Summer of Chardonnay
By Jon McDaniel
“It may be summer of Riesling in New York,
but it’s all Chardonnay in Santa Maria”
This weekend, hundreds of wine drinkers will converge on Byron Winery in Santa Maria for one of the hottest wine new events in America – the Chardonnay Symposium.
Over 50 producers from across the globe will be pouring their take on one of the world’s most popular grapes. Now to me, over 75 different Chardonnays in one place ranks up there with a Root Canal Convention, but if you are curious about what this grape is all about, there is no better place in the world to learn all there is to know about Chardonnay.
I have heard the following analogy many times, and have adapted somewhat as my own – Chardonnay is the chicken breast of wine. On its own, it really doesn’t taste like anything in particular. It doesn’t hold the aromatics of Viognier, the potential sweetness of Riesling, the haunting herbaceous flavors of Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay is a big, thick, blank canvas for one person and one person alone – the winemaker. There are so many different decisions that go into the production of Chardonnay that can take it in 12,000 different directions. Chardonnay is a true way for a winemaker to show what they are all about.
Now in general, there are two major decisions that a winemaker must make to dictate the style of their Chardonnay’s final product (two of many decisions, but you get the point).
Malo-lactic fermentation. Simply, it is the process that turns malic acid (like in a granny smith apple) to lactic acid (ya know, like milk). The more that the winemaker lets this process occur, the more lactic acid will be in the final product. This causes those flavors of butter, the creaminess of Chardonnay
Oak. The use of oak on Chardonnay shows more than most other wines of its kind. The winemaker must decide if they are going to use a new oak regiment, a mixture of new and old oak, or stainless steel tanks. The more new oak, the more toasty, caramel, popcorn flavors that you get.
What is great about Chardonnay is that is you go full-bore, 100% malo, 100% oak; you create a completely alien experience to those that go 0% malo, 0% oak. It is a true chef’s kitchen.
So if you have no idea what about Chardonnay you like, or if you find Chardonnay absolutely repulsive (what you know about Chardonnay), what do you do? Is this event really worth going to? Absolutely. Here are 3 different wines that reach 3 completely different styles of Chardonnay, and 3 different profiles of wine drinkers.
Foley 2010, ‘Steel’, Sta. Rita Hills – $30
When you look at the grape Chardonnay, and decide to do absolutely nothing to it, no window dressings, what do you really get? The fine folks at Foley Winery, one of the drivers of business and acclaim to Sta. Rita Hills make about 7 different Chardonnays. Yes, 7. There are some wineries that don’t make 7 wines! Foley has decided to take the Chardonnay grape and break it down into several different single-vineyard bottlings. The most interesting and against the grain is their 2010 “Steel”. Now this is not just the Chardonnay for Superman; it is a Chardonnay for everyone who has spit out a swig of Kendall Jackson in their life.
Bright, crisp, summery. This Chardonnay has loads of bright citrus and peach flavors. When you smell it, your nose is a bit tricked into thinking that perhaps this is a classic Pinot Gris from Europe, maybe even a lighter Rhone-style wine. On the palate, you taste the freshly picked flavors of the Chardonnay grape. It is truly ironic that this Chardonnay is perhaps the most pure Chard on the market.
This is the wine that is perfect for these warm Santa Ynez days. Light in flavor, without that huge dry finish that you get from big bruiser Chardonnays. It is a great pairing with grilled chicken, summer salads and as a patio white. Use Foley “Steel” to trick all of your friends that subscribe to the ABC (Anything but Chardonnay) newsletter. You may turn some non-believers into Chardonnay lovers with Foley’s amazing effort.
Byron 2009, Nielson Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley – $32
The year was 1984, when Kenneth Byron Brown (yeah, that Ken Brown) first started a wine brand called Byron. Over the past 28 years, Byron has made a name for itself as one of the most nationally recognized producers of Burgundian varietals on the Central Coast. A combination of classic California flavors with French sensibilities, this is a blend of many different principles of winemaking.
