Old World or New? A Chardonnay Showdown

Sommeliers and writers discuss balance and varietal character in the Queen of grapes

Chardonnay, it is said, is the Queen of the grapes. But she is also, arguably moreso than any other variety, a voice of the vineyard and a blank canvas for winemaking, meaning that she is often misinterpreted and unfairly maligned. Table To Grave recently invited a panel of sommeliers, writers and one winemaker to discuss just what is so captivating — and at times controversial — about the most planted white grape in all of California and Burgundy.  Carpe Diem, a wine bar in downtown Napa, served as host and selected five wines, from both the Old World and the New. The wines were tasted blind.

The Tasting Panel

Jennifer Ingellis, Wine Director, Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar
Erin Sullivan, General Manager, ACME Fine Wines
Courtney Humiston, Wine Editor, Table To Grave
Cara Patricia, sommelier
Steve Matthiasson, Winemaker, Matthiasson
Amy Payne, sommelier and wine writer
Steve Distler, former Wine Director, Carpe Diem

So Many Styles, So Little Time

SD: Chardonnay is one of those varietals that people love, but hate to admit it. Agree or disagree, I think winemakers really love it because it allows them to express what really good Chardonnay is.

SM: It’s one of the varieties that you have this huge range of style possibilities. Even in Napa, you have a pretty broad range. From Stony Hill all the way to Lewis…chardonnay lends itself to many different avenues.

JI: With Chardonnay, there are so many styles, It’s fun to change people’s minds. I don’t trick my guests — but I play fun games with them and I’ll bring them a taste. I had a Rossi-Wallace chardonnay on my list last year that was from Rutherford. There are three Chardonnay vineyards in Rutherford: El Molino, Staglin, and Foreman and all of them tend to have really big, Napa Valley chardonnays. Well, the Rossi-Wallace chardonnay came from the Foreman Vineyard, which is a piece of the El Molino vineyard, and he picked it two weeks early so it wasn’t as ripe. He didn’t put any oak on it and it was nothing like a Napa Valley Chardonnay and people would try it and say ‘This is Chardonnay from Napa?’

ES: My favorite Chardonnay anecdote is from Matt Licklider, the winemaker of LIOCO. People at a tasting would say ‘I don’t want to try Chardonnay’ and he would say ‘do you like Champagne?’ and people would say ‘of course, I love Champagne.’ And he would say, why don’t you try this Chardonnay. I will steal that until the end of my days because who is going to say they don’t like Champagne?

A Balancing Act

SD: Balance of acidity, balance of alcohol — those are the big balance points, but also balance in the nose. Balance between richness and freshness — it’s not too rich, it’s not too fresh. Every winemaker thinks their wine is balanced; it’s just kind of the deal.

AP: Yeah, balanced to their palate.

SM: Exactly. No one is going to put out a wine that is not balanced in their opinion. My definition of balance is a lot of acidity, because I think it’s important to refresh the palate, but it shouldn’t be searing. And that doesn’t mean acid in itself because acid is in the matrix of the wine. So if you have fleshy components in there, you can handle higher acidity. If you have a lot of oak, you can tolerate higher acidity. I don’t know what the chemistry is but oak balances acidity like in White Burgundy or White Bordeaux or in Northeastern Italian wines. That is why oak integrates into a wine. Like in White Burgundy you can have 100 percent new oak and it can be integrated and you can have a flabby Chardonnay with 30 percent new oak and it tastes “oaky.” Part of balance is that nothing should stick out, but there is also pleasingness to a wine that is balanced. It’s not necessarily just things not sticking out. There is a sense of completeness and satisfaction. If it’s too rich and satisfying but not cleansing, that’s not balanced, if it’s cleansing but not rich, that’s not balanced.

SD: Growing up Italian — we don’t just drink wine alone. We eat food that tastes better when it has wine to go with it. We don’t just sit around and get hammered at the end of the night. You want to enjoy from start to finish everything about it.

CP: Because it comes in so many different forms, from so many different regions, there are nearly endless possibilities for chardonnay at the table. You have your obvious seafood and chicken, but your fuller-bodied ones can go with heartier dishes.

