Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
For the past six weeks, master sommelier Chuck Furuya has been conducting wine education classes at Vino Italian Tapas and Wine Bar. What he originally envisioned was a cozy class for a dozen or so “students” who enjoy wine yet yearn for more information, especially from arguably the 50th’s most eminently qualified teacher of all things wine, Chuck Furuya himself. However, Chuck underestimated the response to these classes: What was planned for 12 students once a month quickly became roughly 20 students who met three times a month.
The January classes of Wine 101 focused on that most recognizable white wine, Chardonnay. The February classes of Wine 201 focused on wine and food pairing. This month’s Wine 301 classes will focus on how the same grape varietal produces vastly different results in different soils and climates.
So to honor my personal wine sensei, I present to you Kanpai 101 and, like Furuya-Sensei, will focus on the ubiquitous white wine, Chardonnay.
What is Chardonnay?
For starters, Chardonnay is the child of a red grape and a white grape — Pinot Noir being the red parent, and Gouais Blanc being the white parent. While most of you have heard of Pinot Noir, which was popularized in the movie, “Sideways,” I’m sure not many have heard of Gouais Blanc, as it is rarely planted these days for wine production. In fact, while I was an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i, Chardonnay was believed to be part of the Pinot family. I still remember that my fledgling wine collection included a bottle of Pinot Chardonnay from that esteemed Frenchman, Paul Masson. Since then, DNA analysis has revealed that although its parentage includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay is a stand-alone grape varietal.
Chardonnay is easily cultivated and adapts to a variety of growing conditions; thus, it is grown in many different regions, from the Napa Valley and Sonoma coast of Northern California, to the Monterey and Santa Barbara regions of the central coast of California, all the way up to the cooler climates of Washington state. It’s also grown in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as in cooler regions in Italy. However, most oenophiles would argue that its greatest expression is in the wines of Burgundy and Chablis, along with the Champagne region in France.
The following discourse on grape-ripening applies to all grape varietals, red and white alike. Ripening occurs on two main levels — sugar ripening and physiologic ripening — and the factors leading to each process run counter to each other. Whereas sugar ripening simply requires adequate nutrients and water, plus ample sunshine and heat, physiological ripening requires a longer “hang time” of the grape bunches to develop the necessary polyphenols and acids that give complexity to the grape and the eventual wine. However, once the sugar level hits a certain point, you have to harvest your grapes or risk producing a highly alcoholic wine. More sugar in the grape juice means higher alcohol levels in the finished wine. You also risk producing a wine with more residual sugar than you want. Keep in mind that stopping fermentation prematurely limits alcohol levels, but also creates a sweeter wine. If the grape hasn’t developed the necessary polyphenols and acids because it was picked too early, the finished wine will lack flavor, complexity and will not have any aging potential.
About 15 years ago, there was a backlash against Chardonnay. It was known as “ABC,” or “Anything But Chardonnay,” mainly because most of the readily available Chardonnays were huge, fruit-driven, buttery, oaky, alcoholic wines that really didn’t pair with most dishes. Although Napa Valley is blessed with fertile soil, adequate moisture and abundant sunshine to grow most crops, remember that unlimited resources doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have great wines. Add warmer fermentation temperatures where sharper malic acid is converted to softer lactic acid with new oak barrel aging and you end up with rich, oaky, buttery Chardonnay — pleasant for a sip or two, but it quickly overwhelms the palate. Forget about pairing it with food unless your dish is laden with butter, cream and cheese. This Chardonnay backlash was almost as extreme as the Merlot backlash that occurred after “Sideways” was released. But time and knowledge usually refine anything, including wine production.
Can the Golden State Produce a Golden Chardonnay?
California can, and does, produce great Chardonnays, with their secret being what your real estate agent always told you: location, location, location!
Certain vineyards with cooler climates, like the Sonoma coast or the central coast near Monterey, where the cold winds of the Pacific constantly buffet the vineyard are ideal. Also ideal are select vineyards at higher altitudes, just above the fog line, where the cooler temperatures allow longer “hang time” for the grape bunches, but southerly sun exposure allows enough heat for sugar ripening. Consider doing temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel barrels to reduce the malo-lactic fermentation, preserving the sharper acids in the finished wine to balance the vanilla, butter and oak flavors. Finally, and this may sound counter-intuitive, select vineyards with meager soils, especially those with limestone, rock and sand so that each vine only produces a limited number of grape bunches. But with fewer grape bunches to ripen, more plant resources can go to each bunch.
The wines of the Cote de Beaune in Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne produce, arguably, the greatest expression of Chardonnay. Granted, the French did have a several hundred-year head start on the Americans. By now, they know exactly which parcels of land produce the best grapes and resulting wines. With Chardonnay, the common theme is limestone soils that sit just a foot or so beneath the surface for the best Grand Cru wines down to several feet below for Premier Cru wines down, to yards or more for Village-designated wines.
The other big difference between Burgundian Chardonnay and American Chardonnay is the fruit. When you first sniff a white Burgundy, other than that characteristic funkiness that blows off, you get mineral, stone that eventually gives way to semi-dried stone fruit and candied citrus peel. If the wine is aged long enough, you even get hints of truffle and coconut, but no fleshy, fresh ripe fruit like you might find in a domestic Chardonnay.
The difference with Chablis, which is slightly farther north of Burgundy, is the soil. It also contains Kimmeridgian clay, along with fossilized oyster shells that give young Chablis a flinty, steely mouth feel. As an colder climate, Chablis usually contains more acid, and because new oak isn’t used here, the acid gives the wine a refreshing quality that makes it very food-friendly.
Even further north in the Champagne region, Chardonnay is blended with Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier for Brut and rose champagnes or bottled on its own as Blanc de Blanc champagne although the dissolved yeast cells take most of the credit for the complexity in champagne.
Give It Another Try
So, if you were initially turned off by those oaky, buttery, alcoholic Chardonnays, I say give Chard another try. Just look for bottles from the Sonoma Coast or the Central Coast in the Golden State or Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet in Burgundy or Chablis or Blanc de Blanc champagne. Here’s my short list of Chardonnay at various price points:
• Less than $20
Broadside Wild Ferment
• $20 to $40
Au Bon Climat
• More than $50
• Sky’s the Limit
And FYI, the Wine 301 classes sold out in just a couple of days, so if you are interested in furthering your wine education, sign up for Vino’s newsletter to get a head start for the Wine 401 classes slated for April.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”