Tannin Salon: The Unbearable Heaviness of California Chardonnay

by A.A.

Photo by Flickr user basheertome (Creative Commons license)

Photo by Flickr user basheertome (Creative Commons license)

A lot of perfectly fine people have said to me, “I don’t drink Chardonnay.” Or, “I don’t like Chardonnay.” This doesn’t mean what they think it means. I doubt these perfectly fine people would turn up their nose at a bottle of Premier Cru Puligny-Montrachet. I bet they’d enjoy a lip-smacking glass of a good Maçonnais.

What they mean–and with good reason–is that they don’t like the average bottle of California Chardonnay that you’d find at your local grocery store or wine shop. This a good opinion to have, because there are oceans of bad California Chardonnay out there, enough to drown yourself in many times over. “Bad” meaning horribly overoaked, overly alcoholic, flabby, cloying, disgusting pits of oak and butter and vanilla. There are any number of ways to achieve this kind of wine, from leaving the grapes on the vine for longer than usual, to aging the wine in all spankin-new oak, to the unthinkable act of dunking large sacks of oak chips into the wine to get the oak effect in rapid time. (Are you throwing up in your mouth yet?)

I’m not quite sure why and when California winemakers decided that this was the market niche they wanted to pursue (were there really that many Real Housewives across the country who were demanding the stuff back in the 70s and 80s?), but the point is that if you go into a store and pull a random bottle of California Chard off the shelf, you’re likely to end up with something that’s probably pretty gross, especially if it’s under $20.

So I applaud Eric Asimov in his attempt to give the genre a second chance, but the fact that most of the wines he profiled only got 2 or 2.5 stars, not to mention that most were north of $20, doesn’t inspire confidence in me that California winemakers have learned the error of their ways. Really, I’m to pay $30 for a wine that’s “Plush and rich, with flavors of buttered popcorn, oak and vanilla”? Can’t I just buy a big bag of Jelly Belly instead?

Well-made chardonnay (refined, balanced, minerally, either unoaked or judiciously oaked) can be amazing. In particular, I like everything that Au Bon Climat puts out. But when there’s so much good, and good-value, wine out there to try and love, why should we waste our time on something that, for the most part, just keeps failing us? While the CA chard guys may be eager to prove themselves to us, to show that they learned their lesson, I’m just fine letting them continue to cater to the slightly tipsy, well-to-do moms of the world.


11 responses to “Tannin Salon: The Unbearable Heaviness of California Chardonnay

  1. So, what you’re saying is that we shouldn’t insult a type of wine until we try the best that type of wine has to offer, except later you say that the type of wine we’re rejecting probably isn’t very good except for the very best?

    Got it. Thank god for the Internet or I’d never be able to figure these things out.

  2. Hilarious! I love white wine but can’t stand Chardonnay. I have never understood why so much shelf space was dedicated to it. Now I feel justified. Although it’s rare that I spend $20 on a bottle of wine.

  3. Glad to see you call the bluff. I do think, though, that it’s a bit unfair to compare a wine for drinking (by people in ordinary economic circumstances) with a Puligny-Montrachet — especially when most (real) Chablis would be more than capable of showing off the grape properly.

  4. Stu, I honestly couldn’t make sense of your first sentence. My point with the Maconnais/Puligny-Montrachet references was just to point out that many people would probably like some chardonnay, in (some) of its many, many, many incarnations. Unfortunately, California Chardonnay seems to have a high percentage of duds across its price ranges, so I’m not sure it’s worth it to invest the time and energy trying to decide what’s what.

  5. I totally agree, but find your gender focused comments out of line. What, no men drink chardonnay?

  6. pseudonymous in nc

    I remember when Mer et Soleil was in my price range and it was a delicate buttery marvel. That was in the UK, though, where you don’t get many of the overoaked CaliChards, and where the big competition is Australian and Arg/Chilean.

    Not to say that the Aussies don’t dump overoaked stuff to the British market, but they can also deliver something that competes with the French — especially on consistency at a reasonable price — and there are producers who are confident enough to deliver something more than Chardonnay Product. (Needless to say, not enough good small-vineyard Aussie stuff makes it to the US.)

  7. Pingback: Tannin Salon: The Anti-Anti-Chardonnay Post « The Internet Food Association

  8. We had girls’ lunch out in Berkeley, California today. My friend let me taste her Chardonnay. I had the same reaction I always have: it turns my stomach. There’s just something heavy and dank about the taste… almost as if the vintner added bacon grease to the wine. If I drink white, I drink Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Champagne. At first, I thought that I might have a problem with oak, but I love Cab and Merlot… no problems there. This article makes me think that my problem just might be the poor quality, cheap CA Chardonnay.

  9. Chardonnay tastes musty, like an old dishrag.

  10. Pingback: Tannin Salon: The Anti-Anti-Chardonnay Post | kashwaynepromotion.com

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