. Our selection was inevitably arbitrary. There are hundreds of Chardonnays made in America. We might have found a wholly different fifty at other stores. But, as always, our point wasn't to find the very best Chardonnay in America, but to get an idea of what's out there, and to try to find some general themes.

    What should you be looking for in an expensive Chardonnay? A wine that's stretching the bounds a bit. It should be an experience, not just a drink. It should take you places you haven't gone before. It should have enough of a personality that you get some sense of what the winemaker was trying to do. You might not think you could tell, but you could. Is it especially acidic and lemony? Maybe the winemaker was trying to make it a good food wine. Is it especially creamy? Maybe the winemaker really likes oak and felt the fruit was exceptional enough to handle a lot of it. Does the wine have a certain pleasant sourness? Is it austere or is it plump? These characteristics do not develop by accident. They're the winemaker's signature. An expensive wine of any kind should make you notice itself at some point, and often should make you appreciate its elegance. An expensive bottle should at least hold out the hope of a memorable, maybe even transcendent, experience. Extra money is no guarantee of that, but for that kind of money, you have a right to anticipate that the wine will be good enough to recommend to your friends the next day.

    How did they fare? Some weren't worth it. The fruit didn't seem particularly ripe and the winemaker's attention to it didn't seem particularly keen. Interestingly, the wines that we favored almost all clustered around the $35 mark. Some were from large, well-known wineries, including Beringer ("classy") and Mondavi ("ripe and bold"). Some were surprises. Our second-favorite was from Davis Bynum Winery, which we remember more for a wonderful old man in the tasting room named Manny than for its wines. Its consulting winemaker was Gary Farrell, who makes fine and very expensive wines under his own name, and this Chardonnay was a shocker. "Lots of taste after it's gone," we wrote. "Shy, in an interesting way. Long, woody finish that lasts forever, with all the taste in the back and a little bit of pine wood at the end. Like a slow-blooming flower in your mouth. The taste grows. A winemaker's wine."

    It wasn't the best of our tasting, though. That was, instead, a wine that we can still taste. "Fruity, soft, approachable, creamy, and lovely," we wrote. "Elegant, with lots of fruit, but confident enough to be restrained. Wow." This was a wine that we could enjoy on many levels--so very drinkable, yet also extremely complex, with a luscious finish. It was from Rombauer Vineyards, and a steal at the time at $27.99. If you think "a steal at $27.99" is an oxymoron, try an unfamiliar, high-end Chardonnay that you discovered yourself. There's at least a good chance you'll see just what we mean.

     

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    Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, Second Edition Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine, Second Edition Since their first book appeared, the authors have received thousands of appreciative letters and emails from readers, many of them raising new questions about the wine world. Addressing many of these queries, discussing more great finds, and widening the scope of previous topics, this revised edition is better than ever. Instead of simply updating the vintages in the previous edition, Gaiter and Brecher have scoured the wineshops for dozens of additional selections, covering rose champagnes, for example, and extending the Savignon Blanc discussion to New Zealand. As for the practical advice that has endeared the couple to so many fans, the authors explore entirely new roads with chapters such as Wine and Business, How to Impress the Boss, When Wine is a Pain, The Headache Issue, and Don't Be Embarrassed About the Blue Nun in Your Past, as well as new passages on everything from cork etiquette to great Kosher wines.

     

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