In a fancy restaurant somewhere in Hawaii, a well-dressed woman tells the waiter, “I would love a glass of Chablis.” The server swiftly responds with, “I’m sorry, we don’t offer Chablis by the glass but we do have a wonderful unoaked California chardonnay that might be a perfect substitute.”
Response: “Oh…I absolutely hate chardonnay.” It seems our knee-jerk reaction to chardonnay has become so quick we even hate it when we order it (so we are all on the same page, the grape used in Chablis, France, is chardonnay, but more on that later). It’s a shame that chardonnay, our most successful venture in California, has become faux pas among the wine cognoscenti and wannabes alike.
And it’s all my fault. I followed the same path as most wine professionals. I began drinking the stuff, moved on to more esoteric grape varieties and then started soap boxing against California chardonnay in my restaurants at every opportunity. I would have preferred force-feeding my guests bottles of obscure Italian greco di tufo than—gasp!—allow them to knock back another glass of boring old Cali chard.
I was wrong. Chardonnay is our national wine treasure. When one is sitting in a villa in northern Italy, the wine that must be ordered is prosecco. When dining in Bordeaux, it would be a shame not to have a bottle of Third Growth on the table. In Spain, Rioja is the thing. Therefore, it is completely reasonable that chardonnay should be the beverage of choice in domestic wine rooms.
I have returned to my homeland armed with the knowledge that chardonnay has never been better. Even moderately priced producers are utilizing new and expensive oak barrels, complete with their requisite toasty-vanilla aromas and silky-creamy textures. California winemakers have begun to hone their years of experience with this grape and are producing greater expressions of fruit and terroir. Even the cuisine of Hawaii is quite suited to this type of wine, despite many snobby comments to the contrary. For the quintessential proof, one need only taste macadamia crusted Mahi Mahi in a citrus buerre blanc with a glass of Santa Barbara chardonnay to become a convert. California chardonnay is good, and with the possible exception of cabernet sauvignon, it’s the best thing we do in our own backyard.
For those who have become disenfranchised by the high level of oak employed in California examples, the chardonnays of France offer the opportunity to return to this noble grape. The overwhelming majority have little oak influence, translating to a more crisp, citrus flavor with a hint of minerality. This flavor profile—when teamed up with zesty acidity—creates a food-friendly glass of wine. Look to Chablis for the most clean example and move on to Burgundy when you have the money. Great Burgundy has the ability to change many things, especially opinions.
Outside of France and the U.S., chardonnay has performed well in a handful of other regions. Most notably, Australia, New Zealand and Chile have all contributed excellent examples of New World style chardonnay. Possessing the voluptuous body and fruit-forward character of their California cousins with a touch less oak, the Southern Hemisphere is a great adventure across all price levels for this grape.
For the true explorer, a few established houses in Tuscany, Italy, have experimented with the most famous of white grapes. The result is a unique combination of earthy-funk and bright, round fruit.
The time has come to resurrect chardonnay on your dining room table, especially the California version. This holds true even if you’re in your South African chenin blanc phase.
Louis Latour ‘Ardèche’ chardonnay, Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l’Ardèche, France, $15
Despite the difficult name, this version is a great introduction to French style for a fraction of the price of Burgundy.
Cambria ‘Katherine’s Vineyard’ chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley, CA, $20
A classic example of California juice and style. Think of the famous Kendall-Jackson with an extra degree of finesse and complexity.
Stonestreet ‘Upper Barn’ chardonnay, Alexander Valley, CA, $35
The textbook big oak, big butter, big fruit, high-end California chardonnay. Everyone loves this wine.
Kumeu River ‘Village’ chardonnay, Kumeu, New Zealand, $25
Strikes the perfect balance between New World fruit and Old World sleekness. Always highly rated, Kumeu River is constantly mistaken for top-notch Burgundy in blind tastings.
Cass is a certified sommelier, certified specialist of wine and certified specialist of spirits. He is the beverage director and sommelier for Merriman’s Kapalua.