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Grape of the Week: Chardonnay

Howdy again! Thanks for coming back. Welcome to “Grape of the Week."

I know some of you are not real big fans of White wines, but, Spring is upon us and ... ‘tis the season for White wines. I have decided to start off with the most popular, most widely planted White varietal of all, Chardonnay.

Now those of you who are not Chardonnay fans, please keep reading, because I promise you:

You just might learn something that will pique your interest enough to revisit this popular and diverse varietal.

So, with a grape that produces such widely different aromas and flavors depending on where it is planted, when it’s harvested, and how it is aged, where do we start?

I like to start with the un-oaked style, and work up to the oaked styles. For those of you who love Pinot Grigio, Trebbiano (Greco Romano), Chenin Blanc, Torrontes, Viognier, or Sauvignon Blanc, the un-oaked versions of Chardonnay will appeal to you.

Un-oaked Chardonnays tend to come from cooler growing regions. In the U.S., Oregon, Washington and California’s North Coast or Sonoma Coast regions produce crisp, light versions of Chardonnay that range in flavors from green apple, pear, kiwi fruit and lemons.

In France, the Loire Valley and Chablis regions produce soft, well-balanced and slightly mineraly Chardonnays. The Colchagua and Casablanca Valleys in Chile produce crisp, acidic and fruit forward Chardonnays. In the Margaret River area of Australia, their un-oaked Chardonnays are ripe and flavorful. All of these wines are typically aged in stainless steel tanks, and are bottled young, and more and more, with vacuum sealed screw caps to preserve the crispness and flavors of the wine.

There are two other styles of un-oaked Chardonnay, and they are aged in either smooth polished cement vats, or neutral oak. Cement vats yield wines that are more mineraly, they have a unique taste of chalk and wet stone. The few, (very few), that are aged in neutral oak, yield a soft silky texture without any wood spices or vanilla flavors to interfere with the fruit flavors.

These crisp, dry wines are also used in the production of a style of Champagne known as ‘Blanc de Blancs”, or ‘White of the Whites’. They are 100% Chardonnay, and have a crisp, zest to them. Aside from Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay is widely used in Champagne production, and in California’s sparkling wine production as well. If it’s a White sparkling wine, chances are it is all, or somewhat composed of Chardonnay.

One of my favorite styles of Chardonnay comes from Sonoma County, where oak aging plays a minor role, allowing the flavors of the grapes to be the stars. Sonoma’s ‘terroir driven’ wines show off just how amazing this grape can be when planted in the right soil, with the right amount of water, the right amount of sunshine, the perfect growing season, year after year, and it produces the perfect grapes to make the perfect Chardonnay. My favorite Chardonnay from this region comes from the Gundlach-Bundschu winery.

The other of my favorites, Ferrari-Carano, comes from nearby Carneros. Situated at the bottom of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Carneros benefits from having the perfect geography and the perfect soil, and perfect orientation to the sun for growing two types of grapes: Chardonnay on the area's “floor,” and Pinot Noir on its slopes. Ferrari-Carano’s Chardonnay is a good example of a light- to medium-oaked Chardonnay, full of golden delicious apple flavors, vanilla bean and a light, lingering finish of sweet oak, perfect for pairing with fish dishes.

For big, full-bodied Chardonnays, California has several excellent areas that showcase this style: from the king, Napa Valley, to the gentle rolling hills of Lodi, the coastal area of Monterey’s Salinas Valley, to the fairly young upstart region of Paso Robles.

The warmer climates in these regions allow for full maturity of the grapes. It’s how each region treats them after they are picked that sets them apart. Full-bodied, rich and buttery Chardonnays can be found throughout Napa. Big fruit flavors of yellow apple, fig jam, butterscotch and vanilla are some of their characteristics that make them so desirable the world over.

Far Niente is a Napa classic and has been joined recently by Cakebread as the leaders in big, buttery Chardonnays. One of my favorite buttery Chardonnays comes from the vineyards at Miner.

Lodi produces big, full bodied Chardonnays that show off yellow apple and yellow pears. Minimal oak aging gives these wines a hint of vanilla and makes them perfect for pairing with smoked or fried chicken.

A recent discovery from Oakridge Winery’s “Old Soul” product line has become one of my new value favorites, replacing my long time “go-to” value Chardonnay, the Arroyo Seco Chardonnay from J. Lohr’s Monterey vineyards.

Lastly, if you’re ever in Paso Robles, you have to stop and try their wines. They are producing some of the best wines in California. Their Chardonnays are amazing. On a recent trip, I discovered one of the area's newcomers, Daou Vineyard’s Chardonnay. It was delicious: like Chardonnays from Napa, but without the overpowering presence of oak. Big, full fruit flavors of golden delicious apples, caramelized, spiced pears, almond, and just the right amount of vanilla from the oak.

I hope you enjoyed this segment of Grape of the Week. Give some of these Chardonnays a try. Remember, there are many different styles of Chardonnay, and chances are there is one that will suit your palate. I love Chardonnay for its diversity and range of styles. It’s one of only a few wines that I will drink by itself and enjoy.

And since it's one of my favorite ones, it is probably the one I’m drinking at the moment.

Until next time, Cheers!