Old World or New: The Tasting

Wine 1: 2007 Domaine Pierre Morey Perrieres, Meursault Premier Cru, France

Six of the panelists recognized it blind as Old World

Wine 1: 2007 Pierre Morey

Panelist’s most commonly used descriptors

SD: These are all my favorites in one way or another. All of these wines have a special place in my heart and like I said, I’m a big Chardonnay drinker.

AP: My personal two favorites were the first and the last. But I liked each one for a different reason. I thought they were all very unique and very different. For me, I’m definitely a more 1 and 5, but I’ve learned to appreciate higher octane, malo, buttery wines. There is a place in the market for every style of wine.”

SM: A lot of minerality, but my fruit descriptor was ripe stone fruit which makes more sense in Mersault than Chablis.

Wine 2: 2010 Matthiasson Chardonnay Linda Vista Vineyard, Napa Valley California

The panel is evenly split between Old World or New.

SD: I was trying to make you think outside the box a little. When people in California sell pinot noir and chardonnay, they always describe it as “Burgundian” style. And you drink it and you’re like “No, it’s not.” So you can taste Burgundy, you can taste Sonoma Coast but this is a wine that is not only pushing Napa wine in, I think, a better direction, but it is also taking chardonnay and making us think outside the box.”

SM: I got more ripeness in the nose on the Mersault than I did here. It was ripe stone fruit. This is fresh stone fruit.

Wine 2: Matthiasson Linda Vista

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JI: The nose made me think it was New World. I felt that the floral characteristics in it.” Not that it was sweet but the intensity of the aromatics was what made me think New World. Once it was revealed, I recognized it as your [Matthiasson’s] wine. I know your white blend and this wine screams you.

SM: One of the things that makes Napa Napa and this seems very strange in 2012, but Napa has high acidity. We have cool nights and for modern winemaking in Napa, winemakers have to go through a lot of trouble to wait for the acidity to go down because they don’t want the high acid. They are fighting acid. If you want acid, you just don’t let it go away and it is all there. It’s funny. I thought it was out of balance because it had too much acidity.

AP: What is the inspiration for your wines?

SM: I went in my own direction with it, but Arnot-Roberts — I love their chardonnay. It’s the wine version of having a pilsner. It’s what you want. It’s cleansing, it’s clean, it’s not trying to be something it’s not. It has a beautiful simplicity.

CP: I would like to taste wines one and two again in five years.

Wine 3: 2008 Domaine Leflaive Clavoillon, Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru, France

Wine 3: Leflaive

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Again, tasters were split between Old and New World

SD: This is one of my favorite Burgundy producers. A more classic Burgundy style but year in and year out I think they are pretty consistent. You know what you’re getting with them.

AP: 2008 is really hit or miss. It depends on the producer, the region. With vintages like that, I tend to buy producers that I know are going to be consistent across the board. And there are some producers that I definitely stay away from on challenging vintages.

ES: This is a great example for people who are like ‘I don’t like California Chardonnays, I like French chardonnays because I don’t like oak.’ And I’m like well, let’s have a talk. Taste THIS wine. New oak does exist over there.

Wine 4: 2008 Mi Sueno, Sonoma Mountain California

All agree that this is a New World wine

Wine 4: Mi Sueno

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SD: I think Mi Sueno makes a quintessential California chardonnay. This is the biggest wine. New World. Big oak. It is a little heavy with the oak but it’s a good balance of the oak. It’s not like licking the side of a barrel.

AP: It’s well made. I thought it was Australian because it has this coconut, dill, bacon, smokiness to it. It was the most different wine in the flight, but there are people that will love it and there is food to go with it.

SM: This wine has soul. It’s not a manufactured sort of product wine. It has a lot of oak but it is definitely a unique wine.

Wine 5: 2010 Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils Chassagne-Montrachet, Cote de Beaune, France

The consensus is Old World

SM: Wine five is awesome. Very nuanced.

Wine 5: Moreau

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AP: It is my favorite.

ES: For me texturally it is really pretty. It has this pretty weight that was really soft — had this creaminess to it that was compelling. Some tropical, floral, citrus.

SD: I think it’s the most balanced wine. I like layers in a wine. A lot of layers, complexity. And I think this wine had those aspects. The others were more singular. This one here was a little more intriguing to me.

CP: It makes me think of a powdered French woman. I think this is why we are seduced by Burgundy.

ES: Damn, this is good chardonnay. Why is it so good?