In Search of Great Chardonnay

“It’s easy to make good Chardonnay in California. It’s not easy to make great Chardonnay.”

So said Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” during opening remarks of a seminar that she moderated Friday at The Chardonnay Symposium, presented by the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Assn., at Tantara Winery in Santa Maria, Calif.

The symposium, which was being held for the second year, gave Chardonnay lovers an opportunity to rub elbows with winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners who produce Chardonnay.

Why a symposium on America’s most popular white wine? It’s not as if there’s a big challenge involved in selling it. And there wouldn’t seem to be a need to educate people about the variety; people already like it, as the sales figures demonstrate.

But Chardonnay is changing. “Evolving” may be a better word. There are ongoing debates over whether the variety should be “oaked” or “unoaked”…whether it should undergo malolactic fermentation…whether its “place” is as a food wine or a sipping wine.

So what is “good” Chardonnay? That was the basic question tackled by MacNeil’s panel members as they spoke about their respective wines and the stylistic decisions they make with each new vintage.

But MacNeil herself did the best job of explaining what makes good Chardonnay. She called it “one woman’s view,” but it was a view that made perfect sense.

“Balance is critical,” she said. “Over the years, most producers have talked about it, but few have produced it. But the best California Chardonnays do possess that critical idea.”

What, exactly, is balance in a wine?

“Balance does not mean that the wine has incredible harmony; that’s integration,” MacNeil said. “It’s about acid and fruit, and good tension between lusciousness and elegance.”

One quality ingredient that many California Chardonnays lack, she noted, is texture.

“Texture is critical in all wines,” she said. “It may be more critical than flavor. For California, texture is a hard line to hit correctly.”

Finally, MacNeil said, “Great Chardonnay must have personality. Today, a lot of Chardonnay is from the same mold.”

There was a good deal of difference among the 11 Chardonnays presented by the panel, and even more so that afternoon when 44 wineries presented their renditions of the variety at the symposium’s Grand Tasting.

As I tasted through the various offerings, I kept MacNeil’s words in mind. By the end of the day, I had to agree with her: In California, there is a lot of good Chardonnay being made, along with some great Chardonnay.

I didn’t taste one bottling that I would consider “off” or “bad.” Probably 90 percent were good to very good.

But when you run across that occasional Chardonnay that is great, MacNeil’s observations about balance, texture and personality really come into focus. The truly great ones absolutely possess all three qualities.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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