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Tuesday
Aug142012

It Still Has a Place in Our Hearts: Chardonnay Blind Tasting Results

This past Thursday evening, nine readers joined me at my house for a blind tasting to evaluate the stateReaders gathered for a Blind Chardonnay Tasting of Chardonnay in the minds of today's wine drinking public. I was inspired to host this tasting while at the Killington Wine Festival a few weeks ago, when I watched a woman at the Friday evening Estate Tasting flatly refuse to try Grgich Hills Chardonnay, stating that she was sure she wouldn't like it. I was stunned that someone would pass up a chance to taste a Grgich Hills Chardonnay. Grgich Hills is one of the preeminent wineries in California. The winery's founder and longtime winemaker, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, was the winemaker behind the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 "Paris Tasting," and helped American wines gain international recognition. I'm not sure if the woman knew what she was passing up, but eventually she was persuaded to try it. "It's not bad... for a Chardonnay," she demurred. 

The wheels in my head started turning. Was Chardonnay so universally maligned that people would pass up the chance to taste even the best examples of the grape? I'm not the biggest fan of women's basketball, but if someone gave me a free ticket to the gold medal game at the Olympics, I'd definitely go. However, as I thought about the woman's refusal to try the Grgich Hills Chardonnay in the week after the tasting, my memory was flooded with instances of people refusing to try Chardonnay. In the past few years, the "ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement" has gained steam, as consumers have rebelled against overly oaked, highly extracted, buttery Chardonnay. While I freely admit that there are some Chardonnays out there that make you feel as though you are drinking buttered popcorn, or licking the inside of an oak barrel, my experiences with Chardonnay have generally been more positive than negative, and I'm not ready to write the grape off just yet.

In addition to observing a number of negative reactions towards Chardonnay, I've also noticed people contentedly enjoying wines made from Chardonnay, such as white Burgundy or Chablis, and have had to wonder whether their enjoyment is driven by the more balanced, refined style of these wines, or if it is because "Chardonnay" isn't written on the label. I also recently commented on a Wine Spectator article that discussed Charles Smith's decision to devote an entire winery to the production of ChardonnayCharles Smith is not only a phenomenal winemaker, he is a marketing genius, and is generally well attuned to public perception. Smith's decision to champion Chardonnay in Washington State, along with the positive reactions to non-American Chardonnay that I had observed made me think that the "ABC movement" might be a product of psychological preconception and wine fashion, more than anything else. "How would consumers react to Chardonnay if they didn't know it was coming?" I wondered.

To test my theory, I orchestrated a tasting of 11 Chardonnays from all over the globe. I focused on recent vintages, and wines that were readily available in stores. All of the wines were from either the 2009, 2010, or 2011 vintage. I wanted to determine whether any particular styles of Chardonnay were more appealing to consumers than others, so wines several regions were included in the sample. Our 11 wines included wines made from Chardonnay from California, Washington, Oregon, New York, France, and Italy.  Similarly, a broad range of price points were represented, to determine whether price had an impact on taste preference. The prices of the wines included in the tasting ranged from $7.99 to $59.99, and were purchased at Burlington Wine Shop, Village Wine & Coffee, and Cheese Traders.

Of the nine tasters who volunteered to join me for the tasting, only three of them identified themselves as Chardonnay lovers. Five of the tasters identified themselves as having a neutral opinion of Chardonnay, while only one taster classified themselves as having a negative opinion of the grape. To avoid prejudicing the tasting panel, I described the tasting lineup as a compilation of white wines, and confirmed that the lineup would include Chardonnay. However, I made no mention of the fact that all the wines were Chardonnay. The wines were tasted blind over the course of two and a half hours, and were tasted in the following order:

The tasting lineup (not in order)

2011 Azienda Scagliola Scansi Casot dan Vian Chardonnay - Piedmont, Italy 

2010 Olivier Leflaive 'Les Sétilles' Bourgogne Blanc, Burgundy, France

2011 BNA Wine Group 'Butternut' Chardonnay, California

2010 Fox Run Chardonnay, Finger Lakes, New York

2009 Bethel Heights Estate Grown Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon

2009 Ridge Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California

2009 Kistler Vineyards Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay, Sonoma, California

2009 Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Domaine Sainte Claire, Chablis, France

