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Holiday Wine: The Chardonnay Advantage

Skip the Pinot Noir and hold the Zinfandel. For Thanksgiving, one writer mounts a defense of the wine America loves best—Chardonnay.

When the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians had that first Thanksgiving, back in 1621, there was no cranberry sauce, no oyster stuffing and—this was a feast?—no Chardonnay. Happily, in these more enlightened times, Chardonnay, America's favorite wine, is more likely to be featured on the holiday table, and most likely it will be from California. More good news: The California Chardonnays now in the stores are from two great vintages, 2001 and 2002.

Chardonnay is, in many ways, the white wine that is most like red wine. As Richard Ward, cofounder of Saintsbury winery in Napa Valley, says, "Most Chardonnays tend to be oak-aged, which gives them more tannin than other whites, plus Chardonnays have riper fruit flavors. This means they can stand up to richer foods." Indeed, the flamboyant fruit of California Chardonnay plays beautifully off the salty, earthy flavors of turkey, sausage and dressing, and complements the sweetness of side dishes like corn pudding and winter squash.

Adds Dirk Hampson, director of winemaking at Napa Valley's famed Far Niente, "At our house on Thanksgiving, we've got three kinds of potatoes, wild rice, mushrooms and the turkey, so I look to a refreshing Chardonnay to bring a little harmony to the symphony."

Refreshing is the key word. California wineries continue to produce Chardonnays in every conceivable style, but the best avoid heaviness. And with a big meal like Thanksgiving, the last thing to be desired is an overpowering, over-the-top wine.

The new style of California Chardonnay favors food-friendliness and balance, with many of the better producers following the lead of the French, planting grapes in cooler vineyards for livelier, brighter wines and employing a lighter touch with oak.

The French connection, of course, comes naturally—Chardonnay is the grape of the prized white wines of Burgundy, such as Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne and Le Montrachet.

And Chardonnay, as it turns out, likes a lot of the same things in California that it likes back in Burgundy: barrel fermentation, "native" yeasts, minimal manipulation and above all, cool-climate vineyards. And while there have been a handful of great Chardonnay producers over the past three decades, the past 10 years has seen the rise of a number of new stars, including Kistler, Peter Michael, Marcassin and Kongsgaard—who have taken California Chardonnay through a radical rethink, but this time back to its Burgundian roots.

That's not to say that the best California Chardonnays today are trying to be white Burgundies. The California versions have their own style: richer, riper, and more fruit-forward than the French, with bouquets of tropical fruit, melon, honey and figs. But the California Chardonnays you'll find on the table this Thanksgiving are also likely to have a finesse and harmony that wasn't so common only a few years ago. The results are redefining California Chardonnay and, with each successive vintage, giving their producers a sense of accomplishment that the Pilgrims themselves could appreciate.

Published November 2004
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