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Customers Should Beware: Not All Chardonnays Are Created Equal

Times Wine Writer

Scanning the shelves in a wine shop recently, I overheard a customer ask the wine merchant to recommend a Chardonnay for her Saturday night dinner.

The merchant, correctly, asked what kind of food was to be served. The patron said chicken. And with that the merchant began recommending a number of Chardonnays that were of completely different styles.

My eyes glazed over.

I realized that what the patron was seeing on those shelves was a sea of labels, none of which meant anything to her; the wine looked all the same. What I was seeing was a pastiche of colors, each label representing a wine of a slightly different style. And what the merchant was seeing was a way to sell a bottle of Chardonnay that wasn’t selling particularly rapidly.

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The Varieties of Chardonnay

Chardonnays are not all the same. Those from Grgich, Trefethen, Chappellet, Sterling and Shafer tend to be reticent when young, but blossom with a year or two in bottle. Chardonnays from DeLoach, Kendall-Jackson, Chateau St. Jean accent big, fruity flavors when young and don’t appear to age quite as well.

Each grape variety can be made into wine significantly different from its brothers by merely harvesting the grapes differently. (And the soil and weather conditions of each variety determine differences too, but that’s a matrix of a different color.)

Then, the wine maker must decide whether to crush the grapes or put them directly into a press, must decide whether to use Prise de Mousse yeast to ferment with, or Montrachet, or even use the wild yeasts that develop on the skins of the grapes.

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Maynard Amerine, professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, has said a wine maker must make roughly 2,000 decisions for each lot of wine. Each decision takes the wine in a direction, and the direction changes for each decision.

Chardonnay once was made without aging in oak barrels. Then Hanzell in Sonoma pioneered the use of French oak barrels for the aging of the wine, and before long fermentation was being done in the barrels too.

And differences were noted between wine fermented in barrels and those merely aged in barrels after fermentation in stainless steel vats. Today, however, we know that a much more major factor to the style of a Chardonnay is whether it underwent a second fermentation, called the malolactic.

Without getting too technical, the malolactic fermentation converts the stronger malic acid into weaker lactic acid. This creates a softer wine, one with more of the buttery component some people like in Chardonnay. Yet the malolactic fermentation (called ML by wine makers) also robs the wine of some of its natural fruit.

In exchange, the wine picks up complexity and richness, and a broad, smooth feel in the mouth that some wine makers prefer over the lost fruit. It is usually used to lower the overall acid of a wine that may be too acidic.

The debate between wine makers over the question is heated. Mike Grgich, Andre Tchelistcheff, Chuck Ortman (Meridian) and Joe Cafaro (Sinskey), among others, feel malolactic fermentations detract too much from a wine.

Others such as David Ramey (Matanzas Creek), David Graves (Saintsbury) and Jim Clendenin and Adam Tolmach (Au Bon Climat) believe in 100% malolactic fermentations, and many wine makers believe in using a partial ML to give structure. The fraction of the wine that doesn’t undergo the extra process gives the wine its fruit.

The problem with looking at a wall full of Chardonnays is that the patron doesn’t usually know which of the wines has the ML and which doesn’t. And knowing this key fact is the difference between being able to pick a wine that goes with lobster in cream sauce and a wine that goes with oysters on the half shell.

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Obviously, not all Chardonnays are alike. Wine nuts are always doing comparative tastings, frequently blind tastings where the tasters know nothing of the wines until they are unbagged. Wine purists would tell you it’s ridiculous to do a comparison tasting between a French Montrachet and a Chablis, even though both are made from the same Chardonnay grape variety.

Yet tasting wines as different as the 1987 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay ($14), the 1986 Cuvaison Reserve Chardonnay ($20), and the 1987 Cain Cellars Carneros Chardonnay ($15) is instructive because it shows three different styles of wine. All were made from grapes grown in very cool climates.