2010 Cameron Hughes Lot 330 Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, California

2010 Bourgeois Family Cuvée Stéphi Chardonnay, Languedoc, France

2010 Charles Smith 'Eve' Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, Washington

The results of the tasting were curious to say the least, but seemed to definitively show that Chardonnay still has a place in the hearts of American wine consumers. All of the wines were well received by the tasting panel. Given the vastly different styles of Chardonnay that were included in the tasting lineup, there were several different wines that resonated with panelists. Each panelist was asked to vote for a first, a second, and a third place wine, and all but one of the wines received at least one first, second or third place vote. Even the wine that did not receive a top-three vote received positive feedback from the panel. There was not a single wine that was disliked by a majority of the tasting panel, and not once during the tasting did anyone denounce a wine because they believed it was Chardonnay. The tasters' reaction to the wines in our tasting panel seemed to indicate that if Chardonnay's reputation is suffering, it is suffering because of a few bad wines that have tainted the reputation of other Chardonnays in the market place.

Many wine experts state that Chardonnay is a blank canvas, because it will adapt to any treatment that the winemaker chooses to do to it. The expression of Chardonnay also varies tremendously depending on the climate and terroir in which the grapes are grown. Chardonnay can be steely, crisp, and clean, with brightly acidic fruit flavors when unoaked, briny and minerally when grown in the Kimmeridgean soils of Chablis. When exposed to the influence of oak, the grape can take of a host on a of characteristics such as vanilla, butter, brioche, tropical fruit, and more. All of these styles were on display in our tasting. Generally, it is oaked Chardonnay that is lambasted and criticized by consumers, but interestingly, oaked Chardonnays received the top scores from our panelists.

The 2009 Ridge Estate Chardonnay from Ridge's historic Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains was the number one rated wine in our tasting. Four tasters ranked it as their most favorite wine, and it also received three 3rd place votes. Tasters described it as having aromas of melon, vanilla, and citrus fruit, with bright acidity and tree fruit flavors on the palate. Above all, tasters described this wine as being incredibly well balanced. All the flavors were well integrated, yet easily distinguished. This lack of distinguished aromas and flavors was the main complaint of the panel's least favorite wine, the 2009 Bethel Heights Estate Grown Chardonnay. While the Bethel Heights was generally well received by panel members, they found that its flavors seemed to meld together, and the alcohol was somewhat noticeable on the finish. This was intriguing, as the Ridge had the highest alcohol content of the wines in the tasting at 14.5%, but was deemed by the panel to be the most balanced of the wines. Conversely, the Bethel Heights was the second most alcoholic wine in the lineup (14.3%), and its alcohol was not as well integrated. The balance and alcohol content of Chardonnay has been a hotly contested issue in recent years, but the tasting lineup showed that high alcohol content and balance do not have to be mutually exclusive characteristics, especially in the hands of a talented winemaker.

The panel's second favorite wine was also the best value in the tasting. With four first place votes, and two third place votes, the 2011 BNA Wine Group 'Butternut' Chardonnay, California was ranked just behind the 2009 Ridge Estate Chardonnay. However, with a purchase price of $15.99 at Burlington Wine Shop, it was only one-third of the $45.00 purchase price (Cheese Traders) of the 2009 Ridge Estate Chardonnay. Sourced from several different vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills and Monterey, the wine showed a deep golden color, aromas of ripe peaches, bubblegum, and melon, and a rich creamy palate with flavors of vanilla and butterscotch. The wine demonstrated well-integrated oak influence, and carried its supple alcohol content of 13.9% gracefully. Although it was certainly more forward than the Ridge Chardonnay, it was a pleasant surprise of the tasting.

