California Wine: Mouth Full of Metal Chards

Chardonnay grapes on the vine. | Photo provided by Pete Markham via Flickr.

America has a reputation for taking something with a long a history elsewhere in the world and making it its own often by making it bigger and ostensibly better. We make buildings taller, cars longer, and people wider. We like to supersize.

This philosophy has unfortunately found its way into our wine making as well. Take Chardonnay for example. Chardonnay is used to shivering in the cool wet Burgundy breeze like a Portland resident at a bus stop. But in California it's on permanent vacation basking in the sunshine and, like many Californians, getting richer and fatter.

Chardonnay is another grape that has undergone a celebrity makeover here in the golden state. In its homeland France, just-ripe Chardonnay ranges from the sharp clean citrus focused minerality of Chablis to the elegantly rich, sleek and sexy wines of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. While often in California when Chardonnay is given similar treatment as it is in Burgundy, it comes off like nouveau rich. Taking intensely ripe fruit and slathering on new French oak like cheap makeup can give the wine a vulgar pall. Top that off with a good dose of buttery cream from malolactic fermentation and the wine seems fit to burst at the seams of an ill-fitting dress.

Story continues below

Fortunately there is another option. Some winemakers in California have taken to fermenting their Chardonnay in cement or stainless steel. This gives the wine an opportunity to show what it is really made of without crutches, without makeup, without a net. Bright laser-like acidity with tropical fruit notes make for compelling and refreshing wines.

Beautiful examples of Chardonnay made in this style are Mer Soleil Silver from the Santa Lucia Highlands and Four Vines' Naked from Santa Barbara. Both wines are fermented without any oak, though each takes a different path. Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay is fermented in cement tanks that provide enough porosity to allow the wine to develop a certain richness.

Four Vines' Naked is fermented in stainless steel and the wine reflects this vessel choice like a well-polished mirror. This wine is a perfect partner for oysters, playing the role of a citrus mignonette in liquid form. Both of these wines are fine examples of how the bounty of California sunshine does not have to translate into overly rich palate punishing butter bombs.

This is not to say that Chardonnay should never be fermented or aged in oak. There are many winemakers who judiciously use oak as an enhancing element in their Chardonnay production creating stunning wines that would stand shoulder to shoulder with those of Burgundy. I am just saying that Chardonnay deserves better than to be made into a puffed-up, parade-float replica of its French cousin that would be better used as an alcoholic pancake condiment.

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay retails for about $25.
Four Vines' Naked Chardonnay retails for about $10