Food & Drink, Libations

Time to start drinking California chardonnays again

Remember 1980?

Bars started to sport radical innovations like windows and food more ambitious than scotch eggs. The drink of choice was either a spritzer – white wine with a shot of soda water – or chardonnay. The revolution was given another push when an obscure Maryland lawyer, Bob Parker, took to publishing a wine newsletter, the Wine Advocate that sported a unique marking system, rating wines out of 100.

The wine of that era was a completely different fluid than the chardonnay people drink today. It was significantly lower alcohol, often around 11 per cent, with a hard angular acidity, somewhat softened by new oak barrels.

By the 1990s Chardonnay was vinified in new American oak barrels and the malic acid – the hardest of the acids present in wine – was fermented into the much softer lactic acid (i.e. malolactic fermentation). These soft, buttery wines, with exotic bouquets from the oak – coconut, vanilla, and papaya – blew the market apart.

Parker loved these wines, and so did the rest of us. Thousands of acres of California were given over to chard planting.

Such overwrought wines aren’t good for much of anything, once the novelty wears off. The palate fatigues quickly in the face of the massive onslaught. By 2000 Bob Parker was a household name and people like me began ordering anything but chardonnay. Today you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of chardonnays in the US section.

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This is a tremendous shame because chardonnay can make really good wine. I’ve been dipping my tongue back in the barrel periodically, waiting for the trends to calm down, and I am very pleased to tell you it’s time to start drinking Californian chard again. Not only are the wines drinkable, they are – due to their unpopularity – very inexpensive.

In fact Sairey’s favourite wine from this tasting was Gallo Family Chardonnay. This is a $9 bottle, that has some oaking, the complete flavour set of a good chardonnay, although not quite as brisk as other wines here.

Snap Dragonwas very similar to the Gallo Family chard, with just a touch more oak. Slightly biscuity, rather like a blanc de blanc, with a nice fruit finish, this is a great deal in a wine

Chateau St. Jean is walking a fine line. The only people willing to pay 20 bucks for a chard these days typically yearn for the that monster nineties profile. This wine is soft, so the MLF is apparent, and there is also more obvious oaking. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated wine with several layers of flavours, obviously made with care.

Sterling Chardonnay is a wine that began life as a marketing venture: The owner was seeking a name people would associate with quality. Diageo bought the vineyard a couple of years ago, and has spent some time and money since making sure the value is once more in the bottle.

Their take on chardonnay owes a great deal to the profile of Chablis. Alone in this line up there was some decent minerality, a touch of oak, nice acidity. The wine seeks and finds a great balance, no mean feat at this price point.

Barefoot wines are a label I often recommend to drinkers feeling poor. However their chardonnay was not up to their usual standard. It was noticeably more watery that the other wines, but the acidity was nice. I’d guess their intended drinker is not up to a more challenging wine.

I like these wines around 12/55 degrees. If you like ’em cold, Cold, COLD! the Barefoot is probably the best choice. I hear that you can find Barefoot in Alberta for as little as $5 on sale…

Gallo Family Chardonnay, California, 2010. $9 ****
Snap Dragon Chardonnay, California, 2009. $12 ****
Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, California, 2010. $20 ****
Sterling Chardonnay, California, 2009. $15 ****
Barefoot Chardonnay, California, NV. $9 ***


James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze

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