The final wines that received mass critical acclaim from the tasting panel were the 2011 Azienda Scagliola Scansi Casot dan Vian Chardonnay (one 1st place vote, two 2nd place votes, two 3rd place votes), and the 2010 Cameron Hughes Lot 330 Chardonnay from Arroyo Seco (four 2nd place votes). Hailing from Piedmont, Italy, the Azienda Scagliola Scansi Chardonnay was not a typical Chardonnay, showing a much softer nose, and a clean, gentle mouth feel that belied it's 14% alcohol content. The nose was soft and floral, accented by hints of nutmeg. Delicate notes of butter and apple showed through on the palate, with a lingering presence of baking spices on the finish. As the first wine in the tasting lineup, it was definitely not a bad way to begin the evening.

The Cameron Hughes Lot 330 Chardonnay was as forward and expressive as the Azienda Scagliola Scansi Chardonnay was delicate. Showing bright acidity, with strong aromas of tropical fruit, vanilla and toasted oak, and flavors of citrus fruits and guava, it was a wonderful representation of the character of the Arroyo Seco growing region. The cool climate of Arroyo Seco brings out the bright tropical fruit flavors that Chardonnay is capable of producing, while the oak treatment given by the winemaker adds a richness and a roundness to the wine. In a lineup full of stellar wines that left few in the tasting disappointed, it was a special treat. Also, at a purchase price of $13.99, it was another wine that represented excellent value.

It is important to remember that the results of any particular tasting are subjective, and are not always replicable. Certain wines show better than others in certain conditions, and on certain days. One of the wines, the Kistler Vineyards Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay is typically one of my favorite Chardonnays, and at $59.99, was the most expensive wine in the tasting lineup. The winery is a reference point producer of Chardonnay. However, on this particular evening, it was not rated among the top wines of the tasting lineup. Still, at the conclusion of the tasting, when the identity of the wines were revealed, the tasting panelists happily consumed the rest of the bottle of Kistler before anything else. This, in my opinion, demonstrates the strong influence that preconception can have on one's sense of taste. If a wine is approached with positive expectations, generally those expectations are borne out. Similarly, negative expectations of a wine cause tasters to hone in on the attributes of the wine that they find least pleasing.

The results of the tasting indicate that Chardonnay may have been the victim of negative preconception, for despite the all the negativity surrounding Chardonnay, we were able to conduct a successful tasting of all Chardonnay-based wines without any of the tasters voicing objection. I walked away extremely encouraged by the fact that all of the wines in the tasting lineup were appreciated by a majority of the tasting panel. Still more encouraging was the fact that the styles of Chardonnay that are typically subject to the most criticism - oaked, buttery, vanilla, full-bodied, expressive - received the highest ratings from the tasting panel. It may be that these more expressive wines simply overwhelmed the more restrained, unoaked Chardonnays in the tasting, but the simple truth was that these expressive Chardonnays were preferred and enjoyed by the majority of tasters. After one of the top rated wines was unveiled as a Chardonnay, one of the tasters looked at me with surprise. "Wow," she exclaimed. "I didn't think I liked these sorts of wines, but I guess I do. That was one of my favorites. Maybe I just haven't known which Chardonnays to ask for."

In thinking about it, it isn't hard to blame people for not knowing how to ask for a good Chardonnay. With all the negative publicity the grape has received, it's safe to assume that there are a good number of consumers who are afraid to walk into a store and ask for a "good Chardonnay," because they don't want to risk embarassing themselves. At one tasting I hosted a few months ago, a woman confessed that she really enjoyed Chardonnay, but often was mocked by her peers when she ordered it in a social setting. The other day, I received a mailing from the flash site Lot18.com, that alerted me to a new slang term being attached to Chardonnay. "Just when we thought Chardonnay's reputation was finally changing for the better, we heard the wine has a new moniker: cougar juice," the e-mail began. This to me, is the real travesty behind the proliferation of "bad Chardonnay." Not only have these unscrupulously produced wines tarnished the reputation of the good Chardonnays on the market, they've made it so unfashionable to drink that consumers won't risk embarassment to ask for assistance in choosing a good example of the grape.

