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February’s 29 days of Chardonnay

a collaborative project


 Playing Tricks on Me

Authored by Andrew Smith

I used to think chardonnay was crap. The versions I served guests years ago at a local steakhouse were generally unpalatable, clown cars stuffed with as many heavily oaked passengers as could fit. I wrote chardonnay off, creating as much distance as possible between it and me.

Later on, in a sommelier certification blind tasting exam with only two white wines, I named the chardonnay as gewurztraminer. I scored a 72/100 for the exam. Passing grade was 70. I hated chardonnay for tricking me, making me feel like a wine moron and almost causing me to fail.

While taking wine classes, I participated in a tasting group with friends and took on the task of leading our chardonnay tasting, hoping to assuage my varietal angst. We methodically worked through wines from HdV to Hamilton Russell to Comtes Lafon. And the juiciest, most delicious wine loved by all? [yellow tail] Reserve Chardonnay. There was chardonnay again, making me feel like an ass by causing me to like mass produced, character deficient, unabashedly maligned Australian wine. Thanks, Chard.

My relationship with chardonnay was not going well. I was constantly avoiding her, deleting her emails and not returning her phone calls. I was treating her like an ex-girlfriend I still kind of maybe sort of liked, but couldn’t admit it to myself or anyone else.

In the fall of 2010, I went to a wine distributor tasting in Seattle, having no idea what would be shown. It turned out to be a 2009 vintage preview of Bouchard Père et Fils, a Burgundian producer with a range of pinot noir and chardonnay, from regional to grand cru bottlings. Also at the tasting were wines from Henriot, a Champagne producer and William Fèvre, a Chablis producer. I didn’t intend to go to a tasting with so many wines made from chardonnay, but I was committed to not letting the grape variety make a fool of me once again.

The tasting was set up with Champagne first (delicious), Chablis second (racy) and the lineup of pinots third (expressive). The white Burgundies from Bouchard were last, which seemed odd and out of place with the reds shown before. I tried to skip the pinots and taste the chardonnays first, but was shooed back to the reds. So I went with it, finally making my way to the last table.

About a third of the way through the Bouchard whites, I felt a change. There was something ‘other’, something different from the rest of the chardonnay bottlings at the tasting. Something different than any chardonnay I had ever tasted. Two-thirds in and contemplation began which required patience, time to sit with each wine in each glass for each moment. And then at the end, reconciliation.

In my glass I had two ounces of Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru. It was not just ‘other’–it was other worldly. I know it sounds affectatious, but there was no other way to describe the experience and there still isn’t. It was one of those transformational wine experiences that takes you from drinking to living.

Those two ounces (which I did not spit out) put me on a different path with chardonnay as the ultimate wine vehicle. It has the unique ability to respond to the effects of viticulture and vinification like no other variety, and as such, will communicate what it thinks of you far quicker than you can decide what you think of it.

Sometimes, it still thinks I’m a fool. I couldn’t agree more.

Current chardonnay favorites: The aforementioned Mâcon producer Comtes Lafon, the yet to be released 2010 and 2011 bottlings from Shea Wine Cellars in the Willamette Valley and Aussie auteur Michael Hall.

Andrew Smith is the Director of Epicurean Escapes at EverGreen Escapes, the Pacific Northwest’s premier eco-adventure tour operator. He is currently putting his sommelier certification and D- in AP chemistry to good use working vintage at Hanging Rock Winery in Victoria, Australia. His deathbed wine is 1998 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse Riserva.