Today's Chardonnay Comes in a Variety of Pleasing Personalities

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fw_winecellar_chardonnay.jpgChardonnay's attraction is like that of a movie star. It's the most widely planted premium wine grape in America, it has millions of fans and it shines in any setting--from backyard barbeques to presidential dinner parties. In fact, one of the surest signs that Chardonnay currently leads the fine-wine parade in that people are starting to jump off the bandwagon. While some of them simply seek a change (a trend known as ABC--"Anything but Chardonnay"), others have a bone to pick. Chardonnay, they complain, just doesn't taste like Chardonnay anymore.
This is a bit hard to understand, given that we can choose among hundreds of Chardonnays from California, plus hundreds more from Oregon, Washington, Australia and other parts of the world. The spectrum ranges from traditional French-inspired versions to the thickest, lushest, most over-the-top wine you can imagine. So the question isn't "What should Chardonnay taste like?" It's "How can one grape kick it in so many styles?"

"It's a winemaker's wine," answers Chateau Souverain winemaker Ed Killian. "It really responds to how we twist the dials in the cellar, so it's fun to make and not that hard to make well." Chardonnay is particularly responsive in California, because the grapes usually come into the winery fully ripe. This means they are packed with the sugars, acids and other chemical compounds that winemakers work with in turning grape pulp into fermented elixir. Wineries have also introduced different strains of yeast--the active agents in converting fruit sugar to alcohol--and many other variables into their winemaking regimes. Chardonnay seems to accommodate them all

The most famous of these adaptations may be one from the late 1970s, when Ed Sbragia was still a young winemaker at Beringer Vineyards. He tried fermenting just-crushed Chardonnay grapes in oak barrels instead of the usual stainless steel tanks. This was not rocket science, mind you. "I just wanted to see what would happen," Sbragia says.

What happened changed Chardonnay's history. Steel is an inert material that imparts nothing to wine--and doesn't let anything else affect it, either. Wood is more or less the opposite: an organic, semi-permeable substance that contains a host of chemical components. Its effect on ever-adaptable Chardonnay was dramatic. This is a grape whose flavors had long been compared to apples, pears and honey. After barrel fermentation, Chardonnay could smell and taste more like butter, caramel and vanilla.

Apparently people liked the change, because many winemakers began following Sbragia's lead. By 1991, the Beringer Reserve Chardonnay was 100% barrel fermented and Chardonnay's popularity nationwide had taken off. There are more Chardonnay grapes growing in this country than any other front-line wine grape, and it's hard to find a winery of any size that doesn't offer a Chard of its own. The ABC crowd might feel hemmed in by Chardonnay on all sides (especially when they want a glass of wine in a restaurant), but that's because the rest of us simply like to drink it.

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