Still, the the tasting panelist's comment about learning which Chardonnays to ask for instilled a hope in me. If consumers were able to appreciate Chardonnay when tasting it blind, it seemed to indicate that Chardonnay can still resonate with the palates of most wine drinkers, even if there is a mental block that prevents many people from trying the grape in the first place. This is the battle that wine retailers, sommeliers, and other wine professionals fight on a daily basis: politely correcting the misconceptions that prevent many wine drinkers from expanding their palates and horizons of wine enjoyment. Long before "Anything But Chardonnay" was a common refrain, Chardonnay was celebrated as the grape that put American wines on the map. If you've been avoiding Chardonnays of late, I'd encourage you to ask your wine retailer to introduce you to a good one the next time you're shopping for wine. There may be an "ABC crowd" writing off the "cougar juice," but if you taste objectively, I think you'll find there's still a lot to enjoy when it comes to "good Chardonnay."

Our next panel tasting will be the week following Labor Day, in celebration of Cabernet Day, which is August 30th. However, due to the Labor Day holiday and travel plans, we'll be holding the tasting following Labor Day. Since we've covered one half of the 1976 "Paris Tasting" by covering Chardonnay, I suppose it makes sense to look at the other side in our second panel tasting. If you'd like to join the tasting panel, submit our General Question form with the subject line "Cabernet Day Tasting" and include your contact details in the body of the email. Cheers!

Reader Comments (2)

I'm wondering what the role of the "acquired taste" is when it comes to Chardonnay, or even wine in general. I'm definitely a wine newb in the grand scheme of things, so I don't think I have enough tasting experience under my belt to really discern between Chardonnays, blind or not. But for other varieties of things that some people have to come to "trust" (i.e. olives, tomatoes, etc.) I'm curious about how much your knowledge of wine affects your perception of the taste. Maybe if I'm looking for something specific in a Chardonnay and I pick up on it I'll get excited about it and appreciate it. I know tasting blind is fun insofar as the unique and honest reactions you get, but I don't necessarily have to know the price or the origin of the wine...just a little bit of direction on how to maneuver through the different layers of the flavors would be interesting for sure.

August 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChaz

Hi Chaz,

Thanks for the comment. You raise a good point. Wine is something of an acquired taste, and the longer you've been a wine consumer, the more you'll know what to expect from different types of wine. I often suggest to people that are new to wine, that they focus on remembering what particular types of wine taste and smell like as a whole, as opposed to picking apart the different components.

Using your example, if you tasted a tomato or an olive blind, you'd know that it was a tomato or olive, right? You might not know whether it was an heirloom tomato, a plum tomato, or a cherry tomato, but you'd probably be able to identify it as a tomato. Same with an olive. You could taste an olive blind, and not know whether it was a Kalamata, a Ni├žoise, or a Sicilian Green, but you'd probably be able to say, "Hey! This is an olive."

I'd recommend using the same approach for wines. There are several different styles of Chardonnay that are available, due to the fact that the grape is like a blank canvas, i.e. it will adapt to whatever technique the winemaker decides to apply to it. In the blind tasting mentioned in the article, I included a broad range of styles of Chardonnay, because I wanted to see if there was a particular style that resonated with the tasting panel. However, there is a particular character that is unique to Chardonnay, and I'd focus on learning to identify that first. Once you have that down, try wines made from other varietals, and learn to identify a Riesling, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Merlot, a Syrah, etc.

In terms of navigating through the "layers of flavors," as you put it, there are aromas and flavors that each grape variety commonly expresses. In the case of Chardonnay, these aromas and flavors are influenced by where the grapes where grown, and how the wine was made (e.g. aged in oak, stainless steel, etc.).

Common aromas to look for in Chardonnay include: Citrus Fruit (Lemon, Orange peel), Apple, Pineapple, Melon, Tropical Fruit, Oak, Smokiness, Cinnamon, Spice, Vanilla, Butter, Cream/Dairy

Flavors common to Chardonnay include: Citrus, Lemon, Apple, Green Apple, Tropical Fruit, Melon, Oak, Vanilla, Cinnamon, Spice, Marshmallow, Toast, Brioche, Smokiness, Mineral, Earthiness

Hope this helps! If you're looking for an opportunity to taste a broad range of wines, sign up for one of our tasting panels, or inquire about a Wine Discovery Class.

Cheers!
-Peter

August 28, 2012 | Registered Commentertruthinjuice

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