February’s 29 days of Chardonnay
a collaborative project
ABC and NASCAR
authored by Thomas Houseman, Winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards
In the spirit of “transparency”, I must admit that I am a card-carrying member of ABC and NASCAR. Most will know ABC as “anything but Chardonnay”, but may not be familiar with NASCAR- “ not another sweet, cloying, ambiguous Riesling.” In my mind, both varieties share a common flaw, a lack of coherent style. Before you start flooding me with hate mail, hear me out…
When you are on an airline and the flight attendant asks you what you’d like to drink and you say “wine” and he says “red or white,” and you say “white,” chances are what will you get? Chardonnay. When you are at a non-descript restaurant and they have a wine list (possibly corporate designed) what wine dominates the white side of the list? Chardonnay. And, if you are old enough to remember the 80s (or the early 90s), there was a wine that was the default wine for a housewarming gift, dinner, or party. I’ll give you a hint- it was alcoholic, buttery, oaky, and from California…
I have been burned so many times by really awful Chardonnay that I usually just breeze on past it as an option. Granted, I have had a few stunning Chardonnays in my lifetime, but at $12 a glass, who really wants to take the chance?
Here is where I will go into generalizations, so please (those of you with itchy hate mail fingers, I am talking to you) hear me out again. I do know that there are regions I avoid. I already mentioned California, which I’ll admit is not fair at all. I have had a few really great Chardonnays from California, but unless I see a name I know and love, I avoid the inevitable disappointment of fruit covered in layers of buttery taffeta, gaudy oak, and gilded in a searing alcoholic finish. I also avoid Chardonnay from Australia for exactly the opposite reason- stainless, factory frankenwines- blended with Verdelho, Semillon, or god-knows-what. These versions are as under-defined as the previous are over made. From Oregon I often get canned corn. From New Zealand it is sweet, maple. From the Okanagan it is hot eraser. Each region has spectacular exceptions, but I do not see any region, as a whole, that Chardonnay expresses itself in a way that the grape shines.
Macon is where Chardonnay sings. It cries out over the rooftops of Burgundy. It has the depth of white Burgundy, but with a core minerality and acidity that is unmistakable. There is an oak presence, but not dominance. If I see Pouilly Fuissé on a menu it grabs my eye. I rarely ever NOT order it if it is on a menu. Interestingly enough, I have never had a Macon that I did not like. I can’t say that about many wine varieties. Can you?
Now you know my secret. It is Macon. So, I think it would be wise to touch back in on ABC and NASCAR.
How does one “fix” the nebulous land that makes ordering either of these varieties so tricky? I look for clues on the labels. Riesling is easy. More and more producers have adopted the International Riesling Foundation “Riesling taste profile” scale. I can look at the scale and instantly know whether I will like or dislike what is in my hand. I suggest Chardonnay producers look at the same type of scale. I guarantee you, if I knew what style of Chardonnay I was about to drink, I’d take more chances.
Until then, and there will always be, Macon.
Thomas’ winemaking career unofficially began in the basement of his parent’s home in Hampton Roads, Virginia. His Welch’s grape juice and orange juice concentrate wines are lost in time, but we’re sure they’d be showing well if any remained. Thomas narrowly escaped blindness from this stage of his life and went on to New York City, where he pursued a career in modern dance. Traveling the globe performing was great but it did not get him much free beer. So, he bought a book and taught himself to brew.
With the creativity of a dancer, the eye of a scientist, and the encouragement of friends who loved the free beer, the passion for fermenting reemerged. Thomas left the stage and went back to school at CSU Fresno in the enology program. It was there he fell in love with Pinot noir. And, across the globe he embarked again, first to California’s Anderson Valley, then to New Zealand, and finally to Oregon. After four years at Ponzi Vineyards, Thomas saw the opportunity to express himself at Anne Amie Vineyards where he is happy he can still use words like balance, grace, fluidity, elegance, power and style- words that once described his dancing, now describe his wines.
In his free time, Thomas still brews, having dragged his equipment across the US. Yoga and running have replaced dance, but winemaking remains the common thread that started in a basement and continues at Anne Amie.