Roughly speaking, there are only two things in a bottle of wine: grape juice and winemaking. Well, for 97 percent of Americans, you can add in social intimidation and a fistful of class issues. But if you figure out those first two, you can be rid of that last bit for good.
But where to start? The varieties of grape juice are nearly endless, and the winemaking can get pretty darn complicated. And then wine goes and varies by region, vintage, and winemaker. How is anybody supposed to get a foothold in all these shifting sands? Conventional wisdom says taste, taste, taste, but frankly, I don't know how helpful that is--at one bottle a week (or more typically, one or two a month), the average wine drinker will find herself splashing around in the shoals of nowhere for a good decade.
A good solution is to get a group together and taste a bunch of wines at the same time. But what to taste? Sit down with a dozen zinfandels and all you'll learn about is that particular group of zinfandels; the differences won't teach you much about other wines, or about winemaking.
Chardonnay, though--that's another story. Stack your deck right, and America's favorite grape will show you how she's built, because chardonnay isn't just a grape, chardonnay's a phenomenon. Grape-wise, it has been grown in France for hundreds of years and makes lots of famous wines--white Burgundy and Chablis in particular. As a phenomenon, chardonnay is bigger than big: It's a global superstar, owing mainly to the fact that there are two things you can do to it in the winemaking process that make it taste kinda like butter brickle ice cream.
How's that? Well, put chardonnay juice in a toasted oak barrel, and it will soak in the toast and caramel flavors of the barrel, and those flavors will combine with the tropical fruit and tea flavors of the grape in a way that makes the resulting wine seem toasty and caramelized--in the same way that dark-roasted coffee or a toasted marshmallow is caramelized. As for the butter (a term that's frequently thrown around when discussing chardonnays from California and Australia), it comes from a winemaking process called malolactic fermentation, in which the tart malic acid naturally found in grapes is converted to lactic acid, which tastes buttery.
More to the point, these elements are incredibly easy to identify and distinguish from one another. You can line up wine made from chardonnay grapes that have been fermented in steel tanks, wine that has been fermented in oak barrels, and barrel-fermented wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation--and really taste the differences, unforgettably.
I can say that with assurance, having used a group of friends (some of whom know virtually nothing about wine) as guinea pigs to test the theory. Interestingly, the tasting went very differently from any other I've done. Typically, a consensus emerges as to what wine is "best"--usually an unreliable one, as it's often colored by factors such as the price of a particular bottle and what others in the group thought of it. But this time it was as if once people got comfortable with the idea that these were simply matters of ingredient and style, they were happy to identify which ones jibed with their own taste preferences.
Which, roughly speaking, is the dream of every man, woman, and vine in Wineworld. If you want to try this at home, clip and save this piece; these wines (picked because they're all quite good in and of themselves) will be available for another six months. Put the six bottles and six friends together, and you'll be surprised how clear an opaque world can get. -- By Dara Moskowitz
JUST THE FRUIT:
L'Orangerie de Sainte-Rose 1999 Vin de Pays d'Oc ($8) A remarkable little steel-tank chardonnay from the Languedoc area on the Mediterranean rim, this stuff is very crisp, clean, and quick in the mouth. You can taste the essential lemon-and-tea core of the fruit, the mineral of the soil, and not one other thing--it's clear the way rain is clear: not watery, just very, very clean. An essential comparison piece if you want to think about chardonnay, and imported by a Frenchman in Eagan. Good for Bibb salads, crudités, broiled white-fleshed fish, or other subtle foods. (www.bernadaswinesselection.com)
De Wetshof Estate 2001 Bon Vallon Chardonnay ($12) Coming from the hot limestone soils of inland Robertson, South Africa, this unoaked chardonnay shows the grape in its clearest, crispest aspect: a bit of a mineral nose, a nice scent of honeydew, plenty of acid, and a bright citrus taste. It ends as cleanly as a cold steel countertop, and is well-balanced, food-friendly, and attractive--not to mention well-priced. (www.metashop.co.za/wineroute/frame/frame-de_wetshof.html)
FRUIT PLUS OAK:
Mâcon-Lugny 1999 Les Charmes Chardonnay ($13) A soft, balanced chardonnay with a bit of toast and lime on the nose, this wine is dry and flinty, and has just enough oak to let you understand how the oak stands with the fruit, framing and decorating it, adding balance to the overall shape.
Verget 2000 Chablis, Terroir de Chablis ($17) The Chablis district of Burgundy is located fairly far north, so the chardonnay grapes rarely get the chance to ripen fully. So where is that tangerine and pineapple in the nose coming from? Clearly the vanilla scent comes from the oak barrels the wine is finished in, and that's where the richness comes from too. That spice and oak prettily embroiders the chilly-weather tart fruit, which created a foundation of steely structure and plenty of acid--it really is almost as dry as chalk in the wind. Spend an hour fascinated by these various qualities and you'll begin to realize what makes a great wine.
FRUIT PLUS OAK, ADD BUTTER:
St. Supéry 1999 Chardonnay Napa Valley ($18) The smell of honey practically leaps from the glass, mingled with a bit of lime and tea...is that almond? Suddenly you're drawn in to the distinct silky mouth-feel that signals malolactic fermentation, given breadth by good fruit and ending in a nicely honeyed oaky finish. This possesses all the beloved California chardonnay characteristics, but delicately, with finesse. www.stsupery.com)
Stonestreet 1999 Chardonnay Sonoma County ($20) "Ooh, it tastes expensive!" exclaimed one guest, and everyone stampeded to try it. Vanilla and pear aromas seduce; buttery, soft, well-balanced fruit fills up the middle; and the finish is as plush as a twilight float in a Cape Cod pond in August. Very lush, very seductive, and a bit of mushroomy complexity that keeps you intrigued till the last drop's gone. A few days after our tasting, this wine showed up in the Wine Spectator's top 100 wines of the year (No. 37!). Which made me feel smug--until I realized it will probably screw up availability and price. Still, good for them: It really does taste expensive. (www.stonestreetwines.com)
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