Tropical storm Beryl rolled in last Friday, leaving the streets of historic Old Town Lewisville grey and soggy with warm summer rain. Luckily, I wasn’t stuck outside in the deluge or the steam bath that followed it—I was tucked away, cozy and dry, inside my little wine bar with a friend and four bottles of Chardonnay.
No, we weren’t planning to drink until the rain stopped. This friend is a sommelier who, like me, is fairly new to the trade. Last Friday was one of our tasting and study group sessions, where we sip different wines to broaden our palates.
Tasting groups run by sommeliers are a little different than your average wine tasting. Everyone brings some wine, and we serve it in one of two ways. For practice with blind tasting, we wrap our offerings hobo-style in brown paper bags and have a trusted party serve them to us, then see who can identify the mystery wines. For comparative tastings, we taste wines made from the same varietal in different regions and discuss how the flavors differ. And yes, we spit rather than swallow these wines. It turns out that getting drunk affects your ability to differentiate flavors and verbally describe a wine.
This time, the subject of the day was Chardonnay. I admit, I’ve neglected this grape varietal in the past. I treat Chardonnays a bit like fairytale stepchildren—I lock them in a cellar to be forgotten and only trotted out grudgingly for the benefit of family and friends who actually enjoy them. I dismiss Chardonnay as an option in nearly every wine tasting opportunity, except for the rare occasions when I find one that manages to be truly amazing or if I feel like I have to taste one (for example, when I’m at work).
Since I don’t personally love Chardonnay, I went into the study session with a bit of a groan. “Ugh,” I thought, “I’m going to end up with half a dozen bottles of Chardonnay on my hands that I have to pawn off on someone.” But, since a somm can’t limit her knowledge to her favorites, I went into the tasting with a resigned determination. Here’s what happened.
We tasted five different wines, all a hauntingly similar shade of deep lemon yellow, all full-bodied with medium plus or higher acidity and alcohol content. But that’s where the similarities ended. All five wines tasted drastically different. Getting to really experience and identify these subtle differences is the best part of this type of wine tasting.
For our first Chardonnay, we sampled a wine from Meursault, a commune in the southern Côte d’Or subregion of Burgundy, France.
Wine #1: Patrick Javillier, “Cuvée des Forgets,” Chardonnay, Bourgogne 2016
This bright, refreshing wine was full of flavors of lemon curd, underripe peach and apricot, tart green pear, and juicy green and yellow apples. The texture was creamy and I detected new French oak in the subtle notes of crème brûlée and vanilla bean. The sharp taste of limestone dominated this wine’s finish.
Wine #1 was my personal favorite of the day. For those who find Chablis too austere (or too expensive), this is a great choice. It’s also the perfect pick for someone who’s new to French Chardonnay and wants to get their feet wet.
Buoyed by the delicious white Burgundy I had just enjoyed, I poured myself a glass of Wine #2, a Chilean Chardonnay, with a little more gusto.
Wine #2: Chateau Los Boldos, “Cuvée Tradition,” Chardonnay, Alto Cachapoal, Chile, 2014
After an initial aroma reminiscent to me of rubber or superheated tarmac, scents of ripe fruit—golden delicious apples, yellow peaches, and nectarines—filled my nose. On the palate, the fruit flavors continued, accompanied by something green that my friend and I decided to call asparagus. The mineral-driven finish left me with the poignant taste of graphite—yes, it tasted like pencil lead for a moment there.
Wine #2 was refreshing, with tart flavors deepening into ripe fruit, all leading to an elegant finish—a solid wine. I would love to try this paired with Chilean sea bass.
Our third wine hailed all the way from Padthaway, Australia, an area south of Adelaide known for its Mediterranean climate and pink granite-laden terroir, locally termed “jip jip rocks.”
Wine #3: Jip Jop Rocks Chardonnay, Padthaway, Australia, 2016
The characteristic scent of eucalyptus leaves invaded the nose, alongside lush tropical fruit aromas: lychee, banana peel, mango, and papaya. Aromas and flavors of what my friend thought tasted like flint provided a sturdy backbone. Considering what we know about the wine’s terroir, this must be the famous jip jip rocks.
Wine #3 was not my favorite, but my friend really loved this one. I’m glad I had the opportunity to taste it.
The next two wines came from the same regions and producer and were harvested one year apart. The main differentiating factor was the use of new oak.
Wine #4: River Road Un-Oaked Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma 2017
This unoaked Chardonnay bursted with ripe, nearly jammy stone and tropical fruit flavors. Some of the individual tastes I identified were ripe Anjou pear, key lime, tangerine, lychee, passion fruit, and cantaloupe. Though I got hit with a dash of white pepper on the finish, this wine seemed to hold the same flavor note throughout. I remarked that the wine reminded me of juicy fruit bubblegum, and my friend agreed with my comparison.
Unlike the previous wines, wine #4 was off dry—I detected a hint of residual sugar on the tip of my tongue. Anyone who likes sweeter wines, or fruit-bombs, would love this.
Wine #5: River Road Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma 2016
Like its sister, this wine had a lot of tropical fruit action, accompanied by pear and citrusy notes. On the nose, those flavors were somewhat subdued in favor of crème brûlée, butter, and vanilla bean. On the palate, this wine was reminiscent of lightly spiced tropical fruit flambé. It had a creamy texture, with hints of vanilla and sweet spices from the oak, with no earth or mineral flavors that I could detect.
Overall, if you like oaky California Chardonnays, this is an affordable option that you should try.
I waved goodbye to my friend from the bar feeling like I’d made a discovery. Chardonnay is far more complex than the two drastically different incarnations we’re most familiar with. It’s not just about the buttery oak and ripe fruit flavors of Napa Valley, or the bright citrus and minerality of Chablis. Like all grapes, Chardonnay changes dramatically when planted in different soils, climates, and elevations. Finding a bottle you like is only a matter of time if you put your mind to it.
So, to all my diehard red wine drinkers who never thought they’d touch a bottle of Chardonnay, I challenge you to go out and try one of these five Chardonnays (all available at Total Wine) or one not listed here. You might surprise yourself and enjoy it!