Among Chardonnays, Chablis is not better, just different
By Eric Asimov
Once, years ago, when I was in a restaurant on the Mendocino Coast on a work trip, I overheard an English guy asking the bartender whether she had a white wine with a “butt’ry flavor.”
I never forgot it because she poured him a California chardonnay that I knew well, one that wasn’t remotely buttery. And he loved it.
I took two lessons from this incident: First, people are not always able to describe precisely what it is they like or don’t like in a wine, and second, what they want is not necessarily restricted to what they think they want.
Here at Wine School we have spent the last month drinking and considering Chablis from the 2019 vintage. The idea was to compare Chablis to other chardonnays we have known and to think about the difference that vintage year can make, especially for a wine that can be as distinctive as this one.
These are worthy questions. But as so often happens in Wine School, the way that many readers reacted to the wines caused me to think about another issue entirely.
As usual, I suggested three bottles for readers to try and, if they chose, to offer their thoughts about the wines. In addition to sharing a lot of love for Chablis, readers used this opportunity to express a general distaste for chardonnay, which happens to be the grape of Chablis and one of the most widely planted white grapes in the world.
Most of the reaction centered on two issues readers associated with chardonnay: oak and butter. Many readers linked the buttery flavor they detested (or in one case loved) to the use of oak barrels. In addition, many implied that this oaky, buttery quality was a common characteristic of chardonnay in general and of California chardonnay in particular.
We have spoken often here about the tenacious grasp of conventional wisdom in all areas of wine. The butter-and-oak connection to chardonnay is a prime example of how a thought that once had an element of truth evolves into a widely held perception that often is demonstrably wrong.
I will return to that thought, but first, here are the three bottles I suggested: Samuel Billaud Chablis 2019, Gilbert Picq & Ses Fils Chablis En Vaudécorse 2019 and Patrick Piuze Chablis Terroir de Fyé 2019.
I asked readers to think about how vintages can affect the character of a wine. This can be particularly telling with a wine like Chablis, which at its best has a particular stony, chalky, seashell minerality that I consider the most distinctive expression of chardonnay. I’ve seen many chardonnays from elsewhere described as “Chablis-like,” but never have I found the characterization to be true.
This is not to say Chablis is the best chardonnay, only the most singular. The region’s terroir — the combination of soils, climate, altitude, inclination to the sun and human input — produces this idiosyncratic wine. But the terroir is fragile, and the biggest variable aside from the human factor is weather, particularly given the continuing effect of climate change.
The years 2017-19 were a case in point. The weather was relatively cool in 2017, with late frosts that diminished yields, but the wines were vibrant and full of Chablis character, which delighted me. The next year was hot and dry, producing ripe, rich wines that were often excellent but seemed less typical of Chablis. They spoke more of the grape, chardonnay, than the place, Chablis.
I’m speaking generally here. We can always find exceptions. As part of Burgundy, Chablis employs a hierarchical system in which every bottle is ranked according to its potential for distinctiveness and greatness. At base are Petite Chablis, followed by Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and, at the top, Chablis Grand Cru.
It will be interesting to see whether the 2018s, particularly the premier crus and grand crus, develop more Chablis character as they age.
The 2019 vintage was also warm and dry, but not quite as warm as 2018, and the harvest extended longer, as the grapes did not ripen as quickly as in 2018.
Tasting the 2019s offered a good opportunity to see whether the wines were more like the ’17s or the ’18s, though I realize for our purposes a direct comparison between the ’18s and ’19s would have been even more revealing. Some readers were already onto the differences.
“I think with global warming, vintage differences in Chablis may be getting more dramatic,” said Larry of Boston, pointing to 2018 and ’19 as well as 2014 and ’15 as good examples.
I loved these three 2019s. The Picq seemed to me to be textbook village Chablis, greenish-gold in color, tense, energetic and saline, with flavors of apples, pears and herbs.
The Piuze was fresh and textured, less incisive than the Picq but more dimensional and exuberant, with flavors that were more floral and citrus than mineral. By contrast, the Billaud seemed quieter, more mellow, lightly mineral, gently saline, thoroughly Chablis-like but without the adolescent energy of the other two.
One of my favorite things about wine is how three bottles like these, all from the same vintage and from roughly the same place, can be simultaneously so alike and yet so different. They reflect the power of the general Chablis terroir, but also the subtle variations between different parcels of land and the differing methods and personalities of their producers.
Many readers, while standing up for Chablis, denounced chardonnay in general. They described it as buttery or tasting like butterscotch or even buttered popcorn. Many blamed oak for producing these flavors and centered the problem in California.
I want to make three points: First, flamboyant, buttery, oaky California chardonnays became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, popular enough that producers around the world emulated the style.
