Chardonnay is one of the most famous white wine grapes on the planet, and yet its personality in any given bottle matters entirely on the winemaker’s whim, from austere, minimalist handling, to employing all the flavor bells and whistles available in modern winemaking.
Photo courtesy of Sonoma Cutrer
Everyone thinks they know it. Many love it—or at least a certain style. Some hate it—or at least they think they do, based on a certain style. But, do they really understand its range of possibilities? How about hosting a "Blind-Tasting Party" with your friends — presenting all of the bottles wrapped in brown bags or aluminum foil — showcasing various styles of Chardonnay alongside wines with similar style profiles? While few white wines possess the power, richness and complexity that Chardonnay does, there are several that can easily play understudy for the great diva of grapes. Here's how to do it:
The Set Up:
Before guests arrive, chill all of the wines. Then, wrap each bottle in a brown bag tied at the neck with string or aluminum foil. If you need to further chill the wines until guests arrive, you could put them in ice buckets, putting those in brown bags in a plastic bag first to keep it dry; those in foil will be fine in ice. Remove the capsule that covers the cork completely. With a marker write a number on each bottle, from one to six (or as many as you're pouring). If you're serving multiple bottles of the same wine for a large crowd, be sure they are numbered correctly. Then, on a spacious bar, table or countertop, set up six stations featuring a large, lined notepad and a pen. On each pad write "Wine No. 1," "Wine No. 2," etc. for the number of wines you're serving. When you're ready to serve the wines, place each bottle in front of its corresponding notepad. Without guests seeing, pull the corks and taste each bottle to make sure they aren't corked (or taste off, like moldy cardboard). Don't forget to hide the corks, because they often display the wine's logo or other info that might give them away. Now, invite guests to taste the wines in any order, and then write their name on each notepad as they taste, along with their guess as to which type of wine they are drinking. Is it Chardonnay? Is it something else? Take a guess!
Here's what we'll pour from our six bottles, but we won't tell our guests what's in them until everyone has savored a sip:
Wine No. 1: (Chardonnay from Chablis)
While practically everyone knows Chardonnay, not everyone knows that it hails from the Burgundy region of France, where it's known as Bourgogne Blanc, or white Burgundy. You will almost never see the word Chardonnay on a bottle of white Burgundy, but rather the region, village or vineyard name. While most white Burgundies are made in oak barrels that impart flavor to the wine, those from the Chablis region are unique, because most are made without oak interaction, vinified in stainless steel tanks. Chablis' cool climate yields wines with high acidity and distinct "flinty" notes, and less of the apple-y fruit we often identify with traditional Chardonnay. This is as unadulterated as it gets.
Wine No. 2: (Minimally-Oaked California Chardonnay)
Many value-priced Chardonnays (under $15, let's say) possess qualities that you've come to expect: buttery, toasty, creamy nuances, with a touch of vanilla and a kiss of citrus. They represent an overtly oaky style—often called "California Style"—that was popular 25 years ago, when America was just starting to fall in love with Chardonnay. Today, makers of high-quality California Chardonnay strive for balance, crafting fruity wines that are also lean and crisp. Ask your retailer for a Chardonnay that's "minimally-oaked," like Sonoma-Cutrer's Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, whose creamy richness is balanced with bright, mouthwatering acidity and highlighted with flavors of apple, pear and lemon zest.
Wine No. 3: (White Bordeaux)
The word Bordeaux is instantly recognized as one of France's great wine regions, and for most Americans it also means a great red wine. However, Bordeaux is also known for its delicious, if not-well-known white wines, hiding in plain sight in your best wine shops. The grapes to know in this region are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, which are blended together—and you'll never see their names on the label, only "Bordeaux Blanc," or, if they are from a specific district, you'll see that name, too. Ask your retailer for a Bordeaux Blanc from Graves, or, even better, from Pessac-Léognan, where the wines are made in oak barrels, but not with a heavy hand. You might be surprised by how much they remind you of that minimally-oaked Chardonnay in bottle No. 2.
Wine No. 4: (Cotes du Rhône Blanc)
Cotes du Rhône is another one of those French wine names that immediately brings to mind red wine, but like all wine regions around the world, both red and white wine grapes are grown. In the case of the Rhône, there are many, many types of grapes grown, and a lot of them end up in the final blend of the wines, as is tradition in this part of France. By French law, in fact, white Cotes du Rhônes must contain a minimum blend of 80% Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Bourboulenc and Viognier. Ugni blanc and Picpoul blanc may be used as secondary varieties. These wines possess fruity, citrusy qualities, coupled with a distinct richness that might trick some guests into thinking it's a minimally-oaked Chardonnay, like the one in bottle No. 2.
Wine No. 5: (Viognier)
One of the grapes in bottle No. 4's Cotes du Rhône Blanc is Viognier, which plays a supporting role throughout the Rhône Valley, but is the star in bottles labeled "Condrieu." These tend to be very, very expensive—and very, very delicious, possessing honeysuckle aromas and flavors, and a distinct unctuousness that might remind some wine lovers of the richness of full-bodied, heavily-oaked Chardonnay. But you can also find far more affordable styles of Viognier from Australia, California and Washington. While its inherent lusciousness may remind tasters of Chardonnay, the giveaway that its not is its highly aromatic bouquet, often brimming with, in addition to honeysuckle, also pears, peaches, and even violet flowers.
Wine No. 6: (Classically-Oaked California Chardonnay)
The employment of oak in the making of great Chardonnay goes back centuries. When applied judiciously, the wine takes on a richness and depth of flavor that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. The problem for the word oak in the context of Chardonnay is that as the grape (and wines made with it) grew ever-more popular over the past quarter-century, techniques to deliver oak-imparting character without actually using oak have grown, too. Which is why many value-priced Chards taste more or less the same. But, if you raise the bar, and invest in a world-class Chardonnay, you may fall in love with this style all over again. Ask your retailer for a "classically-oaked California Chardonnay," something like Sonoma-Cutrer's 'Les Pierres' from Sonoma County, a wine whose deep, complex aromas of lime, grapefruit and lemon mixed with the flinty, mineral notes that are a defining characteristic of Grand Cru Burgundy, is accented with hints of caramel, fresh cream, nutmeg and honey.
After all of your guests have tasted the wines, and written their guesses down, unwrap the bottles and let guests see if they guessed correctly or not. Then, open some more bottles, open the buffet and rediscover these new wine discoveries again with food. If one guest guessed the wines particularly well, perhaps you might even offer them a prize: one of those delicious Sonoma-Cutrer bottles to take home.