This particular Chardonnay comes from the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara. Planted in 1964 by Uriel Nielson, this is a cool climate Chardonnay vineyard that never reaches the over-ripeness of some of its Southern and Westerly sisters.
Seeing only about 10 months of oak, with about 20% of that being new, you notice the hints of oak on the finish, which makes a lot of sense when you taste flavors like cardamom, baking spices and my favorite Chardonnay descriptor – Honey-flavored Teddy Grahams (remember biting the heads off of those things? Anyone???)
What is so fascinating about this particular Chardonnay is the tropical elements that you find. Layers of guava and pineapple can trick you into thinking Sauvignon Blanc on the nose, but the palate – whoa! For me, Chardonnays that have a gingery flavor are always some of my personal favorites. The 2009 Byron Nielson does not disappoint. Like some sort of tropical parfait, the palate gives you those classic creamy flavors, but ginger beer and jasmine also find its way into the glass. This is a tricky wine, because winemaker Jonathan Nagy uses 100% malo-lactic fermentation – but you would never know it.
Qupe 2010, Bien Nacido Vineyard – Y Block, Santa Maria Valley – $20
Years ago, at the height of the buttery Chardonnay craze, a wine came to be that was a game changer. Donned as “Cougar Juice” because of its’ popularity with the ladies of a particular age group, Rombauer is one of the most popular and ordered wines in restaurants across America. Ladies, I am here to tell you that your Rombauer drinking days are over. Qupe has taken the flavors that are so popular in Rombauer, and made it enjoyable for Cougars and Cubs alike.
The grapes come from the famed Block-Y on the most famous vineyards on the Central Coast, Bien Nacido. However, this is the re-birth of that Y Block, which were originally Gewurztraminer vines in the 1970s, then Chardonnay in the 1980s, until it died and like a Phoenix was resurrected back in 2005. Qupe has taken oak and malo-lactic fermentation and miraculously found a way to impart acidity and delicacy to the wine.
Using 25% new French Oak barrels and 100% malo-lactic fermentation, a famous chef in Dublin could not put a tastier pat of butter in your glass. Rich, unctuous, sexy and full, Qupe’s Y Block makes the answer simple – Why Block what you like?
Tons of grilled peaches and pears lend itself to a follow up of butterscotch and cobbler crumble – loads of cinnamon, spice and nuttiness. You would be nutty not to throw your Cougar Juice out the window and don some Sex Panther – because this Qupe Chard works 100% of the time!
So now that you have seen some variety in the Chardonnay offerings in Santa Barbara, the question still remains – is it worth getting over your hatred of the much-maligned grape and attend the Chardonnay Symposium?
It is a resounding yes!
So who really should attend the Chardonnay Symposium this weekend? Aside from the fact that Chardonnay is the favorite wine of pirates around the world (just think about that – it will come to you), this event is perfect for one particular demographic. Single 24-29 year old men. Rich, big, buttery, bold Chardonnays are the drug of choice for blonde divorcee women from Orange County. It’s going to be like National Geographic episode – Cougars on the prowl! Gentlemen, if a more experienced lady is on your radar, the first thing that you must learn. Ladies love Chardonnay!
The best – slash – worst – slash – most intriguing part of the whole Chardonnay experience at Byron this weekend will be the panel of Chardonnay producers that will speak about the manipulation of the grape in a Who’s Who forum for the public. This discussion will be lead by the California Editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Steve Heimoff. Not only is Heimoff known for his massive scores that he gives to seemingly pedestrian wines, but he is also notorious for his politics and soap box Facebook postings. What happens when a nutty, radical left-wing, Anti-Capitalist, protesting little man meets hundreds of Kistler-drinking, rich, pro-Tea Party friends of the GOP? It equals the best ticket in town my friends!
It will be like Thunderdome for wine drinkers. Imagine an arena to taste so many different interpretations of the same grape. If you are on the fence about attending this weekend’s Chardonnay Symposium, go for all of the amazing definitions and tweaks of the world’s most famous grape, and stay for the glorious people watching!
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