Striking Liquid Gold with Francis Ford's Coppola
Anyone who has met me knows that once upon a time, I held a silent disdain for Chardonnay. Everyone always clamors that New Zealand Sauvignon blanc has a perpetual aroma of cat piss, but the very first Chard I was introduced to, a Chablis, had the same striking aroma attacking my olfactory system. Then every new world Chardonnay I drank leaned too heavy into those overt butter & dairy tones for me to enjoy-------yeah, I'm looking at you California! Yes, not all Chardonnays are like those, but I just never had a liking for the varietal even as I was introduced to new regions & producers. As time has gone by, I have begun to appreciate the varietal a lot more. Chardonnay is incredibly versatile. It can be made sparkling, still, sweet or be effective in white blends. The grape grows shockingly well no matter what part of the world it is being grown in. It can be aged in both stainless steel and oak casks, and is a white wine that continues to age incredibly well once bottled. It's a winemaker & sommelier's best friend. A reliable workhorse of a grape. I say all this because I no longer have a disdain for Chardonnay, rather, I discovered a HUGE & oddly specific disliking for California Chardonnay. Now we're getting to the root of the trauma!
California Chardonnays are butter bombs of liquid gold that people go crazy for. I prefer the more racy, acid driven Chardonnays of Burgundy. I feel that allows for more focus on the grape's innate character rather than the character imposed on it by oak integration. Different strokes for different folks! But why is that?! Chardonnay is a white grape that happens to be treated, more often than not, like a red grape. It is frequently aged in oak barrels (french, american, etc.) that impart additional flavors into the wine & cause this white grape to undergo malolactic fermentation. This is a process in winemaking in which tart-tasting malic acid (think green apples) naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid (all that dairy goodness, minus the actual dairy). That's typically where those classic butter, butterscotch & caramel dipped green apple tones vibe from. The longer the grape is exposed to that oak vessel the more those flavor profiles become cemented in the final wine. In addition to anything else the winemaker has manipulated during the vinification process. A brief overview of the intended flavors/aromas that can be imparted with the 2 most popular oak types:
French Oak = gives the wine more soft Madagascar vanilla & notes of fresh whole baking spices
American Oak = gives off a more synthetic coconut extract & ground spice notes.
With Chardonnay, because it is truly grown everywhere, you simply have to be patient in finding the region or production style that best suits your palate. Maybe a South African Chard that's been aged in stainless steel is more your thing? The wine tends to show more tropical fruit notes when coming from that part of the world, and is a fave of mine. Perhaps even a white burgundy will suit your fancy more. Despite being aged in oak, the Chards of Burgundy are beautifully reserved & possess a racy acid that keeps you coming back to the glass. Or maybe you're like me and you'll continue trying Chardonnay from California in the hopes that you'll find one that isn't screaming "grandma's butterscotch candy". I discovered Francis Ford's Coppola Chardonnay the other day, and I was pleasantly surprised. Its aged completely in French Oak & grown in Santa Barbara. The wine hits all the typical notes I expect from California: vanilla, a creamy mouthfeel, and lemon peel. This is added to a palate of star anise & crème brûlée, and a myriad of tropical fruits on the nose for something truly special. Somehow the wine manages to find a balance I've rarely found in Chardonnays from that part of the world.
If you aren't a Chardonnay lover, just give it some time & give your palate a whirl with one of the Coppola wines. If you've been a Chard believer since the beginning of your drinking career, then more power to you and know that I might just join you fully one of these days!