Rediscovering Chardonnay

Posted9/20/2011 4:00 PM

Chardonnay is the grape Americans love to hate. It's our top-selling wine, but the only wine with its own protest group -- the ABC Club (that's Anything But chardonnay).

Ironically, our conflicted feelings are caused by chardonnay's inherent neutrality.


Like all grapes, chardonnay's constitution begins in the vineyard. But chardonnay's new juice is uniquely bland, often compared to underripe apple or hay.

Then, like an actress who blossoms into a variety of roles, chardonnay can develop a stunning range of characters in the winery.

There's easy-drinking chardonnay that winemakers offer by skipping oak maturation. Wines like Yalumba's "Unwooded" chardonnay (Australia, $13) and Airfield "Unoaked" chardonnay (Washington State, $13) are refreshing, inexpensive quaffs that allow the grape's apple-y flavors to shine.

Winemakers also offer inexpensive chardonnay by adding oak chips to fermenting juice. The primary attributes of these wines is that they are oaky and cheap.

For great chardonnay, however, with layers of flavor, caressing texture and delicious food compatibility, chardonnay requires two factors that never come cheap: oak barrels and time.

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Chardonnay needs time in long, cool ferment to develop diacetyl -- the flavor compound of butter. More time in a barrel softens the hard edges of alcohol and acid and melds chardonnay's fruit and butter with toasty oak or brown spice flavor.

In successful chardonnay (such as Ross' Choice), the result is a wine that is plump but taut, unctuous but lively, with tremendous complexity -- with flavors that may include green apple, browned butter, truffles or wild honey -- while still compatible with food.

We have a love/hate relationship, too, with chardonnay's food complement: milk fat. Chardonnay's buttery accents find common denominators with creamy dressings (like the mayonnaise-based dressing on crab Louis salad), rich cow's milk cheese (cheddar or Epoisse) and buttery preparations (lobster dipped in butter.)

For autumn, both chardonnay's brown spice and butter are accented with acorn squash and pumpkin recipes.

To serve with fall mushroom recipes, ask your retailer for an earthier chardonnay like Bouchard Pere et Fils Bourgne "Reserve chardonnay" ($24). As Burgundy's largest landholder, Bouchard can blend the complexity of the world's prime chardonnay vineyards into its entry-level wine, wine that complements roast chicken with chanterelles or escargots with mushroom cream (and other recipes featured on

With this range of quality, styles and food complements, it's no wonder we're a little conflicted over chardonnay. And that we love it.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write to her at