All Things Chardonnay with Matt, Foodie-Girl’s #1 Wine Guru

Every time I talk to my good friend Matt about wine (which is A LOT) I am left feeling like I’ve learned so much and at the same time am almost overwhelmed by how vast the world of wine truly is and how little I actually know about the subject.  You may know Matt and his beautiful wife Glynnis from such posts as ‘Foodie-Girl Goes to Napa‘ or ‘Chappellet Chenin Blanc‘.  Matt and Glynnis moved to Napa Valley two years ago, after a three year layover in Louisville.  In this time Z and I came to count them as some of our dearest friends and we bonded over many subjects, but it always seemed to come back to sharing a meal and a wonderful bottle of wine together.  Matt is one of two go-to wine guides in my life.  He and a close family friend (remember Carol from ‘A Foodie-Girl Christmas‘?) have not just shared an incredible assortment of wine with me but have also talked me through each sip, patiently answering my questions, sharing their knowledge and, most importantly, their pure passion for winemaking.  I consult both Matt and Carol regularly and was confident that Matt would have a great recommendation for a quality Chardonnay at $20 or less.  Here’s the thing about Chardonnay – it wears a variety of costumes, some beautiful, others leaving much to be desired.  This can make for a very stressful Chardonnay shopping experience for someone with little knowledge about this highly manipulatable varietal.  So I asked Matt to offer up his top five things to know about Chardonnay.  He replied with a treasure-trove of information that I couldnt’ wait to share with you all.  Continue reading for a clever guide that should ease the stress of the oft-intimedating white-wine-aisle!



#1 – From $5 Chardonnay to $100 White Burgundy…

Chardonnay is one of the world’s most tolerant grape varietals and will grow just about anywhere; however, the results are not always so good.  In my opinion that is one of the reasons that people say that they do not like Chardonnay.  A lot of CA Chardonnay comes from the central valley where things are grown on a commercial scale and then it goes into $5-10/bottle Chardonnay.   Not great examples of what the varietal can become.  In addition, you have producers who will use oak influence to hide the subpar fruit.  Since you have to keep costs down you can’t use oak barrels for aging… they’re too expensive.  Instead you have to use oak chips or oak dust.  On the opposite end of the spectrum you have White Burgundy that can sell for several hundreds of dollars/bottle.  Some of this is from the quality of the wine and some is based on simple supply demand, but regardless if you have ever had a great white burgundy from Chassagne-Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet then I guarantee you will never look at Chardonnay in the same way for the rest of your life.


#2 – The ‘I’m not going to pay that much for white wine’ syndrome 
Chardonnay (and white wine in general) suffers from the “I’m not going to pay that much money for a white wine” syndrome.  Everybody would do themselves a great service if they bought wine within a certain budget regardless of the color.  Truth is it’s a lot harder to make a great white wine than it is to make a great red wine.  A lot more skill is needed on the winemakers part.***Foodie-Girl Confession – I am very guilty of this and have benefited greatly by opening my mind and my palate to the wonderful world of white wine!***
#3 – So where do I begin?
The first thing anybody should do is develop a relationship with a reputable wine merchant and firmly establish the price point that you want to be a part of.  The next thing is to taste Chardonnay from different regions so you get an understanding of the climate you prefer.  The warmer the climate the more honeyed tropical fruit flavors you will get.  The cooler climates really play on the citrus and mineral notes.  You need to know if you like tart green apple and citrus flavors or if you like the bigger buttery style of Chardonnay.  Crisp styles rarely ever go through malolactic fermentation, which is the process of a secondary fermentation that changes the crisp malic acid to more buttery lactic acid. This second fermentation is very common in CA Chardonnays (often referred to as ‘new world Chardonnay’), but there is a movement to go back to a cleaner less manipulated effect (the more ‘old world’ style of a traditional French Chardonnay).  Finally, I would look at the wood treatment.  Generally speaking, you are not getting new barrel treatment in the <$35 price point.  You will get neutral barrels that are 3+ years old, stainless steel only, stainless steel with oak staves hanging for wood contact, or stainless steel with wood chips or wood dust treatment.  Great stainless steel options, known as un-oaked or naked, can be found in the $20 range, because the investment in expensive barrels is not necessary.  And I really like wineries who use neutral oak (3+ years) b/c it rounds out the crispness of chardonnay without being overpowering.  Generally speaking anything in the $5-10 range is using chips or dust.
***The bottle featured here is a 2009 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from Santa Barbara, CA.  It is $20 and an excellent value, offering a perfect example of a balanced, crisp and slightly creamy Chardonnay.***

#4 – Host a Chardonnay Party!

A great way to see the differences in all of the options noted in item #3 is to host a Chardonnay party.  

1) Go to the store and select bottles of the most popular Chardonnay they sell… one <$10 and one around <$20.  This will provide a baseline for the evening.  Chances are the $10 bottle won’t be able to stand up to the <$20 bottle, which for this purpose is good.  Pick a price point for your guests and then assign each attendee a different region…Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Santa Barbara, Napa Valley, Oregon, Washington, etc.  If you really want to get interesting then open it up to Chardonnay from France, Italy, South America; however, this should usually be round 2 of the game.  This type of tasting will really open people up to the idea of great Chardonnay.  For it to be really effective you need to be playing in the $40-50 price point.
2) Another version of this game is more winery-focused.  Pick one to two wineries and select two to three bottles of Chardonnay from each winery that are at different price points…<$10, $20-30, $50+.  This shows the difference in styles that a winery is capable of producing.  A great companion to this is to perform the same thing with a cabernet…<$20, $30-40, $60+.  The idea here is to break down the “I wont pay that much for white wine” mentality.  If the wine is good why should red have to cost more?
3) Compare oaked and unoaked wines from the same supplier if possible.  If that isn’t possible stick to the same area and price point.

#5 – Adjust your temperature…
My final tip is to make sure you are drinking your wine at the proper temperature.  Most everyone just drinks white wine at refrigerator temp and this is far too cold.  It should be about 62-64 degrees just like a great red wine.  Most people drink white too cold and red too warm.  When white wine is too cold/red wine too warm, the full flavor is muffled and the wine can’t accurately express itself.  You’ll be surprised how many more flavors and nuances you can pick up when your white wine warms up a bit!

As always, I’d love to hear your tips/recommendations/opinions on Chardonnay, wine in general and all-things foodie-related!  And you can expect a post on a Foodie-Girl Chardonnay Party sometime this fall.  Sounds like the perfect way to spend a weekend with friends!


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