Chardonnay: Delicacy or Heft

Most Chardonnay wines smell like butter, vanilla, nuts, toast and smoke. But if you were to walk into a winery today, as the freshly harvested grapes roll in from the fields and the new wine begins to ferment, the aroma of Chardonnay would remind you more of grapefruits, lemons, limes and orange peel.

Those fruity flavors are what Chardonnay really smells like. The other aromas are the result of winery processes intended to make a bigger and more complex product from this otherwise delicate grape.

Chardonnay, the most popular white wine in America, is an example of how Californians have changed wine over the last two decades. Left to its own devices, the wine is mildly citrus-like and floral with added aromas of fruits--apples, pears, bananas, kiwi, peach, mango, ripe melons.

But Californians seem to love meddling with the fruit, and the result over the last couple of decades is a move toward smells and tastes that are not found in Chardonnay grapes.


As readers of this column know, I prefer fruit flavors and aromas to those arising from production techniques. I don’t mind a whiff of oak, but I like the wines I drink to remain true to the grapes they come from. So I look for wines that are made simply, so the fruit has a chance to assert itself.

One great California example of a wine with perfect fruit flavors and balance is 1993 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($18), which illustrates one end of the style spectrum. Call it delicate if you will, but it’s made to go with food.

The ’93 Montelena is a wine true to its Napa roots. It was made in essentially the same style that won the hearts of French tasters in the famed 1976 blind tasting in Paris. In that event, the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay bested a number of expensive French white Burgundies and established a style of wine of which California was justly proud.

That style, which continues in this vintage, emphasizes freshness, with grapefruit-like aromas. The note of lemon in this wine and its balance and crisp acidity make it perfect with food.


Over the decades, however, many Californians tried so hard to make a Chardonnay that mimicked the bigger French models--like Montrachet and Meursault--that they often overshot the mark. And they wound up with far more artificial elements than natural ones.

There is a difference between a wine that is creamy and one so laden with oak that it smells like butterscotch. The former goes well with food, the latter is usually clumsy.

What most California winemakers don’t understand about Montrachet and Meursault is that those wines, at their best, are perfectly balanced. Yes, they’re big and rich, but their wood aromas are mild, not assertive, and they have enough acidity to go with food.

One Sonoma Valley Chardonnay, made intentionally to be as rich as possible, is also the most expensive Chardonnay in California. Bill and Sandra MacIver at Matanzas Creek Winery long had made a broad, rich Chardonnay, and they were constantly experimenting to see how big a wine it could be without being overpowering.

The experiments led to a wine called Journey, which is the most opulent of Chardonnays and the exact opposite of the Montelena. It was aged in new oak barrels and is made in very small amounts. And at $70 a bottle, the newly released 1992 Journey is very broad and loaded with vanilla and oak aromas and flavors.

Which wine do I like? Both, actually, though Journey appeals to me more as an aperitif. The Montelena is so crisp and refreshing that it should be served with food.

Price alone isn’t always the main factor in bigger, richer Chardonnays. But in general, the more you pay for a Chardonnay, the more likely you are to get oak flavoring.



Wine of the Week

1994 Sable View Sauvignon Blanc ($7) --It’s been more than a year since apartheid was formally ended by all-race elections and three years since the lifting of economic sanctions against South Africa.

In that period, sales of South African wines in the United States have risen rapidly, though recognition has come along far more slowly. Two reasons: The better South African wines often have names that are totally unfamiliar to Americans, and the good-value wines of South Africa face strong competition from places like Chile.

This wine, however, can hold its own in any company. It has perfect varietal character of spiced lime, melon and pears, and a wonderful taste, full of fruit and charm. It is a product of a small winery in the cool Stellenbosch region 30 miles east of Cape Town, which is part ofthe Stellenbosch Farmers’ Wineries group, one of the world’slargest producers.

Sable View has been associated with the parent cooperative since the 1950s and makes an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon as well as this delightful Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is occasionally seen at deep discounts, bringing its price down well below $5.