I hustled over to the table. It was a busy Saturday night at Hugo’s in Portland, and my help had been requested by a couple who were trying to figure out what to drink. “We like rich, flavorful white wines,” they said. They went on: “Well… we’ll basically drink anything but Chardonnay.” And, without skipping a beat, the gentleman exclaimed, “This white Burgundy looks intriguing! Tell us about that!”
I was momentarily lost, and it took me a couple seconds to locate myself. Two things in the interaction gave me pause. One confusing, the other unfortunate.
The confusing aspect will be plainly evident to all those who know a thing or two about wine. Namely, that Chardonnay is, by and large, the principal grape in white Burgundian wine. Translated accurately, the gentleman’s statement would go like this, “Well… we’ll basically drink anything but Chardonnay… This Chardonnay looks intriguing! Tell us about that!”
This first bit can be chalked up to a simple lack of knowledge about how the French designate their wines. All Sancerre white wines are Sauvignon Blanc. All red Burgundy is Pinot Noir. All white Burgundy is Chardonnay. The couple lacked some fundamental information about the wine world. No crime. I just needed to look through the actual words they were using to get to what they meant by those words. That’s part of a sommelier’s job; to decipher what is meant by what is said when the sommelier and the guest aren’t speaking the same language. This part of the job is a little like being a detective and can actually be quite fun to figure out.
The aspect of the conversation that was unfortunate from my point of view was that anyone would refuse to drink all wine made from a particular grape.
Why does it continue to be fashionable to hate on Chardonnay? Wines made from Chardonnay are fetching the highest price tags in the world, consider $1,500 for a bottle of Grand Cru White Burgundy. This merciless marginalization rarely directs itself against other grapes, although in the wake of the hit movie “Sideways,” set in Santa Barbara County, California, it was the height of fashion to eschew drinking Merlot. What’s going on?
One reason could be that people like to be part of an informed group. For many of us, if we hear enough from multiple outlets that people who drink well don’t drink a particular thing, then we fall in line with popular trends. Drinking this way has palpable benefits, but also heavy costs. I wouldn’t recommend it because it inevitably brackets out a broad swath of drinking experiences merely because of some wine elites. It’s usually more fulfilling to try things yourself and make your own decisions. Popular tastes can be a fickle beast.
Another reason is, ostensibly, that sometime in the distant past this couple drank a Chardonnay that they hated. Fair enough. I’ve had innumerable sips of Chardonnay that induced my gag reflex. But is this one negative experience sufficient to condemn all Chardonnay? It’s tantamount to saying, “I once had a hot dog, and I couldn’t stand it so I’m never ever going to eat another thing made from pork!” How about choucroute? Nope. How about the treasure trove of charcuterie from all over the world made from pork? Nope. How about bacon? Nope. Why? I had a hot dog once. Sigh.
To be fair, there is an ocean of bad Chardonnay out there. Chardonnay is a reliably neutral-tasting grape, with some notable exceptions. It’s the blank slate of the grape world. It will reflect, more than most other varietals, the vintner’s idealized version of Chardonnay, be that crisp and minerally or sappy, sweet and oaky, or the whole expansive spectrum in between. Why castigate all Chardonnay because you don’t like some of them? It makes no sense. It’s unnecessary. And, because wine drinking is principally about pleasure, it’s unfortunate to cut out so much potential pleasure.
So, think you don’t like Chardonnay? Here are two bottles that may persuade you to change your mind. Both are great examples of French Chardonnay, each doing different things.
• La Chablisienne, “Pas Si Petit,” Petit Chablis
This fresh, young Chardonnay, aged in vats, shows no signs of oak on the nose or on the palate and is replete with citrus fruits combined with the shell-y minerality that is the hallmark of Chablis. If you don’t like wood in your wine, this is for you. In Maine, this Petit Chablis is distributed by Central Distributors.
• Domaine Andre Bonhomme, Vire-Clesse
This Chardonnay hails from the southernmost area of Burgundy, near the Macon region. It is the warmest area in Burgundy and as a consequence usually produces the richest expression of Chardonnay. Whispers of oak – vanillin and baking spices – mix with the orchard fruits. It’s more opulent than the Petit Chablis but is by no means flabby. In Maine, Mariner Beverages distributes Vire-Clesse.
Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.