Confessions of a Chardonnay Convert

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I once split a bottle of unremarkable white wine at a high school party with a circle of fringe friends. It was most likely the cheapest bottle anyone could find at the sketchy liquor store on the corner that didn’t check IDs. It was sickly sweet and gave me a headache before it gave me a buzz: not exactly a good first impression. At home, my parents were convinced that white wine was cheap and less nuanced, and, later on, my college friends and I maintained that white wine was for people who didn’t like wine.

I want to apologize for silently judging the people at the wine and cheese parties of my youth for sucking down Sauvignon Blanc (although I won’t apologize for snuffing the dude who, in all seriousness, offered me a glass of pink moscato). I am sorry for pretentiously raising an eyebrow at the Pinot Grigio obsessed, the Gewurtztraminer experts, the Riesling defenders. Like most underage wine explorers, I knew the difference between Yellowtail Cabernet Sauvignon and Barefoot Moscato but my knowledge did not extend much further. I hated the sweet, bottom shelf white wines that always showed up to house parties so I thought I hated all whites. And no one could tell me otherwise.

Let me tell you otherwise.

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Riesling is one of the most prized grapes in the world and is great to bring to BYOB Thai restaurants. Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect wine to sip at a summer barbecue. Pinot Grigio goes well with dardying. But the first grape that enticed me to eat from the white wine vine is Chardonnay. Since the grape is often subject to winemaking techniques such as the use of oak, malolactic fermentation, and lees contact, the variety’s intrinsic qualities influence the final product less than other grapes. While a rich, oaky Chardonnay will make you feel like a badass Californian housewife from the 1980s, unoaked fermentations are widely used for making crisp Chardonnays with fruity notes.

Regional variations in the grape offer something for everyone. You’ll find banana, melon, pineapple, and guava in your warm-climate Chardonnays. If you want a wine that takes you to a tropical beach in the dead of winter, try a Chardonnay from California, Chile or Australia. Temperate zones in Burgundy or northern New Zealand create wines marked by peach, nectarine, and apricot notes, while vineyards subject to the chill of Chablis, Champagne, or Germany produce Chardonnays with citrus and apple aromas. Chardonnay can range from fruity hula girl to acidic ice queen with phases of vanilla girl-next-door in between.

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I would suggest an unoaked Chardonnay as a starting place for those of you who swear off Chardonnay because of its richness. Stainless steel fermentation expresses the wine’s fruit notes and allows subtle mineral flavors, like chalk and wet stone, to shine through. Lighter and snappier, this is pre-gaming, day-drinking, energetic wine. Ask your local wine merchant to recommend a bottle.

But I would encourage you to come around to the oaked bottles eventually. Plenty of producers use this fermentation method subtly rather than aggressively. Aging Chardonnay in oak creates body and warming toasted flavors that balance its inherent fruitiness. Notes of vanilla and butter melt softly on your palate as a firm acidity warmly rises in your cheeks. Ask your wine seller for a subtly-oaked Chardonnay for someone who tends not to like the grape; they’ll be excited to show you something good.

I regret disavowing white wines for so many years. You can’t judge wine by a single version, or even a single varietal. Drink the rainbow, and don’t worry about the pretentious redhead at the wine and cheese party judging you for that glass of Sauvignon Blanc. You’ll show her one day.

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