There’s no question that wine is a complex subject.
How complex? We’ve all been there: We’re standing in a retail store, facing a wall of 100 domestic Chardonnays. And we realize how confusing it is. Oh, the questions we could ask!
Is this Chardonnay worth $37.50? Is that one from Carneros better than this one from Russian River Valley? How do they differ? Should I drink this 2019 Chardonnay now or wait? Is that 2014 Chardonnay better because it’s had extra time in the bottle? (And I suppose we have to define the word “better.”)
One key query: Will I like this style of Chardonnay? Only you can answer that one.
The questions we ask relate directly to how much we know. And the answers take more than a little basic understanding.
As with many subjects, the questions you ask depend on how much you really want to know. If all you want is a wine that’s wet and will taste okay if served at 40 degrees, almost anything will be fine.
You don’t need to know that a particular Chardonnay is “like a Batard-Montrachet.” That information would be helpful to someone preparing to spend $400 for a bottle. Even then, the information may be only academically interesting. Assume you’re hosting a dinner for your uncle who says he drinks only French wine. Even he might not appreciate a Ramonet Batard-Montrachet if his preferred “French Chardonnay” is Chablis.
That’s why the style of a wine can be crucial to understanding it. It is one reason true wine lovers seeking assistance in a fine wine shop or restaurant often ask clerks or sommeliers, “What kind of wine is this?” Or more to the point, “How would you describe this wine? What’s it like?”
I had a gorgeous domestic Chardonnay the other day that was sensational. But like anything else, it’s not for everyone. Despite the acclaim that many white Burgundies deserve, this Russian River Valley version of Chardonnay was its own prototype. (See Wine of the Week).
In wine terms, a prototype is a model that identifies a widely recognized profile for a region. For white Burgundy lovers, Batard-Montrachet (a highly sought white wine from an all-Chardonnay district in Burgundy) sets the standard for a distinctively rich, explosively flavored kind of Chardonnay.
The best are expensive – hundreds of dollars a bottle.
But there are Chardonnay lovers who do not like Batard. On the other extreme are Chablis lovers. Chablis is also an all-Chardonnay wine. Rarely aged in oak, it is nowhere near as rich as a Batard, being mainly about citrus, minerality, spice, and delicacy. Chablis lovers might say Batards are mainly bells and whistles, and that you’ve never tasted real Chardonnay until you experience a great Chablis.
Which wine lover is right? Both and/or neither. You can see the confusion.
Though the two wines are both Chardonnays, they couldn’t be farther apart in terms of style. Yet each has adherents. Batards typically are aged in French oak barrels and have such amazing complexities because some of their aroma and taste profiles include hazelnuts, apricots, and occasionally fresh fennel.
These are elements some would say come from wood contact.
As such, Batards represent some of the world’s most dramatic, richly complex Chardonnays. Batard lovers might suggest that making an unoaked version of their favorite Chardonnay (a la Chablis) would be an utter failure. The wine might still be called Batard, but the style would be anti-prototypical.
In between Batard and Chablis in terms of style are several French prototypical Chardonnay areas, such as Puligny-Montrachet. Puligny (poo-leen’-yee) wines are made with restraint, tend to be slightly fruitier in aroma, and show a distinctive minerality.
Let’s return to staring at that 100-bottle wall of domestic Chardonnays. To try to ascertain which wines are like which prototype, you pick up several bottles to read the back labels, to see if the winery has given us a clue. You assume that some clever wine marketing person will give you a hint about the style by using a term or two to describe his or her wine.
Surely, you assume, a wine will suggest it’s like Batard, a Puligny, a Macon, or a Chablis… But nope. Not a single wine would ever do such a radical thing for two good reasons.
For one thing, to do this assumes that the French district whose name is used as a style guide is an acknowledgement that the French version is the “real thing.” And no domestic winery wants to admit that it is a mere facsimile – even if it helps consumers know what style of wine is being emulated.
Then there is the issue of place-name legal protections. Just as the name Champagne is capitalized, because it is an actual place north of Paris, that term can no longer be used generically to refer to a wine with bubbles that comes from anywhere but France’s Champagne district. (A few U.S. exceptions are grandfathered-in and may still use the term.)
Many wine place-names now are protected from usurpation because they identify prototypical areas that are available for use exclusively by those located in each region.
So even though the name Beaujolais not only identifies a particular lighter, fruitier style of red wine, and there is no alternative term to describe that style, the name can only be used to refer to the particular light red made in a subdistrict of Burgundy from grapes of the variety Gamay Noir a jus Blanc.
The word Beaujolais once was used here to refer to a style of wine. Today, it cannot be used on any wine unless it comes from Beaujolais. (And to make things even more confusing, yes, there is such a thing as “Beaujolais Blanc,” which is Chardonnay-based…)
The same place-name restriction now applies in most of the world for the terms Port, Bordeaux, Chianti, Rheingau, Barolo, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
This same rule also applies to several American place-names. So, for instance no winery in Slovenia can call a wine “Napa Valley” or “Russian River Valley.”
Wine of the Week: 2017 Iron Horse Chardonnay, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Rued Clone ($57): The dramatic aroma of this special wine marks it as a cross between Chablis and Puligny-Montrachet, so it already exhibits a remarkable prototypical personality. The aroma is faintly spiced with citrus and minerals at its core. Even at this young stage, the elements of greatness are all here, waiting to display astounding character in several more years. Only 225 cases of this extremely rare wine were produced. With about an hour of aeration, it begins to imply what it will be in time. It needs probably another decade! I have rarely tasted a Chardonnay with this sort of depth. Part of it is based on sensational acidity. The first Iron Horse wine with the Rued designation was produced in 2005. At that time, I bought a case of it. We recently opened a bottle of that wine. Despite it being nearly 15 years old, it was still youthful, but it had reached the point of perfection you almost never see in a California Chardonnay. Not much wine like this is ever made and almost never from this kind of cool climate fruit. The 2017, just released, is available only at the winery (or off the internet). It is a rare example of how distinctive Russian River Valley Chardonnay can be. Considering that a good example of a great young French white Burgundy today would cost $250 or more, this is a good value – for those who understand the prototype. Alcohol: 13.0% pH: 3.2. A small amount of the 2016 vintage of Rued Clone ($54) remain at the winery. For details, visit ironhorsevineyards.com/
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.