“The wines were dull and lifeless. They tasted like water with some wood added. Some had a little more sugar and some had less, but none tasted much like wine made from real grapes. After that first flight, it struck us that many of these wines probably weren't better than Two-Buck Chuck.”
-Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, “When Cheap Chardonnay Is No Bargain,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2005Several times I drank Chardonnay and liked it. I am not admitting that I am a Chardonnay drinker. Nor am I admitting that Chardonnay works well with most food. I only admit there were a few times when I was relaxing with friends, someone pulled out a bottle of chard, passed around the bottle, and … well … everyone else was doing it. So I tried it.
A few of those times the wine was good. One friend pulled out some $300 bottle of French Montrachet. It had a nose of honey, smoked nuts, butter, and toasty oak. Although I would never buy it, I began to understand why it cost $300. Then there were several interesting California Chardonnays: a 2001 Kongsgaard, a 2002 Newton Unfiltered, a 1999 Marcassin, wines that often appear on wine lists for $100 - $300.
Those were the times when the Chardonnay was good, and I was feeling ok.
And then there were the other times – all those other parties where the only wine was some awful California Chardonnay, tasting much like sugar water saturated with burnt oak. That kind of swill amounts about 98% of all California Chardonnay. It is absolutely awful. Rarely can I find a reasonably-priced Chardonnay that is even drinkable.
I have three big complaints about Chardonnay. First, the Chardonnay grape has little individual character or flavor. The flavor we usually associate with Chardonnay is the added oak, not the grape. The few good Chardonnays are made by really good winemakers with access to really good wood.
Second, Chardonnay does not go well with many foods. Yes, it is good with lobster and scallops and some kinds of grilled fish. But it conflicts with many other foods that often work well with white wines. For instance, the exotic flavors of Asian or Indian foods usually go best with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Viognier. Salad, goat cheese, and ceviche work much better with a Sauvignon Blanc.
Third, Chardonnay utterly dominates many Houston white wine lists. At almost any high-end steakhouse, Chardonnays constitute at least 80% of the white list. There also are restaurants that should know better. For instance, the great, recently departed Scott’s Cellars f/k/a Scott Chen’s was the best Asian/French fusion restaurant in Houston, and it had a really extensive, pricey wine list. But their white wine list was almost all Chardonnay. Similarly, the best Asian/French fusion restaurant in Houston right now is Noe. When I visited shortly after its opening, Noe had Chardonnay after Chardonnay, but almost none of the white wines that would work with the food. Although I suspect that Noe’s list may soon diversify, it was a mistake to open that restaurant with that list. Chardonnay just does not go with Chef Gatsby’s brilliantly complex flavors.
For inexpensive whites, there are many superior alternatives to Chardonnay. One wine I discovered last week is made by a couple of California wine makers who feel like I do about Chardonnay; they call their wine “Chard-No-Way.” The 2003 Vinum Chard-No-Way is 100% Chenin Blanc – a wonderful grape with lots of character. It costs under $12 at Specs. It has a nose with an exotic perfume of peach, citrus, and flowers. The palate is bright, fresh, and pure with a bite on the finish. It reminds me of a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but it had more fruit and a more exotic nose. It is a good wine to sip chilled, and it is particularly good with fish in a cream sauce or spicy baby back ribs.
So if you have a friend who runs a wine list, please help him or her to understand: friends don’t let friends drink bad Chardonnay.