More on Chardonnay

I wanted to follow up on last week's article about Chardonnay and what it means in the world of wine. Sometimes we get a little spooked at the amount and range of Chardonnay available to us today and I wanted to give you a few more ideas of what to look for. Here we go.

Alcohol — Not unlike so many other varietals, Chardonnay suffers from a high level of alcohol present in the wine. This is true wherever the grape is grown and with whomever makes the wine.

Alcohol levels should be "in line" with the rest of the flavors in the wine and not be the driving force of the wine. Alcohol levels should never stand out on the nose or on the palate but should integrate into the whole of the wine. Chardonnay can display "hot" flavors in the wine if the alcohol is in any way perceived from the rest of the flavor sensations. A good winemaker will make sure that the grapes come in from the vineyard with the correct, or close to correct, sugar levels.

There are many times that Chardonnay producers purchase grapes from other sources and have little or no control on the picking time. This can lead to a disaster in the glass. Levels over 13.5 percent alcohol can lead to off flavors in the wine and/or can put the wine into a hot tailspin in which the palate will not be thirst quenched and the residual tastes smell like rubbing alcohol.

The other problem with higher levels of alcohol is the resistance to delicate or refined food groups that simply get overwhelmed by high alcohol levels. These groups include white fish, salads and many shellfish plates. High-alcohol wines, especially Chardonnays, will slaughter nuance in cuisine if these alcohol levels are not in check.

Stick, if you can, with under 14 percent in these selections of Chardonnay or risk out-of-balance dinner parties. Hotter region Chardonnay such as the Central Valley of California should be looked at carefully when purchased.

Oak — I've always been a little wary of oak treatment in Chardonnay and am astounded at how many winemakers still power their wines with new oak or long periods in the barrel. As I wrote last week, this over-oaked Chardonnay wine phenomena was all the rage in the 1960s through much of the '80s in the California wine scene. Here and there we still see, especially from Australia and Chile, gobs of oak in the wine.

I run across quite a few people when they come down to the Wine Cellar asking for these oak monsters and I will, from time to time, taste them on lightly oaked Chardonnays that will blow their mind. For the first time many of them will be able to finally taste the nuance and delicacy of real Chardonnay and not the slabs of oak they are used to smelling and tasting. This is quite something to witness as these fine folks become enlightened right before your eyes!

Many times oak can be used to mask "off" flavors in wine, flavors generated from bad winemaking to very poor vineyard practices or lousy (no one's fault) growing seasons. I have seen countless wines over the counter or during wine competitions in which Chardonnay will be soaked with oak just to cover up microbial problems in the wine. Once the wine warms up to just about room temp, these microbes stick out like sore thumbs and no amount of oak can magician these flavors away! What one ends up with is a Petrie dish full of microbes covered with roll top desk levels of oak. This is an endless problem with wines under 10 bucks except for the lovely wines of Emerald Bay Winery, Central Coast, which seem, year after year, to maintain lovely balance throughout their wines with superb prices.

Well, there you have it! See you next week!

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