The Au Bon Climat wine is a massive brute that underwent 100% malolactic fermentation and was left to age on the spent yeast cells (the “lees”) for another nine months. The extract in this wine is huge, and the fruit that’s there is muted by intense aromas that remind one of Montrachet.

It is a controversial wine. The Wine Spectator magazine’s tasting panel recently rated it a 58 on a 100-point scale, about the lowest rating the magazine gives. This wine is definitely a stylistic aberration, but it has a cult following. About 3,000 cases were made. It was released Aug. 15. It was sold out 60 days later.

(The Wine Journal, based in Los Angeles, hasn’t yet evaluated the ’87 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay, but the magazine, which uses a 20-point scale, rated the ’86 a 17 and the ’86 Reserve an 18. Both were made the same way the ’87 was made.)

The Cuvaison wine, 30% of which went through the ML procedure, is a huge wine with a fruit quality that is not at all appley or tropical, but instead quite complex, with hints of cedar, clove and lemon. It is well-balanced, but lighter in tone than the Au Bon Climat. Still, it’s a rich wine, not at all light and delicate, with a creaminess in the finish.

The Cain wine, by comparison, did not go through malolactic fermentation, and the crispness of the acidity is noticeable in the first sip. But what sets it apart from the others is its decidedly spicy, citrusy notes that indicate it will be a better wine in a year or two.

The harmonies of flavor in this wine are evident mainly in the finish. Its crisper mid-palate is somewhat challenging for the novice taster. This truly classic wine needs cerebral contemplation. I love it, but I realize it’ll be missed by some reviewers.

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The Wine Maker’s Intentions

Clendenin, the ebullient wine maker at Au Bon Climat, defends his style of wine eloquently. “We (he and Tolmach) aim to make the wine the way they’re made in France, and we try to get the most out of them. With this wine, we superimpose a house style in a controlled but aggressive way.” The procedure, which is costly because of the need for expensive new French oak barrels, makes an intriguing wine that Clendenin admits is misunderstood by many people.

John Thatcher, Cuvaison’s wine maker, said he thought long before deciding how to make his first Reserve Chardonnay.

“I think it’s a rip-off to make a Reserve wine that’s just sweeter, or more oaky, or higher in alcohol than your regular wine,” said Thatcher. “We chose this style because we think it’s a little better wine than the regular.”

I prefer Cuvaison’s regular bottling, but I can see the excitement that the Cuvaison Reserve is generating.

Lester Hardy, wine maker at Cain, admitted he could have broadened his wine and made it more instantly accessible to some people, but that would have made the wine simple and less intriguing with food.

However, he is prepared to have some people misread the wine.

“There is a tendency on the part of some (wine) reviewers and opinion leaders to dismiss the value of wines that are made to age in the bottle. But I don’t believe in imposing a wine-making regimen on the fruit just to make a wine that is easier to like when it’s first released,” said Hardy. “I want to make a wine with a continuity of flavor.” His Carneros wine has it.

Rating the three wines here obviously requires a broad appreciation of a wide variety of styles. I like them all for various reasons, but I can see how someone who likes the Au Bon Climat might detest the Cain, or vice versa.

But tasting them side by side in a double blind tasting makes the task even harder because often the evaluator can’t tell from tasting alone what the wine maker was trying to achieve.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Santa Barbara Winery White Zinfandel ($6): Purists who wouldn’t touch a white Zinfandel with a chocolate straw will stop laughing after they try this spectacular effort. I admit that I can stomach only a few white Zinfandels (Grand Cru, Maurice Carrie, William Wheeler, DeLoach, Bel Arbres among a small list). But wine maker Bruce McGuire has done a magnificent job with this wine, which offers a strawberryish lilt of fruit and a fairly dry finish. The wine nearly won a sweepstakes award at the National Orange Show wine competition, but it was denied because some priggishly snobbish judges wouldn’t stand and deliver a vote for it. Boo on them.


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