Clearing up the facts on Chardonnay

There seems to be a bit of confusion, or maybe I should say a lack of information, about the noble grape Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is a white wine grape that, we believe, is a native of Burgundy, France. I have heard from time to time that Chardonnay originates from Italy, but I can't buy it. I also heard that this venerable and ubiquitous white wine grape might have come to us from Hungary but, again, I need to see some sort of proof on that claim.

It's a funny phenomena when very favorite and hugely successful grapes become the darling of the wine scene and everyone is willing to claim it as their own. You will never see, for example, the white wine grape Gros Plant from the Loire Valley being clamored after as a native son by anyone except the Loire folks. Be that as it may, and regardless of origin, Chardonnay is now moving along as a favorite once again, but there are dizzy spells over what exactly constitutes the "correct" taste of a Chardonnay. One of the confusions amounts to personal taste or what (exactly) constitutes fine Chardonnay.

Here are the basic ABCs of what to expect in a glass of Chardonnay and what can go wrong or right.

Wood — This has been the bugaboo with American and Australian Chardonnay. When I started in the wine business in the late 1960s, the use of oak in all wines, especially Chardonnay, was very prevalent. There was a "more is better" attitude with this grape and it became fashion to have Chardonnay steeped in oak. Of course the flavor of the grape was lost forever by being saturated with oak.

The guys who won out for the money were the French Burgundy makers, especially the makers of fresh Macon's, which were inexpensive, clean and actually went with cuisine as they were supposed to! It took the California winemakers until the early 1980s to get the wood balanced and some of them were slow to respond.

Today we see very good (for the most part) wood treatment in Chardonnay and this is a good thing. Wood is to enhance wine not be the dominant character; this is true with all wines, of course.

Microbial action — With lots of wood we can have beasties living in the staves. Many, many Chardonnays have had problems with unclean wines, as witnessed a few years ago at the Newport Seafood and Wine Festival. One out of 10 Chardonnays were tossed out due to over-oaked wines, microbial wines from ill-treated wood and bad corks.

Today, mostly due to less and cleaner oak and synthetic or twist closures, we are seeing the cleanest Chardonnays on the market in wine history.

Cost — Chardonnays run the gambit from really inexpensive, poorly made wines to inexpensive, good values and moderate offerings, as well as really expensive wine and not worth the dough, or ... worth every cent charged. Do we have a problem here? Yes!

My vino advice to you is to not go under 10 bucks (if you can help it) or be really selective and ask some professional advice for the expensive producers. You can get burned on either end of the stick, so it's really best to get advice on both extremes of the price range. The big-winner price tag is about the $15 mark. There are some really fine wines at this price range.

More on this next week!

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