The "Basic Black" of White Wine
If you're like me, black is a wardrobe staple. Your closet overflows with black purses in variousshapes and sizes, pants and jackets from casual toupscale, and most important, that little black dress. Let's not forget shoes: black flats, heels, and bootsin every imaginable style. And if you're like me, you keep buying moreblack. It's not that bright colors are bad. On the contrary, they're fabulous. But pulling off the cherry-red suit or floral-print pants can take alittle doing. Nothing is as slimming, versatile, popular, or easy as black. Except for the slimming part (although there are only around 100calories per glass), the same words can be used to describe Chardonnay, which I think of as the basic black of white wines. Chardonnayis simple to sip, goes with many kinds of food, and remains wildlypopular.
The Grape Story
A classic grape variety that was not well known in this country until afew decades ago, Chardonnay has made a name for itself. Today it's thenumber-one-selling white in America, and "I'll have the Chardonnay"has become a national motto. Look at any restaurant wine list and count the Chardonnays. Betteryet, walk into a retail store where Chardonnays are packed from floorto ceiling, dominating the wine aisles.
Chardonnay is familiar, and that familiarity inspires confidence andcomfort. We know it; therefore we love it. But Chardonnay's popularity is due in large part to its versatility. Just like those black pants thatcome in many fabrics and styles - from casual cotton to sleek silk - Chardonnay can be everything from light and crisp to juicy and soft orbuttery and full.
Why is Chardonnay so versatile? It has to do with the grape's personality. Chardonnay was at the head of the line when the grape godhanded out easygoing personalities. Not naturally tart and aggressive likeSauvignon Blanc or floral and flirtatious like Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay's mild-mannered fruitiness lends itself to making all kinds of wine.
Chardonnay takes on character and complexity depending on wherethe grapes are grown and who turns them into wine. Many versions aresuccessful; others are not. With an estimated seven hundred differentChardonnay bottlings on store shelves at any one time, though, how doyou sift through the boring to get to the beautiful?
Price is the first thing that comes to mind. Picking a bottle because itcosts $10 or $30 is one way to choose a wine, but if you don't like the waythe $30 bottle tastes, you are pouring money down the drain. The key tofinding Chardonnay in your price range and then enjoying it begins withdefining what you like and don't like. Do you prefer Chards that taste abit tangy like citrus fruits or ones that are more ripe like pineapples? Or alighter, more delicate Chardonnay versus a fuller, buttery one?
If you're shrugging your shoulders, wondering what in the worldI'm talking about, have no fear. Let's take a lingo lesson and start to putwords to wine.
Having a few key words under your wine belt will help you communicate better about Chardonnay and figure out the tastes and stylesyou like, but unfortunately, most stores and wineries don't boldly display their wines by taste. Believe it or not, though, labels can tell yousomething very important about the taste and style of a wine beforeyou pull the cork.
Born in the USA . . .Or France . . .Or Chile
Several years ago, when I was hiking through hillside vineyards in theAconcagua Valley of Chile, a winemaker made a remark that really hithome. As we nibbled on freshly plucked grapes, Tony Coltrin of Señawinery said, "Good wine tastes like a grape, but great wine tastes like a place."
He's so right. I can give you an idea of what basic Chardonnay mighttaste like, but what about Chardonnay grown in Chablis or Carneros orCasablanca? Each place has a unique combination of sun, soils, andslopes, which makes the grapes grown there taste a certain way.
Luckily that location is on the label, and I think of it as the wine'sbirthplace. Before we even get to what the winemaker can do when turning grapes into wine (that comes next), the wine's birthplace hasthe biggest effect on the taste of a bottle of Chardonnay.
The following roundups highlight how wines from some of my favorite regions express themselves in the glass. Just as finding the perfect pair of black pants is simple when you know the style you want, buying wine is easier if you can link words on the label to your preferred style of Chardonnay.
Use these as a guideline to start exploring Chardonnays from different places around the globe. Bon voyage.