WE’VE ALL been in this situation: You’re standing in your local wine shop, staring out at rows and rows of bottles. You came here with a purpose, a bottle of chardonnay, but now, with dozens of options in front of you, how are you supposed to know which one to get? It’s a simple but perilous choice because, as I think all wine drinkers can attest, there’s a lot of bad chardonnay out there in the world, and it’s my job as your wine sensei to guide you past the swill to the sublime. Because, trust me, when you do find that perfect bottle of chardonnay, you’ll finally understand why it’s stood the test of time and become one of the greatest grapes ever—if not the best.
Before we can talk about the highs, we have to talk about the lows. We’ve all had the bad ones, and to be sure, there are a lot of bad ones to be found lurking on grocery-store shelves. But again, that’s not what we’re here for today—we’re not here for the commodity wines, the bottles priced in the single digits that we’ve all been guilty of purchasing at some point in our wine lives. Indeed, these wines are like kites, simple and low to the Earth. The greatest chardonnays make even the space shuttle look homely.
All of that begs the question, “What makes chardonnay so great?” To be honest, chardonnay, the grape itself, is pretty boring. On its own, it makes wine that’s little more than a liquid version of your local grocery store’s discount produce bin: a little green apple, some notes of lemon in varying states of ripeness, maybe a hint of pear. All nice, but hardly deserving the title of “greatest.” The thing that makes chardonnay so great is not what it is on its own, but the heights it can achieve as the product of a careful relationship between a winemaker, a plant and a special plot of soil. Chardonnay, more than any other grape, presents itself to winemakers as a blank canvas, allowing them, as artists, to create a unique interpretation of the wine.
Artist is the key word in that sentence, and truly, I do believe that winemaking is an unsung art form, an art form that relies not only upon the talents of the winemaker but on the cooperation (or not) of nature. Let’s think for a moment about something a bit more mundane, of a sunflower, its lilting head glowing in the Arkansas sun. But now, consider it in the hands of the great painters of the 20th century. Georgia O’Keefe rendered sunflowers in stark relief, each petal a long feminine smear of paint caught midsway in a breeze, while Gustav Klimt painted them as towering behemoths, a monstrosity of leaves and movement, topped by a golden, budding crown. And of course, there is van Gogh and the fireworks he captures on a canvas, each flower an explosion of light and energy anchored in a vase.
So where does one go to find these bottled sunflowers, and how can you be sure you’re not accidentally grabbing the wrong thing? The answer, of course, as it always is with wine, is that you won’t be—not until you’ve popped the cork and taken your first sip. That is the gift, the mystery and the punishment of wine—the unknowableness of it until the very moment it touches your tongue. It might take some searching, but the bottle that ultimately holds your moment of transcendence will reveal itself when the time is right.
There are, however, a few things to remember as you wander down the aisles of your local wine shop. The first, and always the most important when it comes to wine, is location. Chardonnay sparkles in the cooler climates of northern France and the coastal valleys of California. Take, for example, the Russian River Valley, a green swath of farmland cut into California’s rugged coast, where cooling Pacific winds are funneled over vineyards. Lioco, one of my go-to California producers, bottles its Estero ($45) chardonnay from three vineyards in the valley, relying on the cool and constant breezes to keep the wine bright and lively, brimming with lemon and fresh bay leaf. Similarly, in Burgundy in northeastern France, where chardonnay has long ruled, the cooler climate lends itself to wines that are nervy and full of diving intensity. It’s near the town of Macon, where the quality and price of these wines reach a comfortable equilibrium, with producers like Henri Perrusset producing his Macon-Villages, wines full of unyielding apple and pears, for just $20, a remarkable balance of quality and price.
Second only to place in constructing an outstanding wine is the winemaker’s use of oak barrels. Easily the most powerful option in a winemaker’s toolkit, oak barrels impart their own flavor onto the wines they hold, be it a rich, savory spiciness from newly crafted barrels or a creamy roundness from older barrels that have lost their flavor. Memers of the winemaking team at the Stoller Family Estate in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are smart in their use of oak, aging their Reserve Chardonnay ($36) in French oak barrels for 11 months, transforming the initial note of fresh lemon zest to that of lemon cream and adding a subtle aroma of toasted hazelnuts.
There may be nowhere else on Earth where winemakers have mastered the oak and chardonnay pairing than in Burgundy, especially so in the wines made in the small village of Meursault. These wines, like the one produced by Jadot ($70), are broad, soaring wines, often spending more than a year aging and evolving in oak barrels. These wines are kissed with the signature aroma of buttered toast that turned a generation of wine drinkers on to chardonnay in the 1980s, without becoming laden with the smell of movie-theater butter that so many mass-produced wines now feature. No, these wines, from any of the great vineyards in Burgundy, are the epitome of what this grape can do and the very reason it qualifies as best.