Sometimes art imitates life -- or in this case, writing imitates wine. I started writing this column about Chardonnay's resurgence after years of over-oaking and hyper-extraction of rich, blowsy fruit. I initially thought it would be clever to write it in the form of a fairly tale.
I stepped away from the computer, and when I came back to read what I had written I realized it was complete drivel -- an overly "clever" piece of flowery writing. My point? Well, in many ways it mirrored the problems with Chardonnay circa the 1990s and early 2000s. A lot of Chardonnay being made was similarly overdone -- the wine became more about the winemaking process rather than the core attributes of the grape.
It was in the late '90s/early 2000s that Chardonnay's popularity took off, especially in New World wine-producing regions like California and Australia. Producers in warmer regions could leave the fruit to hang on the vine longer, extracting super-ripe flavours from the grape. Regardless of how ripe producers could get Chardonnay, the juice was typically aged in new oak barrels or, in the case of cheaper wines, in stainless steel tanks loaded with oak chips. The result was a creamy, rich and tropical-fruit driven wine.
Rather than let the beautiful, balanced fruit Chardonnay can offer shine through, winemakers created a Frankenwine. Benchmark red apple, lemon and peach flavours were scared off by super-ripe, almost-sweet mango, papaya and nectarine notes that, when aged in oak, took on intense butterscotch/caramel/vanilla flavours. Malolactic fermentation was undertaken -- a process that converts malic acid into the softer lactic acid and imparts a creamy buttery texture in Chardonnay. This dessert-in-a-glass phenomenon eventually became palate fatigue for many, who turned to lighter, fresher white wines made from other grapes.
While Chardonnay was down (or at least stagnant, sales-wise) it was never out. There's been a sea change from the cream bombs of yesteryear to purer expressions of fruit, either with far less oak aging or with none at all. Producers opting for the latter often clearly label the wine as "un-oaked Chardonnay" -- check out how many are around next time you're shopping.
It just so happens that in its purer, less-oaked form, Chardonnay is a great wine for pairing with food. Un-oaked Chardonnay is great with light salads, seafood dishes and cheeses, while those that see a bit more time in wood can stand up to pork tenderloin, salmon steaks and even milder beef dishes. Now that producers have dialed back the oak and over-extraction, it's also a wine that's far more drinkable on its own than it would have been 15 years ago.
"I don't like Chardonnay." I get this comment all the time when talking about the grape. Producers have a long way to go to make amends with imbibers who were turned off by the big oak and over-extracted fruit of years past. Thankfully, they're in heading the right direction.
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Lindemans 2011 Bin 65 Chardonnay (Southeastern Australia -- $12.49, Liquor Marts and beyond)
A longtime great-value Aussie Chard, the Bin 65 continues to impress at this price point. Fresh Macintosh apple, pear, honey and peach aromas are enhanced by just the slightest hint of vanilla on the nose. This medium-bodied Chardonnay delivers all that ripe fruit on the palate with a light honey-ish note that provides more texture than sweetness. It once again delivers the goods. 87/100
Leyda 2011 Reserva Chardonnay (Leyda Valley, Chile -- around $13, private wine stores)
Melon, pear, peach, and peeled red apple notes on the nose are fresh and appealing on the Leyda. This medium-bodied white is bursting with fresh peach, apricot, apple and lemon flavours, and manages to retain a freshness to the fruit. There might be just a touch of oak on this wine (online searches were fruitless -- no pun intended), but if there is it's complementary rather than cumbersome. Available at The Winehouse for sure, and possibly beyond. 89/100
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery 2009 Chardonnay (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia -- $33.33, Liquor Marts and beyond)
While the toasty spice and vanilla from oak barrels is more apparent on the nose of the Burrowing Owl than it is on the other two, there's still great balance and complexity between these and the mineral, apple seed, pear, flint and modest tropical fruit notes. It's rich and full-bodied, with a delicate balance of red apple, toasted nuts, honey, lemon meringue pie vanilla flavours and a lengthy, somewhat nutty finish. It wouldn't be out of place with some of the finer (and pricier) white Burgundies out there. 92/100