Meet today's Chardonnay: It's not sweet or overly oaked
Chardonnay occupies a unique spot in our U.S. wine consciousness as both the top-selling variety (trouncing No. 2 Cabernet by four million cases, according to NielsenIQ Table Wine Category Segments) and the most maligned, with even its own ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) Club.
Ironic because for centuries, Chardonnay played an opposite role, reclusive and adored, growing almost exclusively in its home turf -- France's teensy Burgundy region. The minuscule supply not hindering its rise in acclaim and price, with descriptors including opulent, silky, crushed stone, truffles, exotic spice, yellow fruit and endless finish, and top wines (labeled 'Grand Cru') fetching upward of $2,000 per bottle at auction, less in local distribution if your wine merchant has the ins to acquire any.
In the early 1980s, I got a taste of the change to come, meeting with a producer hawking his wares for the first time in Chicagoland. After tasting, he asked my opinion, "Be honest!" I stalled. "It's pretty sweet, overly oaked, with no acid," then blurted, "It doesn't taste like Chardonnay." "America's going to love it!" he beamed. Love it America did. In 1992, the label became our top-selling Chardonnay, as it remains today.
Within the past few years, however, I've noticed a new Chardonnay interpretation: texturous, dry, pairing succulent fruit with snappy acid, the judicious use of oak contributing a light dusting of exotic spice, with alcohol under 14%, all melding elegance with enjoyment. It's the result of hands-off production, pairing Chardonnay with the cool climate and mineral-laden soil it craves without having to "make" the wine. Note: The closest word for winemaker in France is "vigneron," one who tends grapevines.
Two Chardonnay producers recently featured in this column are California's Dutton-Goldfield and Balletto, both of cool-climate Russian River Valley. In theory, these and wines below are available for retail sale in Chicagoland; I've included local distributors to help your merchant source the product. If not locally available, check producers' websites or wine.com.
"Piodilei" Chardonnay, Pio Cesare (Piedmont, Italy): Established in 1881, Pio Cesare is one of the founding properties of Piedmont, now legendary for Italy's great reds, including Barolo and Barbaresco. But nearly a century later, fourth-generation Pio Boffa apprenticed with Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi, had a Chardonnay epiphany and planted the grape back home in his family vineyards. Today, fifth-generation Federica Rosy suggests their vines have morphed into a unique variation, adapting to Piedmont's limestone soils and mountainous exposures with wines of unique structure, elegance and finesse. There is no argument here: With an intense perfume I don't recognize and fruit I can't identify, the wine opens with robust acidity that envelops luscious and layered flavor. For a true vino da meditazione, savor the alluring aromas from your emptied glass. Jeff Porter, sommelier and Italian wine cognoscente, recommends pairing with Plin, Piedmont's ravioli, with sage and butter. (Southern Glazer's, about $45.)
Chardonnay, "Olivet Lane Vineyard," Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, CA): Warning! This wine is so statuesque, supple and richly-fleshed, it may ruin all other Chardonnays for you. Long, slow ripening in this cool, foggy vineyard developed perfectly ripe fruit (for me, yellow apple) and invigorating acid, all at low sugar resulting in 13.8% alcohol. A gentle press extracted desirable flavors, leaving bitterness behind. The juice was fermented in an assortment of barrels (65% reused and neutral in flavor), where it rested for nine months on the lees, for a dusting of brown spice accents. The wine is equal to elegant entrees, especially involving butter, including mushroom risotto, lobster or crab, savory dishes en croute, even butter-basted steak. I enjoyed mine with clam chowder with truffles. (Heritage Wine Cellars, about $45.)
Macon Blanc, Thevenet et Fils "Pierrclos (Burgundy, France): The Macon subregion is the welcome to Burgundy, with sunny skies to soften the austerity of more northern vineyards in Burgundy's Cote d'Or (Slope of Gold). With no oak contact, producers leave new wine on the lees (spent yeast cells) for six to 10 months for easy complexity. With green apple and mineral flavors, dynamic and dry, this is France's bistro wine to pair with Burgundian specialties of escargots, cow's milk cheeses, and mustard recipes from nearby Dijon. At home, serve this bright refresher as a classic cocktail and complement many lighter dishes, including raw shellfish, salads and other dishes involving butter or mustard. (Cream Wine Co., under $20.)
After tasting these wines, you may have to burn your ABC card.
• Mary Ross is an Advanced Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), a Certified Wine Educator (Society of Wine Educators) and recipient of the Wine Spectator's "Grand Award of Excellence." Write to her at food@daily herald.com.