Chardonnay, queen of wines
As a young man, I fell in love with Madame Chardonnay, developing a fascination when introduced to this charmer of all charmers.
When I met her in Casablanca, Morocco, she was called “Meursault Charmes.” Years later, in France, I met her again, but knew her by her first name, “Meursault,” and was privileged to taste the royal elegance of such a great wine.
In my wanderings throughout the Napa Valley in the early 1970s, contemplating the wine differences between France and California, it was hard to believe that California would ever produce wines of great depth. I had become a “Francophile” lover of wine after living abroad for many years.
But wandering into the cellars of the Freemark Abbey winery at Saint Helena one day in the early 1970s, I first tasted the richness of a “Meursault”-like chardonnay produced in California. I wondered how could they make a wine like this, equal to the queen of wines, Madame Chardonnay of France?
Several tasting juries of experts have judged California chardonnays as surpassing the quality of some of the famous white burgundies. Besides Freemark Abbey, they are Chalone, Sonoma Vineyards, Sterling and Spring Mountain.
Today, California, along with the province of Burgundy, produces indisputably the finest dry white wine in the world. This greatness has awed generations of wine drinkers due to the essence of a truly noble, richly concentrated bottle.
Chardonnay is the most-planted premium wine grape in California. Although native to Burgundy, the grape is thought of universally as a cool-climate variety. But Northern California, where it produces best, is anything but cool.
A hardy, adaptable grape, chardonnay is grown in other regions besides Napa Valley. The plant produces vigorous and abundant foliage that sometimes must be cut back. It buds early, and this can become a problem for growers worrying about spring frosts.
Chardonnay is like a chameleon. Climate and soil certainly affect flavor and acid levels, but the grape is also influenced by the winemaker’s art. Much of what consumers attribute to chardonnay’s flavor has more to do with the winemaking than with the grapes. Flavor is greatly influenced by the type of oak barrels used for storage, how long the wine is aged in oak, and the degree to which the oak barrel is toasted (purposely charred on the interior during assembly).
Chardonnay can have the mouthwatering aroma of a fresh apple with subtle, flinty earthiness in the background. The creaminess some associate with chardonnay may be the influence of malolactic fermentation and/or lees contact during aging. Toast and vanillin aromas and flavors show the winemaker’s touch in the use of oak, amount of barrel toast, and the ratio of new oak to that aged in wine. More new oak yields more toast and vanillin character.
Achieving ripe, delicious fruit for the winemaking process has never been a problem in California, with its warm (sometimes too warm). dry growing season. Also, the wine should have crispness, a firm background of acidity that makes it age well. As with all white wines, my family opens chardonnay within five years of its bottling.
Its fresh acidity enhances the flavors of many foods, making chardonnay a marvelous match with roasted onions, garlic, mushroom soups or tarts, roasted fowl, pork and tomato-based dishes. The complex, mellow, older chardonnays are particularly fine with wild mushroom dishes and a variety of ripe cheeses.
Norman E. Gates is a Lake of the Pines wine connoisseur. He can be reached at
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