In summertime, I prefer lighter, crisper white wines that provide relief from the heat and humidity: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Australian dry Rieslings, Austrian Gruner Veltliner, real (French) Chablis. We drink these wines with utter abandon — especially because they pair so well with the lighter fare served during warmer months.
But as the weather turns colder and the food gets richer and heavier, we reach more often for bigger, richer red wines, especially Southern Rhone Grenache and Syrah. But one need not wait until Memorial Day to try on some whites again. There are indeed choices (e.g., certain Chardonnays) that can show better in cooler weather and with bigger foods.
Now, the Chardonnay grape doesn’t exhibit lots of natural character. Decisions made in the vineyard and by the winemakers tend to determine what the juice tastes like. That is, Syrah usually shows dark fruits, meatiness and a peppery spiciness, while Pinot Noirs tend to be lighter in color and berry-flavored, exhibiting an earthy/funky aroma.
But it’s hard to generalize about Chardonnay.
Some are crisp, citrus-y and refreshing with loads of flinty minerality (e.g., Chablis), while others show high alcohol, tropical fruit flavors, new oak and buttery-creaminess (a traditional California Chardonnay).
These characteristics can be the result of winemaker and vineyard manager decisions. The type of soil in which the vines are planted will affect the character of the wine — for instance, France’s Chablis region usually imparts a flinty mineral character due to its unique clay soil. In addition, as Chardonnay grapes ripen on the vine, sugar levels rise but natural acidity may dissipate, creating a high-alcohol, low-acid wine.
If Chardonnay grapes are fermented at low temperatures over longer periods, tropical fruit flavors can emerge rather than citrus and pear. If oak barrels are used for fermentation or aging, flavors of vanilla, spice and oak develop. And if all or a portion of the wine undergoes a secondary “malolactic” fermentation — i.e., malic acid is converted into lactic acid — the wine will show creamy, buttery flavors rather than green apple flavors.
In fact, depending on these factors, two Chardonnays tasted side-by-side may not seem to have even been made from the same grape.
Now, California Chardonnay traditionally had a reputation for being heavy handed, though many are now complaining that the category is filling with insipid wines of little character, going from too much of everything, as it were, to too little of anything.
Still, there are robust Chards out there that can pair with winter’s richer foods. If this is a style you like, ask your trusted local wine merchant to make a suggestion. Personally, I like Brewer-Clifton’s Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay (about $40) because it exhibits really firm acidity, which balances that big, traditional style. I also recently drank a great Walter Hansel Winery Chardonnay “Cahill Lane” (about $35) that was deliriously rich and complex.
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