Chardonnay | April 2010
There is more acreage of Chardonnay in Virginia than any other variety. It is the most widely sold variety in the US. It arguably makes some of the most complex and age worthy white wines in the world and receives the highest prices. Then why is it Virginia’s wallflower wine?
As with so many varietals that have become popular in the market place, Chardonnay has been identified by cheap, mass-produced versions. Most Americans have not heard of white Burgundy, which represents the origin and apex of what Chardonnay can be.
Chardonnay is a relatively easy to grow and very adaptable vine. It thrives in both cool and hot climates and is happy in many different soils. It is this adaptability that has made Chardonnay so ubiquitous. Almost every emerging winegrowing region includes a chardonnay in their stable.
The majority of old vineyards in Virginia are chardonnay. Linden’s oldest planting is 26 years old and there are others in the state that are even older. We are still fine-tuning our Chardonnay vineyards. Cooler sites at higher elevations seem to give the most character.
Over the past decade, there has been a trend towards planting the French Dijon Chardonnay clones. These are vines that have small clusters, which can be good for quality, but they often lack acidity in warmer vintages. At Linden we are now experimenting with some of the Wente (California) clones that retain more natural acidity.
Chardonnay is often referred to as the winemaker’s grape. It has a subtle aroma and flavor profile, but can possess alluring textures often combined with great acidity. It is a wine that can be easily and successfully manipulated in the right hands. Yeast strains, fermentation temperatures, oak, lees, malolactic fermentation, oxidative/reduced styles are all acceptable variables that winemakers tinker with.
Chardonnay’s regional adaptability in the vineyard is mirrored stylistically. The myriad of styles often confuses the public. Most Americans first got acquainted with low cost California or Australian Chardonnay. This sweet, low acid oak infused style has become an unfortunate standard bearer. I would categorize three styles for Chardonnays:
This is what Virginia does very well: Pretty, fruit driven aromas with low to moderate alcohols, fresh acidity and little or no oak. These are wines that everyone is comfortable with, like the girl next door. Because these wines are usually made from higher yielding vineyards and simple winemaking, they are attractively priced. In wine competitions these wines are often awarded silver medals, as they do what wine is supposed to do: refresh the palate and delight the nose. These are great food wines, especially with lighter summer fare.
This is a style that California does well and Virginia has struggles with. These are the blowsy blockbuster wines that pile on most of the cellar techniques available. Lots of oak and alcohol, soft and buttery from malolactic fermentations and lees contact. These are the Mae West/Marilyn Monroe wines that get your attention immediately, but can eventually become tiresome due to their monolithic profile and weight. Wine judges, who only spend a few minutes with each wine, are impressed. They often take gold medals. This style requires very ripe, concentrated grapes, which is difficult to consistently achieve in Virginia’s climate. In the bad old days, Virginia winemakers attempted this style with using grapes more appropriate for the refreshing style. The result reminded me of a naturally pretty teenage girl experimenting unsuccessfully with make-up.
This is the Holy Grail of serious Chardonnay producers. Chardonnay is seen in Burgundy as the vehicle to express a specific site’s characteristic or terroir. This style has a concentration from the sap of the vine and the minerality of the soil. They are shy at first, but then evolve and develop in the glass. They are “come hither” wines.
This style of chardonnay requires age. I’m referring to vine age, winegrower age, wine age and consumer age. Vines need to be in the ground for some time before they can fully express terroir. I find that when a vine’s age becomes double digit, the resulting wines are more interesting. A winegrower needs to age with these vines to understand the nuances of the site and the personality of the vineyard. Wines made in a terroir driven style need bottle age as they are typically closed, tight and often reduced when young.
These are wines of contemplation. They are not cocktail wines. Consumers need to give them full attention and to observe the wine as it evolves and changes over the course of a meal. It is for this reason that these wines are overlooked in wine competitions. These are the Merle Streeps and Cate Blanchetts of Chardonnay.
Virginia has the potential to make great terroir driven chardonnays, but these wines require a fanatical dedication to the vineyard that can only come with focus and time.
Flavor, April 2010