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Off The Vine

October 25, 2005

Advice for those sick of Chardonnay

Chardonnay is getting a bad rap and just might deserve it! About twice a day I get clients in my shop who ask for white wine and say, &

Anything but Chardonnay, I&

m really getting tired of Chardonnay.&

This has been going on for about five years, and I think I know what the problem might be. The once-queen of white wine grapes is getting her crown knocked sideways by a variety of problems.

The first big problem to hit this very versatile grape is sameness. So many Chardonnays taste the same! I think the mighty success of butter flavors, a hint of toastiness in the back palate and just a hint of cream in the finish has standardized this lovely wine.

Many winemakers are trying to hit the middle road and make Chardonnay appeal to the masses. The majority of Chardonnay makers are content with a &

If it ain&

t broke, don&

t fix it&

mentality that has, quite frankly, permeated the wine industry.

I have believed for some time that many winemakers are so concerned about the bottom line that their willingness to step out and be creative with Chardonnay has gone by the wayside. Instead of innovation, we are seeing stagnation in Chardonnay.

One theory is that many of today&

s young winemakers are from the same school and learn to make Chardonnay in the same, almost mechanical way, by rote and by the book without much, if any, personal touch.

The second big problem for the Chardonnay world, besides the sameness and lack of innovation, is the tremendous volume of Chardonnay on the shelf. There is a huge crush of Chardonnay harvested in California every fall. Maybe 15 percent of this wine will be superb; the vast majority of the wine will be OK to average, or certainly uninspired.

In some of the larger markets, where the big city mega stores reside, it is not uncommon to see more than Chardonnays from California lined up like soldiers staring out from the shelves. It is almost impossible for a consumer to make a choice because of this glut of juice.

Sometimes this amount of wine is a turn off &

at the very least, it takes some very savvy stuff by the consumer to wade through the juice to find a really superb wine.

To confuse the Chardonnay issue, we have inexpensive, imported Chardonnay arriving from Eastern Europe, South America, Australia, France and Italy. Some of these wines arrive at under $7 a bottle. Some are pretty good, but the majority are not worth the boat trip to get here.

Be aware that inexpensive Chardonnay is going to be a bust &

it doesn&

t matter where the wine is from. Let me give you some ideas on where to find Chardonnay at its best:

New Zealand: A place for true innovation in Chardonnay. I am really liking the Chardonnay from New Zealand, as well as their Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnays, as a whole (I&

ve tasted more than 100 of them from various vintages) are extraordinarily well crafted, clean and fresh with hints of oak and long, thirst quenching finishes. Some of the Chardonnays are not oaked, and the complex flavors of the grape explode on the palate without the heavy drag of wood.

Chablis, France: Clean, almost steely wines with palate-cleansing fruit at the finish. Chablis are designed for seafood and shellfish or grilled poultry of any type. These wines are 180 degrees away from the blubbery over-oaked wines that we see bulging the shelves of the supermarkets.

Willamette Valley: Truly wonderful Chardonnay country. Cool nights and warm days produce stunning Chardonnay from the north. Producers to look for are Rex Hill, Kings Estate, Drouhin and Ponzi Vineyards.

Napa Valley: Choose wisely, as these Chardonnays can be very pricey. Names to look for are the delicious Keenan Winery, Joseph Phelps and the higher priced offerings from Beringer, which have exploded in quality over the last five years.

I think you will be happy with these selected areas and wineries on your next Chardonnay purchase.