But over the last 10 or 15 years, the fashion has ebbed. This style continues to have its fans, like Dariala of Massachusetts, but California chardonnay is far more stylistically diverse today. Let’s not assume that California chardonnay means big, buttery and oaky, because it’s just as easy to find taut, steely examples.
Second, as I’ve suggested, oak is not the villain, though sometimes the way winemakers use oak barrels (or oak adjuncts like chips, staves or dust) to flavor wines can be nefarious. These days, I find many more wines are enhanced by judicious use of oak barrels rather than harmed by overdoing it.
Interestingly, while oak is overwhelmingly the most popular wood for barrels today, until 50 years ago, many winemaking regions simply used the wood that was prevalent in their areas, like redwood in California or acacia and chestnut in parts of Europe. Around the fringes, I see a few winemakers today returning to these traditional woods, though in California most redwoods are now protected and won’t be showing up in new vats for wine.
Finally, the influence of oak has little to do with the perception of a buttery flavor. That quality, properly known as diacetyl, is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, in which bacteria transform sharp malic acid into softer lactic acid, which is found in dairy products like butter, milk and cheese.
When malolactic is properly managed, the buttery sensation is not noticeable. In fact, it used to be considered a fault until American critics in the 1980s and subsequently the public began to embrace it.
Here’s the bottom line, and you can extend this from chardonnay to just about any kind of wine: Don’t blame the grape or the container; they are almost never at fault. Most problems in wine can be traced to the producer, whether in the vineyard or in the winemaking.
I have learned this the hard way. Truth be told, I’m still learning it.
Greek Reds Have Yet to Have Their Moment. Is Now the Time?
I recently met with a Greek wine importer who, in addition to introducing me to a few excellent bottles, detailed his 20 years of frustration at trying to persuade a reluctant American public to take a chance on Greek wines.
He compared the way Americans have embraced Italian wines with their relative indifference toward Greek bottles.
“What is it that Italy has that Greece doesn’t have?” he wondered.
I could think of a few answers. Along with a far larger population of citizens of Italian descent than Greek descent, the United States has had well over a century of getting to know Italian culture through the cuisine, from the early wave of pizza and Italian American fare to more recent regional offerings. Wine has traveled a parallel course, from Chianti in straw-covered bottles to bottles from almost every nook of Italy.
Wine has no better ambassador than its country’s restaurants. It theoretically ought to show its best with the foods it has traditionally accompanied.
Notwithstanding the many Greek diners around the country, Greek restaurants have not been remotely comparable in their integration into American culinary culture, nor has the cuisine. My companion railed against the quality of Greek restaurants in the United States. Indeed, at his suggestion, we met at an Italian restaurant.
“If only Americans knew how good Greek food is,” he said, speaking of the beautiful ingredients available all over Greece. He lamented what he called the repetitive menu of a dozen Greek dishes that showed up again and again in Greek outposts in the United States.
“Who wants to pay $40 for a branzino farmed in the Mediterranean?” he said.
I tried to comfort him by pointing to the progress of Greek wines in America over the last two decades. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to taste a dozen Greek wines, I had to go to Astoria, Queens, the most sizable Greek neighborhood in New York. Nowadays, I can stop into wine shops all around Manhattan and find a good selection.
What’s more, the diversity of available Greek wines has increased markedly, with wonderful natural wines, age-worthy reds, beautiful whites and even excellent retsinas, a traditional wine flavored with the sap of Aleppo pines.
Coincidentally, before I met with the importer, I had decided that we ought to taste Greek red wines this month. Greek whites, particularly assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, have gotten a head start in gaining recognition, but the reds are coming on strong. Here are the three bottles I recommend:
Argatia Macedonia Haroula 2018 (Verity Wine Partners, New York) $19
Domaine Glinavos Ioannina Vlahiko 2018 (DNS Wines/T. Elenteny, New York) $24
Kir-Yianni Naoussa Xinomavro Ramnista 2017 (Diamond Importers, Chicago) $28
As you might guess, these wines will be easier to find in some parts of the country than others. It’s not so important to taste these precise bottles as it is simply to find a few good Greek reds to try.
You might find other cuvées from these producers, or these bottles in other vintages. Here are some other good producers to seek out: Tatsis, Zafeirakis, Alpha Estate, Sclavos, Argyros and Troupis. You could also look for the producers of Greek reds that I wrote about last year.
Don’t worry about the particular grapes involved, although I would suggest looking for wines made from Greek reds like xinomavro, rather than international varieties like cabernet sauvignon.
Why not try them with some Greek-inspired dishes? Lamb kebabs would go well, and so might a vegetarian mushroom-and-onion pie. You could roast a chicken or cook a steak. Greek-style lemon potatoes will go with just about anything.
These wines are really worth exploring. And if you want to suggest any excellent Greek restaurants, I will let the importer know.