Article By: Sandy Block, MW
The idea even seems a bit quaint. Having recently sat on a blind tasting panel composed mainly of sommeliers from around the world, I can report that it's not a popular grape among many of the young guns in the field. Not that anyone comes out and actually says they don't like it, mind you. That would be closed-minded. Instead you'll likely hear declamations against "over-oaked" Chardonnay, "high alcohol" Chardonnay, "unbalanced" Chardonnay, "pretentious" Chardonnay, "egotistical" Chardonnay, sometimes even "California" Chardonnay. If it weren't so funny it would get tiresome. Upon finding out that they were assigned to taste flights of Chardonnay from the US, many of the panels let out a collective groan. "What did we do to deserve this?" one of my twenty-something colleagues asked. "You should have been around fifteen years ago," I told this European whiz kid. "Then you would have seen some serious oak, Jacques."
Maybe it's my contrarian nature but I'm coming back around to Chardonnay. Not that I ever really left, but I do think that many of the wines I'm tasting today, in all price and style categories, are outstanding. At the international tasting I certainly felt compelled to defend what I thought were superior quality wines that others kept disparaging, even if they weren't exactly my style. "Why do you think this grape is still so damn popular?" I finally had to ask a dinner companion who was frothing with rage at the mere mention of one of the more commercially (and critically) successful forty-dollar retail Chardonnay brands. "Marketing," he said, as though I were an idiot, which granting him the benefit of the doubt I may well in fact be. "So people don't really like it," I asked, seeking enlightenment, "they're just fooled into liking it?" He just looked at me like even trying to explain this was beneath him. But I pressed on: "Do you think it's possible that you don't like it," I asked, "because when customers order it, or other Chardonnays of this type, you don't really have anything to talk to them about?"
That, I am beginning to believe, may be it in a nutshell. Being the overwhelming white wine choice of the masses, as well as the well-heeled classes, Chardonnay's very popularity works against it when it comes to some restaurant people (or some retailers, for that matter) who are eager to share their latest obscure passion with customers. The attitude is, 'How dare these bozos waste their money on this superficial bimbo of a wine when there are so many intriguing choices I could tell them about?' I have to disagree. Professional wine buyers constitute a special coddled breed of humanity, their palates romanced with all kinds of exotic flavors on a daily basis. Marketers of all kinds are in frenzied competition to titillate their highly evolved, often-idiosyncratic tastes. It takes a really electrifying story to spark some of these people's jaded imaginations. While there is a miniscule proportion of the wine drinking public who aspire to be in the wine industry so that they can participate in these arcane rituals of sniff-taste-gurgle-spit-and purchase, for most of the rest, there is Chardonnay. No doubt some of the people who buy it do so out of habit, because they're comfortable with the way the name sounds when it rolls off their tongue, but many of the others know exactly what they're getting when they choose a Chardonnay, because they've learned through experience that the flavors and textures and aromas are pleasing to them. In other words, I think it's a really popular wine because people like it. Radical thought, perhaps, but to believe otherwise is to lapse into the Homer Simpson position: "Everyone's stupid but me."
But here I go talking about "Chardonnay" as though it actually were one thing. Among the grape's most magical attributes is its protean nature. In reality there's a Chardonnay to fit every taste and palate. The range is quite dramatic: bone dry to frankly sweet, acidic to mild, lavish to lean, toasty to fruity, light to medium to full. Respecting its market leadership position as the number one, two and three most popular white wines rolled into one, I have been blind tasting like crazy lately to unearth the crème de la crème, in several of these different categories, and here is what I've discovered: it's not hard to make a good wine. Outstanding ones are fewer and far between. The following, in my estimation, deserve that accolade. They are listed in ascending order of ranking, without consideration of cost. (For comparative purposes, prices quoted are average retail.)