Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Chameleon of Wines

By Anthony King

APRIL 12, 1999:  A couple of weeks ago, I had the fortunate experience of watching five undistinguished, Henry VIII-looking fellows enjoying a dinner at Basil's Restaurant. Their mutual choice of dinner company was not what struck me; rather, it was their choice of wine. We watched as the five men devoured a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay before dinner. From these men I expected something more stalwart, more Genghis Kahn -- perhaps a full-bodied Rhone red or an assaultingly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, we joyfully witnessed the men wave down the sentinel waiter for two more of the same bottle.

The Kendall-Jackson Five, as I like to call them, broke no rules, nor do they deserve my chiding. These fine men were, in fact, imbibing one of America's most popular Chardonnays -- the Starbuck's Frappuccino of the wine industry. A wine whose slightly off-dry toastiness and fruity simplicity repeatedly draw consumers.

Kendall-Jackson proprietor Jess Stonestreet Jackson will act as keynote speaker at this year's Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. And a perfect choice he is for the job. For the impressively massive Jackson operation, with its diversity of wineries from Cambria to Edmeades to La Crema, and more, has built a steady core of user-friendly wines at good-value prices from year to year. And as key components of this core, these properties produce enough popular Chardonnay to seemingly take up 10% of many wine merchants' Chardonnay selections.

The World's Most Popular Wine

Chardonnay, with its chameleon-like character, enjoys international appeal. Burgundy produces the archetypical Chardonnay-based white -- a stylish, toasty wine that can age for 10--15 years or more, becoming a nutty, oatmealy indulgence. Just north of Burgundy, in Chablis, Chardonnay is typically fermented and stored in steel rather than oak and produces a crisp, minerally white that sometimes reminds me more of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs than their nearby Burgundy neighbors. (Don't confuse American and French Chablis. Chablis is a region in France that produces stately Chardonnays. American Chablis is a poor imitation made mostly from the French Colombard grape.) Even further north, the French region of Champagne is known for Chardonnay, too, but there Chardonnay is veiled behind the complexity of Pinot Noir and the fruity, flowery appeal of Pinot Meunier. Together, these three grapes make up the bubbly delight that is Champagne.

photograph by John Anderson
That's the Frenchy's side of it. Chardonnay is grown most everywhere wine is made, and California produces some of the most ripe, fruit-forward examples. These are the people pleasers. While the Chardonnay fruit in California is gorgeous, the wine styles vary greatly from region to region and winery to winery.

Why such a difference? First, let's talk winemaking. Chardonnay, as Joshua Wesson of Best Cellars in Manhattan puts it, is "a blank palette on which a winemaker can paint." Well, not completely blank, but much of the wines' character does reflect what is done in the winery. The winemaker's decisions are crucial to the wine's character. Among the most important decisions in making Chardonnay are the type of barrel, the amount of barrel toast, time on the lees (fermentation wastes, such as dead yeast cells and grape solids), and malolactic fermentation. The specifics are too much to go into here. In short, the choice of barrel wood and the amount that the inside of the barrel has been charred, or toasted, gives more or less toast, oak, fig, and vanilla character to the wine, and even more richness when the wine is fermented in barrel (as opposed to fermented in steel or just aged in oak). Leaving the wine on the lees adds texture and complexity to the wine, and malolactic fermentation -- a secondary bacterial fermentation -- transforms "hard" malic acids (the acid found in green apples) into the softer, creamier lactic acid (the acid found in dairy products) and lowers the overall acidity of the wine.

The regional differences are a lesson in what the French call terroir, or the environment in which the grapes are grown. In general, the best regions in California for growing Chardonnay are the ones cooled by Pacific winds and fog. Regions such as the Edna and Santa Maria valleys just north of Santa Barbara, and Carneros and Russian River Valley in the Napa/Sonoma region, are most famous for their cool, Chardonnay-nurturing climates. Soil and exposure to sun have an effect, too, but these are case-by-case narrations.

Chardonnay is typically medium- to full-bodied and ranges from pale straw to golden in color. At its best in California's Central Coast and Burgundy, it is elegant, complex, and lively on the palate, with a long, refreshing finish. Elsewhere in California, it's often smooth, creamy, and full-bodied with spicy fig, pear, honey, and butter character.

As shown by the Kendall-Jackson Five, consumers love Chardonnay. It is, in fact, the best-selling wine in America. And that means that people are drinking it with all kinds of food. But is that the right thing to do?

Chardonnay: Not Just With Fish Anymore

To get a better feel for what might pair well with Chardonnay, I contacted Joshua Wesson, who will be presiding over several of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival's seminars and dinners. Voted Sommelier of the Year in 1984 and now part owner of the wine shop Best Cellars in Manhattan and Boston, Wesson spends his days popularizing wine and simplifying the buying process. His efforts, in fact, won him the honor of Food and Wine Magazine's "Wine Retailer of the Year" in 1997.

Among other things, Wesson excels at simplifying the convoluted maze of variables involved in wine and wine-and-food pairing. He began our conversation by telling me that the old rules of white with fish and red with meat no longer adequately represent modern pairing practices. The new rule is something more like: There are no rules; it's a personal art. But there is a "kernel of truth" to the old guidelines. Fish is typically strong in flavor and some are high in fat; the high acidity of many whites helps cut through the effusiveness of fish oils. As for reds with other meats, Wesson points out that a fatty, slightly bloody cut of beef, such as prime rib, harmonizes with a "big, furry, tannic red," such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

Once you understand the "old" rules and a few others, Wesson explains, you can "play fast and loose" with your pairings and learn when and how to break the rules. He added, in his unmistakably forthright manner, that hitting the bull's-eye is not necessary; just try to hit the target.

