Always Chardonnay

Fall is upon us but the weather has yet to cool down. As a result, our preference in wine still tends more towards chilled, white wines. These wines are often lighter and more refreshing than say, a heavy, red wine. If you are seeking out something delicious and easy to enjoy this October, you need not look much farther than a classic favorite, chardonnay.

Chardonnay is considered a “noble grape” because its fine qualities are discernible and unique in chardonnay wine produced around the world. From France, where the chardonnay grape originated (there is even a town called “Chardonnay”), to California, Australia, South America and beyond, chardonnay is produced in different styles and qualities to suit everyone’s taste and budget.

How can a single type of grape taste so drastically different from one wine to the next, you may wonder. The answer is based on numerous factors including the location of the vineyard, the viticultural practices, and of course, the actual winemaking.

As in real estate, growing wine grapes is all about location, location, location. Winemakers often say “You can make bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes.” Everything starts in the vineyard. If the grapes are good, the wine has a fighting chance of being palatable as well.

Long ago, Cistercian monks in France’s Burgundy region painstakingly chose the plots of land on which to plant some of the great vineyards of the world by actually tasting the soil in each location. Today the fine chardonnay produced in the famed vineyards of Northern Burgundy (called “Bourgogne Blanc” or “White Burgundy”) serves as the benchmark of excellence in the world of wine. The hard work of those monks did not go unnoticed. Chardonnay producers will often strive to make their chardonnay more “Burgundian” in nature. People want to emulate the best.

The location of a vineyard determines the daily temperatures and the amount of sun and rain the vines will receive. It also establishes the type of soil the vines will sink their roots into, and the annual schedule of planting, pruning, and harvest. The type of soil directly affects the grape vines.

Unlike with most agriculture where a rich soil is desired, grapevines grow best in poor soil and often thrive in the least likely environments. For example, the vineyards of Chateauneuf Du Pape in Southern France are replete with large, round stones that look like moon rocks and in Portugal’s Douro Valley, growers must blast solid walls of rock with dynamite to plant their vines.

The best vines are usually planted on slopes to allow for sun exposure and root drainage. Grapevines often do not require irrigation. In France, irrigation of vineyards is actually illegal. The French believe that to irrigate is to manipulate the vines and to create a product that is not accurately reflective of the region. As ever, there are conflicting points of view on this issue but few other countries besides France place such restrictions on growers.

Chardonnay can be produced both with and without the use of oak. Some less expensive wines use oak chips or staves in an attempt to produce the taste of oak without the considerable expense of oak barrels. The theory is better than the actual practice and often the wood flavor is not well integrated into the wines.

Old oak barrels are neutral and don’t affect the flavors of a wine. New oak barrels will deepen the color of a chardonnay and lend to it toasty flavors and aromas of wood, spice, and vanilla. When crafted without the use of oak, in stainless steel tanks or cement vats, a chardonnay might smell and taste of rich, golden apples, or tangy, tropical fruit. Neither version is right or wrong, but simply different and appealing to diverse palates.

Chardonnay from the Napa Valley or France’s Burgundy region is priced according to its market demand and in accordance with the value of the land on which the vines for each wine are planted. Often the prices can be quite high. The good news is that these wines are beautifully made and deserving of their top-shelf status. If you have the opportunity to indulge in these wines, by all means do! The bad news is they may still be out of reach for those on a budget. But that’s where the rest of the world comes into play.

Lesser-known wine regions in California like our own Livermore Valley and the Lower Sierra Foothills produce wonderful wines with more accessible price tags. If you love a good California Chardonnay, don’t overlook the wines from these areas. If you prefer to sample wines from across the globe, try chardonnay from Australia, South Africa, or South America. You’ll find interesting chardonnay produced in a myriad of styles and might happen across a new favorite.

The most popular white wine grape in the world maintains its top standing for one reason only: the wines are consistently delicious and have been for centuries. Any way you look at it, chardonnay is great.


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