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Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Chardonnay Report

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[Flickr: naotakem]

Last week, we introduced you to the Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along (should we make that SEAWT?). Of course, y'all might have zipped right over our series intro and straight to the comments, to chat about the Dumpling puppy photo up top. Our bad. We should've known better than to distract you. So let's recap:

Every other week, we'll pick a different wine to explore—by grape, or by geography. We'll give you a quick, CliffsNotes intro to the theme we're tackling, and suggest a few widely available bottles that we'll be tasting. You'll put together a tasting of your own—whether they're the same wines we're drinking, or other wines that follow our theme. And then we'll meet back here to discuss what we liked and what we didn't. First up? Chardonnay—French (we had a Chablis), Californian, and Chilean.

Last Saturday night, a few of our editors and some helpful friends assembled to sip from precisely apportioned tasting samples, carefully evaluate each wine, and commence a mature, lengthy discussion about their relative merits.* What did we think?

*OK, fine: Coors Lights and cheap Merlot preceded and followed the Chardonnay; even the worst wine got polished off; glasses were spilled; Dumpling managed to terrify a chicken, trample a tomato bed, and run straight through a neighbor's house to the street; a flash rainstorm required serious umbrella snuggling and ink-splotched this writer's diligent, if increasingly sloppy, notes; and at least one person passed out on the couch. That's acceptable wine tasting behavior, right?

French: Un-Oaked Chablis

20100518-wine-taste-along-chablis.jpgWe tried the Louis Jadot 2009 Chablis. The Chablis region is the northernmost part of Burgundy, and a wine district that almost exclusively grows Chardonnay; Louis Jadot is one of the region's large-scale producers.

As we expected from a Chablis given our primer on the style, it's more mineral than any of the other wines we tasted, slate-y and sharp; it had a puckering acidity that reminded us of apple peel and lime zest. But what really struck us about this bottle in particular was how light this wine was on the palate—we're all for subtlety, but one taster described the overall impression as "weak." A lot of us loved the flavor profile of the wine—mineral and tart—but might look to another Chablis (or another unoaked French Chardonnay) next time, particularly if we were going to shell out $23.

Chilean Chardonnay

20110519conosurskinny.jpgIf our French selection was crisp and mineral, our Chileans were fruity and bold.

We found the Veramonte Reserva Chardonnay from the Casablanca Valley lush and tropical, all mango and papaya—sweet and ripe; syrupy, almost sticky on the palate.

Most tasters preferred the Cono Sur 2009 Chardonnay, with many of the same tropical notes but less of a pronounced, overripe sweetness. "Floral with a kick," one taster said; "it'd be a great beach wine," said another.

Several tasters picked the Cono Sur as their favorite of the five, pretty impressive for a $10 wine; some of those who didn't felt as if it wasn't what they associated with Chardonnay.

California: Oaked Chardonnay

The two wines we tried from the West Coast showcased both the reasons people love California Chardonnays, and the reasons they hate them. While we've enjoyed Cupcake Vineyard's wines before, particularly their Sauvignon Blanc, the Cupcake Vineyard 2009 Chardonnay was, by far, the least preferred wine in the tasting; it was oaked in a way that imparted unpleasant, almost artificial-tasting vanilla notes (I couldn't stop thinking about Starbucks skinny vanilla lattes; another taster used the term "lip gloss"). The name of the vineyard actually suited it well—sweet and processed-tasting.

20100518-wine-taste-along-cupcake-vineyards-chardonnay.jpgIf you're going low-budget, grab the Cono Sur, no question.

The Mondavi selection, Robert Mondavi 2007 Chardonnay Reserve, expressed some of the same characteristics in a much more sophisticated, balanced way. (If the Mondavi Chardonnay were butter, we decided, the Cupcake would be movie theater popcorn butter.) It's got warming vanilla and burnt sugar notes and a complexity that many of the others lacked; it's a bigger wine than the unoaked selections we tried, but it feels full and silky on the palate—not heavy or syrupy.

Of our tasters, about half were familiar with the Mondavi name; those who were had mixed feelings about them, calling their wines "popular," "safe," and "pricey." In a way, that's what we felt about this Chardonnay. It was nearly every taster's first or second choice, and most tasters said if they had to take home a bottle, it'd be the Mondavi; that said, no one wanted to pay $40 for it.

What We'd Buy

If we had to pick a winner of our five-bottle taste-off, it'd be the Mondavi. However, the Cono Sur was a close second, and at a quarter the price, just about every taster felt that purchasing decision would be a no-brainer. I'd take a better Chablis over either wine but we didn't love the bottle we tried; next time, we'd probably check out a smaller producer. The Veramonte was edged out by the Cono Sur; and the Cupcake was our least favorite of the five.

While we certainly aren't trying to rank regions or compare dissimilar styles, our wines did hew pretty closely to what we expected—oaked Chardonnays were terrible at the low end and much better at the high; unoaked Chardonnays a good bit better at the lower price points; Chablis exhibiting a much different character, but coming at a higher price. Most of our amateur tasters associated Chardonnay with something like our Mondavi selection, and for those looking for that buttery, rounded sort of wine, it was a clear first choice; for many, though, the revelation was just how many different styles the grape could take.

How About You?

Who's tasted Chardonnays recently—these bottles, or others? What did you like, or learn, or find surprising? And what would you recommend we try? Get the Chard party started in the comments.

And tune in next week as we move on to our next grape—Cabernet Sauvignon.

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