Wesson went on to say that Chardonnay, despite its popularity, typically isn't the most food-friendly wine. The oaky character can compete with the food, and the acidity is often a little low for many dishes. If he were shipwrecked with just one type of wine, he quips, Chardonnay wouldn't be his choice. It does, however, have its place at the table.

Chardonnay and Food: A Festival Focuses on It

New combinations are sure to be explored by chefs in their pairings with this year's wines at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. The anticipation is great. Not only is this year's festival featuring great chefs and the much-improved wines of Texas, but the festival directors have put together a stunning collection of out-of-state, and even out-of-the-country, wine producers. Among the guest wineries are Penfolds of Australia, Deloach, Ferrari Carano, J. Lohr, Chalk Hill, Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma-Cutrer, and Grgich Hills.

In search of some recipes to try with Chardonnay, I contacted a few of the visitors for suggestions. Ferrari Carano Vineyards and Winery, a top-notch Sonoma producer with a veritable snack pack of delicious red and white wines, responded with a list of recipes. Among them, I found the following rich and fairly simple bow tie pasta recipe interesting.

When Opposites Attract: Pairing With Like or Unlike

Paired with Ferrari Carano's 1997 Alexander Valley Chardonnay, with its spicy, oaky toast and pear aromas and tropical flavors, this match becomes a nice case study for food and wine pairing in general. According to Wesson, wines pair with food in the same way that people fall in love; you can pair like with like or explore the ancient wisdom that opposites attract. Caviar and Champagne, for instance, contrast, but the combination of salt and cleansing bubbles has an effective appeal similar to that of potato chips and beer. On the other hand, a peachy sweet wine such as Italy's Moscato di Asti (Muscat is the grape, Asti is the region) and white cake pair well because the sweetness in each cancels the other, making for a mildly sweet, pleasing dessert.

As for the Alexander Valley Ferrari Carano Chardonnay and the bow tie dish, both contrast and complement are put into effect. While the butter, cream, and silky scallops complement the lush barrel-character of the wine, the asparagus, basil, and lemon zest provide a contrasting, bright vegetal aspect. All together, the flavors meld into a delectable full-court press on your palate. For another treat, try a flinty young Chablis, which would complement the lemon and contrast the cream with its bright acidity.

Executive Chef Craig Strattman of Chalk Hill Vineyards and Winery suggests Crab and Shrimp Enchiladas and a side of grilled escarole and white beans with their highly acclaimed, stylish, smoky Estate Bottled Chardonnay. He says the "crab and shrimp, wrapped in a handmade corn tortilla, provide a sweetness related to the wine's full fruit flavors." In other words, like with like. Strattman then goes on to say that the bitterness of the escarole counterbalances and enhances the wine's fruit -- opposites attracting. The beans mimic the creaminess of the wine, and the acidic finish cleanses for a fresh beginning on the next bite.

The possibilities for pairing Chardonnay and food are certainly there. And it sounds to me like some bull's-eyes have been found. As a closing note on my conversation with Wesson, I asked what his dream Chardonnay would be and what he might have with it. A 10-year-old Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet (Burgundy), he answered. "Drink half by itself, and have the other half with seared diver scallops with no sauce." Yum!

Chardonnay: Past, Present, Future

One of the festival's honored guests this year is Croatian winemaking veteran Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Cellars in Napa Valley. Grgich's presence is of special interest to some because of his decades-old claim to international fame.

In 1976, Grgich's '73 Chateau Montelena (Napa Valley) Chardonnay took first against an imposing crew of Burgundy whites in a famous Paris tasting -- famous, I say, because for the first time an American Chardonnay bested Burgundy whites and, even more remarkable, an American Cabernet Sauvignon swayed the attention of the French panel and won first place against a sampling of top-breed Bordeaux reds (the winning wine was from Stag's Leap Winery in eastern Napa). (Among other snooty comments, one French expert participating in the tasting noted, "You don't even have to taste. One sniff is enough. Smell this one. Almost no nose. Nothing in the mouth. Definitely Californian," only to find out that this wine was one of France's own coveted Burgundy treasures. Then he said of an American competitor, "Ah, back to France ... nervous and agreeable... a good nose.")

While Chardonnay may be the main event of this year's festival, Texas wines are, as usual, the locus and benefactors of the weekend's events. However, even with victories such as Fall Creek's 1996 Sauvignon Blanc, rated a "Best Buy" in The Wine Spectator last year, wines from Texas have suffered from a lack of public enthusiasm. But things are a changin'.

After years of following in the footsteps of their Californian forefathers, some Texas wineries are making concerted efforts to strike off on their own -- to forge ahead... to plant the Texas flag in new territory. In particular, some wineries are exploring warm-weather varietals from Spain, Italy, and southern France. Jim and Karen Johnson of Alamosa Wine Cellars, for instance, have ambitious new plantings of Grenache, Syrah, Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, and Tempranillo (and a possible future planting of Rousanne) at their Tio Pancho Ranch near Lampasas. They've even got a bottling of 1997 Sangiovese coming out this summer. Their efforts, and similar efforts by big contenders such as Llano Estacado, should prove interesting for those who keep close watch.

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