As Samantha Dugan and I were finalizing the list of wines for The Wine Country's Saturday "Unoaked Chardonnay" tasting, I suggested starting with a wine that would please everyone and help kick off Memorial Day weekend with an effervescent surprise. We would pour a Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs champagne.
As I predicted, smiles were plentiful as attendees sniffed and then savored the super-fine, delicate Gaston Chicquet bubbly with the long, long finish.
All except one.
There was one older lady who not only didn't like the bubbly, she dismissed the three Chablis that followed. Looking like a midwestern farmer's wife whose face took the Depression really personally, she seemed a bit defiant in her objection.
"These wines were created for food," I suggested, trying to open her up to a new way to appreciate wine. "I love sipping these wines with poached whitefish in a butter sauce."
"I just want to drink wine," she responded tersely as she backed away from the table. "I don't care about all that other stuff."
I'll bet she doesn't.
I'm not really sure that any of that day's domestic unoaked Chardonnays would please because of the lack of manufactured flavor enhancers in them. Except for the higher alcohol, of course. I'm fairly confident she has no problem with that.
The impressive new release 2010 Val de Mer Chablis made by Patrick Piuze, who Samantha declares is one of the most gifted winemakers in France, was labeled at 12.5% alcohol, while the popular Tolosa Edna Valley No Oak Chardonnay that followed listed 14.1%, a good deal more potent. (By the way, I still had to explain the Chablis-is-a-special-place-in-Burgundy thing to several people, pointing out the northerly Chardonnay outpost on De Long's wine map of France. It was news to them that these Chablis didn't come from a jug.)
In recent decades, domestic winemakers have chosen to pick their fruit riper because they (and apparently a lot of influential wine writers) want the added weight that ripe fruit brings. But riper, more sugary grapes produce wines with higher potential for alcohol. Sometimes winemakers will add water to their wine to bring down excessive alcohol, but that reduces the natural acidity that helps make great wine great. To compensate, they'll add acid to mimic the character of classic wines like Chablis or Puligny-Montrachet. I'm sorry to have to tell you that, but that's what our beloved California wine industry has largely come to. Making big, alcoholic fakes that please a lot of people like the farmer's wife who only want to drink wine and forget the other stuff--like harmony and balance.
Chardonnay continues to be immensely popular in spite of the growing fissure between white wine drinkers. Just that morning a very good customer filled his cart with multiple bottles of Far Niente, Cakebread, Rombauer, Chateau Montelena and other full-bodied, full-flavored Chardonnays. He is an affluent member of the Chardonnay mainstream, deriving much joy and pleasure from sipping those rich, oaked, barely sweet iconic wines. I can appreciate what those wines have to offer and the skill in which they were manufactured.
But Saturday's tasting was for those who have realized that such Chardonnays are very limiting as food wines; for them, the wines have become too alcoholic to drink more than a glass of, and many popular brand Chardonnays are just too overdone to provide refreshment. Also, the aftertaste of all too many malo-induced, buttermilky Chardonnays has left many wine lovers wanting a finish that lifts them up instead of tasting dull and rank, like morning mouth.
We've heard for years reams of complaints about "oaky" Chardonnays, even though there are still plenty of people who love just that about modern styles of the varietal. The unfortunate result of "oaky Chardonnay" protestations is that all Chardonnays become painted with the same brush. That's how you get such cute but wrongheaded declarations like "Anything But Chardonnay."
I guess that leaves more Meursault for you and me.To be fair, we featured some pretty impressive no-oak and no-perceptible oak Chardonnays that Saturday. The Big Vine Napa, Lioco Sonoma County, Morgan "Metallico" Monterey and Huber unoaked Santa Rita Hills all impressed me with their attempts to express Chardonnay without wood flavors. I particularly admired the Morgan with its white flower aroma and its layered, rich and appealing flavor.
One of our regular customers came up to me as she was leaving and enthusiastically endorsed this lineup.
"This is a really great tasting," she enthused. "You've got to do another."
I thought back at the last time we focused on unoaked Chardonnays and the paltry attendance they drew. This past Saturday was much more energized--perhaps because of the holiday weekend--and the attendance was better, if not overflowing. Still I wondered about all the Chardonnay resistance expressed by our customers throughout the years, brought on by industry excess and mediocrity over the past three decades. Would they be persuaded to take a closer, more discerning look at well-made, less ham-handed Chardonnays? Would they and other "ABC" protesters be able to put aside their biases and open themselves up to the joys of Chablis, for example?
Experience has shown us there are many styles for many tastes when it comes to Chardonnay, a varietal that has been called a "winemaker's wine" for its ability to dramatically change character to meet the vision of its creator.
Chablis, though, has the good fortune to exist in limestone soil made from millions of years of decomposed oyster shells. The tangy, crisp, long lasting Chardonnay from those dusty-white hillsides doesn't need much manipulation to offer great results. The new release from Azo, the 2010 Chablis, is the kind of Chardonnay I crave in my sleep--minerally, balanced, alive.
On Saturday, the Azo wasn't flavorful enough for the farmer's wife and perhaps some others in our tasting room, but I wanted more and more of it.
So much so that I was planning a new route home past the fish market.