Louisa Hargrave Column: Giving chardonnay one more chance

grape harvest north fork vineyard winery

Photo by Barbaraellen Koch

What’s the white wine that’s most likely to be served over the holidays? Yup, it’s chardonnay. Now, before you moan and groan about it, take a step back, open your mind and get ready to reconsider America’s most popular white grape variety. There’s a reason chardonnay is so popular — and another reason some people like to say, “I hate it. Give me anything but chardonnay.”

Personally, I’m a fan of chardonnay, though I sometimes regret my loyalty to the grape. Just as I always order crab cakes if they’re on the menu, I’ll usually pick a chard from the list and seldom get what I had in mind. I’m an optimist; I make the assumption that my choice will match the ideal, whether it’s crab cakes or chardonnay. My kids groan when they hear me say, “I’ll have the … ”

They can finish my sentence, then tease me when the waiter brings me crab cakes that are tired and mushy and chardonnay that tastes like caramel custard.

The crab cakes I dream of, and had once in Savannah, consist of perfectly fresh crab, barely stuck together with a hint of mayo, browned in butter. My ultimate chardonnay — the one I keep hoping every other chardonnay will taste like — is Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee Conti Le Montrachet Grand Cru. I had it once in the mid ’80s, but today, at almost $4,000 a bottle, it’s out of my reach.

Ironically, what gives today’s chardonnay a bad rap in some circles is the result of bulk wine producers trying to mimic Le Montrachet. Looking for Burgundian freshness, they add tartaric acid to overripe, acid-depleted grapes. Looking for classic complexity, they dump seasoned oak chips into wine with so much alcohol, the resulting wine is like charbroiled, lemon and vanilla-scented vodka, basted in butter.

In reality, Burgundy is a unique region and it makes more sense for every part of the world to style its wines according to its own climate and soils. At a latitude of 47 degrees north, Beaune is cold, windy and prone to crop-wrecking hailstorms. Its chalky hills naturally force vines to struggle, and keep yields low. The best vines grow in a mid-hill sweet spot, the “Côte d’Or” (gold coast), which captures the sun in the summer’s long days and lets the frost roll into the valley. There, cool, sunny ripening weather gives fruit with high natural acidity (both malic and tartaric) and well-developed flavors true to the variety.

Take cuttings of chardonnay vines from Burgundy, plant them in Melbourne, Australia (latitude 37.8 south), Santiago, Chile (33.4 south), or Napa, Calif. (38.3 north), and you can’t expect the same ripening profile. Chardonnay is relatively easy to grow wherever grapes can be grown, but it makes a completely different wine in hot regions than in cold ones. The best chards ripened under a blazing sun have been tempered by fog or high altitude, preserving some acidity. They are unabashedly big, lusty, fat and desperately in need of real, high-quality oak to temper them.

At 41 degrees north, Long Island lies somewhere between Beaune and Napa in latitude. Our soils are pebbly loam, mixed with minerals scoured by glaciers from the entire face of the continent north of us. Not chalk, not clay, they are well-drained but can promote vigor, unless the vines are planted too close together for roots to compete. Chardonnay loves it here, but a vintner has to choose what style of wine to pursue as the fruit ripens. Maybe Le Montrachet is more fraught with tension, more Baroque, than Long Island chardonnay, but here we can better approach Burgundy’s vivacity and balance than can many hotter places where the fruit is so ripe it tastes more like chicken soup than fi ne wine.

When oak is used to “finish” chard, it can send it to heaven or give it an unholy aura of fried bacon. On Long Island, winemakers are increasingly backing off the bacon style and letting the fresh nuances of chardonnay stand alone. To taste a fascinating harmonic range in chardonnay, try The Lenz Winery’s three styles (white, silver or gold label). Try Macari’s dynamic 2013 Early Wine (an in-your-face fresh chardonnay, harvested Sept. 7 and released Nov. 8) compared to Macari’s oak-fermented 2010 Reserve. Or compare Pellegrini’s steel-fermented chardonnay with its oak-defined Vintner’s Pride.

Wouldn’t it be more fun to line up a tasting to explore what chardonnay really is than to open a jug of Yellowtail and watch your guests look for beer?