11.14.2011

Wine column no. 19: When vintners have their way

Chardonnay: Most people see it in its finished product, sitting there obediently on a shelf. But this lion of the wine jungle wasn't always so submissive. That's because in many cases, this grape had to be wrangled from its vines, shoved into oak barrels or stainless steel tanks and then carefully guided through a signficant fermentation process. And that's even before it ended up as the latest pour into your wine glass. Meaning: Give Chardonnay a break. It's gone through a lot for you.


Or rather, it's gone through a lot for its vintners, who've not only tamed this lion but made it both a beast and a beauty. It turns out that Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes throughout the world, which is both good and bad. Think of it as the Norm of that old "Cheers" sit-com, where (most) everyone knows its name. Want a wine that'll go with chicken, or with salmon, cod, lobster or sole? Chardonnay's your man. But there's a downside to being so malleable, and so popular. Would you believe that there's actually an Anything But Chardonnay (ABC) Club? It's nothing official; it's not like you have to pay dues. But Greg and I became inadvertent members of that down-with-Chardonnay group for a while, largely because we'd encountered some flamboyantly buttery versions that convinced us it was something we needed to avoid.

That was our loss, since we've come to realize that Chardonnay, known as white Burgundy in France, is a grape that's just trying to please. And vintners, for better or for worse, are the ones calling the shots. That's why the wine world uses several key words and phrases when describing Chardonnay, and getting to know the terms that you like and dislike, and their various grades, can make a good amount of difference.

Take the words oak and malolactic fermentation. It's a rare person who's actually chewed a piece of oak, but in wine label terms, at least when talking about Chardonnay, oakiness usually means there's a little bit of a vanilla flavor. Also, the inside of oak barrels that have been intensely charred can impart a smokey, toasted flavor, so this is something to keep in mind as well. There's a long, historical relationship between oak barrel-aging and wine, and we won't go into that here. But suffice it to say that there's something about oak and its many variations (American oak barrels, for instance, apparently impart more of a vanilla flavor than French oak barrels) that really makes a difference when Chardonnay is the grape you've decided to bring to your table. Some wine labels are actually quite specific about the types of barrels they use to age their wine; maybe it's a mix of both French and American oak, for instance. Maybe it's just one type. But labels that say they use American oak to age their wines aren't just telling you a fun fact; it's usually an indication that this will be a more strongly flavored Chardonnay, though of course there are a variety of other factors, too.

Malolactic fermentation is a term we've covered before. Basically, it's a process whereby a green-apple flavored grape acid is converted to a silkier, more buttery flavored grape acid. Some wines, in our opinion, let the malolactic fermentation process go too far, so that it tastes like you're drinking a glass of melted butter. But sometimes letting the wine start this process seems to soften the liquid, adding a little bit if textural richness that evens out its corresponding flavors.

Here's a wine that, at least according to our understanding of the label, was not aged in oak barrels but was allowed a subtle amount of malolactic fermentation. The 2006 Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay is from South Australia, and it's a new vineyard for us. We got it at Varsity Liquors in one of those demi-bottles, which apparently Varsity Liquors is going to be getting more of, especially around the holiday season. Now we've had some good wines from Varsity Liquors that we'll talk about in future columns, but this Trevor Jones really wasn't our cup of tea.

When we dissected what we didn't like about it, Greg and I both thought this 13 percent alcohol speciman was sour. But my biggest complaint was just how much it reminded me of the flavor of greenish herbs. That being said, Trevor Jones, a subsidiary of Kellermeister Wines in the Barossa Valley of Australia, proudly touts the herbaceousness of this Chardonnay on its label, so those flavors clearly weren't accidental. While this wasn't our favorite Chardonnay, it was a good example of how varied this grape can turn out to be. About $7.

Here's another Chardonnay that was made in a completely different style -- and, take note, it's from a different geographic area, too. The 2007 Benziger Family Winery Sangiacomo Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros in California is a 14.1 percent alcohol Winetree purchase we'd happily buy again. Washington Avenue Winetree Manager Ron Hull had told us about this one, which fit our preference for a more citrusy nose followed by a smooth and silky texture. By the way, terms on wine labels like "smooth" and "silky" usually mean that a Chardonnay has gone through some measure of malolactic fermentation. The wine label also described the flavors as ripe peach, pear and pineapple, but we didn't get that -- an indication that you won't always agree with the label. This wine, the label goes on to say, was exposed to oak, but we didn't get a sense of any over-arching vanilla or toasty flavors, so we're not sure if it was barrel-aged for long. Either way, it was well-paired with pan fried tilapia. About $19.

Another Winetree purchase that we were really pleased with was a Tim Wilkins recommendation. He'd tried the 2009 Snoqualmie Chardonnay from Columbia Valley, Wa., on a tasting, and he told me it was the first Chardonnay he actually liked. For us, this 13.5 percent alcohol creation was sweeter than we were used to, and Greg said it reminded him of a Gewurztraminer or a Riesling because of its sugar content. I thought it was fruity, with inklings of pears, peaches and apples. It was smooth without being too buttery, but it definitely wasn't crisp. The wine label says it has a creamy texture and a soft finish -- key terms that usually mean it has gone through some level of malolactic fermentation.

This wine, for me at least, also had a slight herbaceous nose, but it wasn't so strong that it impacted my overall impression of the wine, either. We'd both get it again. About $11.

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