Excerpt from The Roanoke Times
By Gordon Kendall
Warm weather has arrived, and with it, folks will be searching for cool and refreshing white wines to try. Two of the most popular types of dry white wine are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. White Zinfandel is quite popular, but it’s actually made from red grapes. All wines cover a broad spectrum of styles because they are a product of climate, soil, vineyard position and winemaking style. For this reason, not all Chardonnays taste the same and neither do all Sauvignon Blancs. However, each grape variety has its own unique characteristics.
Chardonnay originated in Burgundy, France, where it is the soul of classic wines such as Corton-Charlemagne and Puligny Montrachet. California earned the claim to make great Chardonnay at the historic Paris Tasting of 1976. Stephen Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in France, had assembled a group of highly respected French sommeliers from Paris restaurants to blind-taste French wines next to California wines, which at the time had been receiving copious amounts of attention. When the scores were tabulated, French wine critics declared the winning white wine to be 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from California’s Napa Valley!
1973 had been a relatively cool year in Napa, and winemaker Mike Grgich de-stemmed the grapes before pressing them in a bladder press. After racking and fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for eight months. The cool weather helped the wine maintain crisp acidity, and the oak aging added complexity and vanilla flavors. This fooled the judges into thinking the wine came from France’s cool climate.
Chardonnay is often referred to as a winemaker’s grape, and there are a multitude of styles depending on the proclivity of the winemaker. Chardonnay’s signature flavors are generally reminiscent of apples and peaches, but climate and winemaking techniques make a tremendous difference.
Chardonnay grown in warm climates, such as California, Australia and Chile, gets fat and ripe with low acidity and high sugar content, which translates to high alcohol. The wine can be barrel fermented and put through malolactic fermentation where sour malic acid is converted to buttery lactic acid. The result is buttery, rich California Chardonnay, which is what most folks associate with Chardonnay. Chardonnay grown in Chablis, France, however, is less ripe, resulting in a crisp style. Oak might not be used, and so instead of being buttery, it is crisp, lemony and displays notes of minerals.
Sauvignon Blanc originated in Bordeaux and Loire Valley in France. It has signature flavors of citrus fruits, grass, minerals and bell pepper. In warmer climates, it can display notes of figs and tropical fruits. Winemakers often avoid oak when vinifying Sauvignon Blanc, but sometime when they do, they label it as, “Fume Blanc,” which may have a smoky note. Chardonnay tends to pair well with heavier dishes such as roasted chicken and buttery shrimp scampi, while Sauvignon pairs better with seafood appetizers such as ceviche, oysters on the half shell and a shrimp cocktail. Below are some samples of different styles of each, but there are myriad types out there for you to try.
Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay 2017
The Wente family was the first California winery to produce a wine labelled as Chardonnay, which they produced from their unique Wente clone. The wine has a light straw color and tropical fruit aromas. The wine is rich and buttery on the palate with a hedonistic mouthfeel and notes of coconut and vanilla. Unlike many California Chardonnays, oOak flavors are present but enhanced by being restrained and not overblown. Serve this wine with Chesapeake crab cakes smothered in Hollandaise sauce. 13.5% ABV.