Monte Belmonte Wines: Those Who Hate Chardo Will Hate

I was at a certain local fine wine store, listening to a person pick out wines for a home wine tasting. I was in front of a selection of Chablis, when I heard them say: “We need white wines. Anything but Chardonnay!

I blushed like a rosé at the name of Chablis. Because, you see, Chablis is Chardonnay. If you like Chablis but think you don’t like Chardonnay, you are wrong. Chablis is made from 100% Chardonnay.

Chablis is the northernmost wine region of Burgundy. Oh, and if you like “white Burgundy” but think you don’t like Chardonnay, you’re wrong too. At least most of the time. My own wife thought she hated Chardonnay until I explained to her that the white Burgundy she gets every time at Hope & Olive is, in fact, Chardonnay. So why all the hate for Chardo?

This reaction against what is one of the most noble and important varietals can, in my humble opinion, be placed firmly at the feet of cheap California chardonnay. It is too often too buttery, too woody, too muscular (in the sense that it tastes like sticking a flabby fist of honeyed ham in your mouth). Some people like this style of Chardonnay. A lot of people, in fact. There is literally a California chardonnay called Butter. You can like this style of Chardonnay, and you’re allowed to like whatever you want. But, if you love Butter Chardonnay or its ilk, you should probably stop reading this now. However, if you think you don’t like Chardonnay at all, read on.

Chardonnay is in the top 10, if not the top 5, of the most planted grape varieties in the world, year after year. There are beautiful expressions of Chardonnay from wherever it is planted – even in California, which I just bashed. Indeed, it was Chardonnay from Château Montelena in Napa, California that won the so-called “Judgment of Paris” in 1976; when Californian wines cleaned the clocks of French wines during a blind tasting in Paris.

It was this Chardonnay tasting that put the wines of the United States on the map. But, like so many terrible cover versions of the Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” the original Montelena was built on a wondrous foundation and storied history. And now there are far too many terrible imitations. It’s the Californian Barefoot Butter Chardonnay, which sells for $5 a bottle, which is the Hootie version of the Old Crow Montelena Chardonnay. Montelena now sells for $50 plus a bottle. That’s great, if you can afford it. And there are plenty of other delicious and elegant California Chardonnays, if you’re willing to pay. But if you’re a radio host or write a quarterly wine column for a free newspaper, $50 a bottle might be out of your reach.

What could be in your (and my) price range that could convince you not to hate Chardonnay? If you love Chablis (you know, Chardonnay from Burgundy in France), but know it’s out of your price range, try Domaine Gueguen Cote Salines. It’s grown just across the border from Chablis and is $17 more affordable. I compared it to Sunderland asparagus vs Hadley asparagus. Everyone knows Hadley asparagus is the best, but is it really better than asparagus just across the border in Sunderland? I let you be the judge of the asparagus. For my money, I will take this Gueguen Chardonnay at less than half the price of most Chablis and continue to use my Chard.

How about Di Lenardo Chardonnay from the Italian region called Friuli, which is near the Slovakian border in the foothills of the Dolomites (the mountain range, not the movie Blaxploitation and the Eddie Murphy biopic that followed). This wine is “unoaked,” which is another popular fad in the world of fermenting and buying Chardonnay. Too much time in an oak barrel can cause wine to taste toothpick, vanilla, or coconut. Judicious use of the oak barrel can make a wine wonderful and smooth out some of the rougher edges.

But if you ferment a wine in a stainless steel tank, like the fermentation of Chardonnay Di Lenardo does, it’s called an “unoaked” Chardonnay. It is a less adulterated, sometimes less awkward expression of grape juice. While the DiLenardo doesn’t “see the oak”, as wine snobs say, it “sits on its lees”. “Sitting on the lees” is also a snobby expression for wine, meaning that the grape juice blends its flavors with the dead yeast that originally turned the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. Sitting on dead yeast looks disgusting. But it can make wine taste amazing, giving it richness and depth. And at around $12, the Di Lenardo can change your mind about the Chardonnay.

Another affordable French Chardonnay from a reputable maker in the South of France is the Arrogant Frog Chardonnay from Domaines Paul Mas in the South of France. There is a somewhat lame drawing of a frog dressed as a gentleman farmer on the label. The frog puts the donkey in the ascot she is carrying. But it’s a decent French Chardonnay made for the palette of California Chardonnay drinkers. But still, you know, good. It is much fruitier than most Burgundy. And it spends a little time in oak, but it’s not a butter orgy. And you can get it for around $12.

Not to completely sacrifice the affordable left coast chardonnay, there are a few I’ve had recently that I didn’t dislike. One is the Clos du Bois North Coast Chardonnay for around $10. It is more oaky on the palate, due to the time it has spent in oak barrels. It has more of a butterscotch than a strict buttery flavor. And it has a bit higher alcohol content than many whites at 13.5% ABV. This high alcohol can compensate for a multitude of ailments. And you could drink that less muscular chardonnay with real ham.

The last affordable California chardonnay that I didn’t dislike comes from Coppola. Yes, CE Coppola. As in “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fish”, Coppola. As in “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, Coppola. And while Francis drops the “Ford” from his name when it appears on his wine labels, he has always been very involved in his wines. Although he has now sold the company, he still sits on the board.

The Diamond Collection Coppola Chardonnay is their entry-level label. It clearly smells and tastes like a California chardonnay. And it’s not a wine I would go to bed for, but it’s somehow more elegant than other California chardonnays in this price range. One day, and that day may never come, I may have to buy a lot of Chardonnay. And at around $10 a bottle, that’s an offer I can’t…well, you know.

If you’re a wine drinker who attributes to the ABC movement, “everything but Chardonnay,” I urge you to reconsider. Maybe migrate away from California and closer to where I think Chardonnay is best – Burgundy. And please don’t let me hear you trash Chardonnay while I’m hanging out with bottles of Chablis. It’s embarrassing for all of us.

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