Chardonnay stands as the 5th most popular wine grape planted in the world. It’s a native of France, the off-spring of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. It was cultivated sometime in the early 19th century.
I could go on for a few thousand pages about the grape’s products, but I’m limited here in both space and time so I’m going to focus on the two principal styles of the wines from the grape and it’s 34 clones, the Chablis styles and the Cote de Beaune style of Merusault, and identify for you my favorites of each type from our local producers.
The Chardonnay wines of Chablis are principally fermented and aged without the influence of new oak. Most of the wines in fact are aged in stainless steel after initial fermentation, although a great many are also aged in ‘neutral’ oak, meaning the oak barrels had been used so often they no longer impart any of the oak tanins or other aromatic characteristics. Secondarily, many Chardonnay wines from Chablis do not undergo the secondary fermentation. As a result of this wine making style, Chablis wines tend to be light and bright in color and more delicate in mouth-feel and almost always with crisp acidity.
In contrast, the great wines of the Cote de Beaune are typically aged in new French oak barrels and are encouraged to undergo that secondary fermentation. Here’s your wine chemistry lesson for today. Primary fermentation is when the yeast in the grape juice converts the sugar present to alcohol. Secondary fermentation is the chemical process during which the malic acid is chemically changed into lactic acid…end of wine chemistry lesson. The oak barrel aging ads both color and aromas to the wines, and that secondary fermentation changes the wine’s mouth-feel. Merusault styled Chardonnay wines are darker, more golden in color, and have a creamier textured mouth-feel sometimes referred to as the ‘buttery’ note.
The rest of the world outside of France and including wineries in North Central Washington, NCW, has duplicated the two distinctive French styles: stainless steel or ‘neutral’ aged and new oak barrel aged. I’ve compiled here a short-list of my favorites from our local wineries in both styles, and yes, both styles do exist from our area’s producers.
Chablis Styled Chardonnay
’37 Cellars 2013 Chardonnay. Call it their personal taste buds, but Chuck Egnar and Frank DeChaine for the second year in a row have bottled an almost pure Chablis blanc (yes, there is also vin rouge in Chablis). Of the Chablis styles from NCW, this one is my personal favorite.
White Heron Cellars Chardonnay. Here, any vintage year will work. I remind you all that Cameron is an avid supporter of neutral fermentation vessels. I recall our first meeting, some 23 year ago or so, Cameron was pouring tastes in a small tasting room in the town of George. We chatted and I learned then that Cameron even prefers neutral oak vessels for all is wines including his red wines.
Ryan-Patrick Vineyards Naked Chardonnay. Now, on this one I confess to having a preference for the 2012 because of the secondary fermentation. The 2013 has undergone a full secondary fermentation, and I suspect on the lees, adding a hint of viscosity character I’d prefer to have in my Meursault styled wines. None the less, the wine is beautifully done, and I yes, some Chablis wines are done in this style and show these aromatic and mouth profiles.
Cotes de Beaune, Meursault styled
Chelan Ridge Chardonnay. Of all the Washington state Chardonnays with which I have some degree of familiarity, this is head and shoulders my favorite. First, the wine is 100% estate grown, Lake Chelan AVA, but far more importantly, Lynn and Henry Munneke have created a delightful Meursault styled beverage here. Thanks to both of them first for planting those grapes and second for having carefully tended the harvested fruit to this delightful end.
Karma Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay. Ok, this was a close battle for me between the Karma Chardonnay and the Chelan Ridge. Can’t begin to explain why I swing toward the Chelan Ridge’s wine over the Karma, both wines are worth their price and worth your enjoying with a meal soon. Here’s a thought, buy one of each and taste them with friends together to see if there’s a preference at your table.
Wedge Mountain 2008 Chardonnay. Charlie hit a home run on this Chardonnay. And again, this is one of those ‘which wine is better’ dilemmas. Charlie did everything right on this one, so I have to say: 1, 2 or 3…which one is best? Hey, personal preference, all three are well worth your enjoying. The Wedge Mtn wine does show that age, 2008, but for those of you who know the value of proper aging in oak barrels first then cellaring once bottled prior to selling the wine, this one clearly might get your vote as number one of the 3.
As for a favorite over-all, my wife reminded me the other day by noting we can’t select a favorite grand-child, we love them all.