ABC as easy as 123

By Craig Camp

Thursday, May 1, 2003

ABC, easy as 123
Oh, simple as Do Re Mi
ABC. THAT'S wine lingo for Anything But Chardonnay. Chardonnay is too popular to be cool to drink. At least that's what people say. This proves once again that what people say and what they do -- or in this case drink -- is not always the same. It's hard to fight fashion.

Yet chardonnay is popular for many reasons. Along with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and now syrah they can almost grow it anywhere -- and I mean almost anywhere. Chardonnay is easy to grow and to make, and the winemaker can greatly influence the outcome. Because the winemaker can have such a strong influence it is often technique that defines the flavors of chardonnay wines more than terroir. This is why so many chardonnay wines are boringly similar, or just plain boring. Most are created by winemakers taught the same unimaginative standards of flavor, quality, and technique at enology schools the world over.

The grand exceptions to this are the great white wines of Burgundy, where it all began for chardonnay. There the expression of a unique terroir is raised to the highest level, as are the prices.

The wine trade follows the fashion trend of chardonnay without giving it much thought. Sure there is a lot of sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio out there, but most producers are using the same strategies for producing these varieties with similar scintillating results. For instance, at many chain restaurants in the US you are presenting with a wine list consisting of four American chardonnay selections, a pinot grigio, and a sauvignon blanc balanced off with some white zinfandel and interchangeable merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines. Sometimes things are spiced up by the inclusion of Australian or South American wines that are trying as hard as they can to taste just like the California wines.

I was recently in a massive new grocery store in Ohio and the wine manager proudly showed me his wine section. It was gigantic, featuring over 600 different selections. You needed binoculars to see the end of the chardonnay section, which represented almost two thirds of the department. The problem was he could have replaced all the dozens and dozens of chardonnays on the shelf with just four or five of his selections and still have offered his customers the same diversity of styles and price points. They just would have had fewer pretty labels to choose from.

This ocean of identical chardonnay wines with different labels has made serious wine buyers adopt the ABC anthem and to do their best to ignore chardonnay -- except top Burgundies when someone else is buying. Yet we should remember that the reason chardonnay is so popular in the first place is that it tastes good.

Yes chardonnay tastes good and matches well with a broad variety of food. I confess that although it may not be cool, I like chardonnay. What I hate is the cookie-cutter, plastic-tasting swill that most companies spew out onto the market and that most people think is what chardonnay tastes like. It is not as easy as 123 to find wines that really taste like chardonnay. The mass of wine labeled chardonnay would seem to make it easy, but it is in fact harder because the good ones are camouflaged by all the chaff.

At the lower price levels of the chardonnay spectrum, oak is the enemy. That goes double for wood chips. Inexpensive wines should be all about fruit and drinking young. Oak has become the curse of chardonnay wines -- many think the flavor of oak is actually the flavor of chardonnay. At the higher price level, it is well proven by history that the judicious use of oak broadens and adds layers of complexity to chardonnay in a way that that it can do to no other white variety. What constitutes a judicious use of oak is a very broad category. Dominique Lafon can put his powerful and structured chardonnay in barrels for 18 months in his very cold cellar while the same treatment would (and does) destroy a California chardonnay. You can still taste the intense fruit of the Lafon while the California wine would effectively become oak juice.

To find the best bargain in chardonnay today you have to go back to the beginning. That is back to Burgundy. Yes, that Burgundy that is so famous for its hyper-expensive chardonnay is also home to the best deal in chardonnay today and most everyone ignores it:

The Maconnais offers many consistently fine chardonnay wines for under $15 (US). What anyone is doing drinking the Kendall Jackson chardonnay potion of sugar and wood chips when these wines are around is a mystery. I know that Pouilly Fuisse is a notoriously bad buy, but wines under the various Macon appellations like the Macon Village, Macon Vire, Macon Clesse, Macon Lugny, and Macon Fuisse appellations have to be the most interesting, inexpensive chardonnays that are produced. I know many of these wines have committed the sin of not actually putting chardonnay on the label, but rest assured Macon is chardonnay. The best part is you don't even have to buy these wines on sale to get a great deal.

Macon chardonnay offers a firm acidity and a complex mineral flavor balanced with just a touch of green apple fruit. This balance, fresh flavor, and most of all the crisp finish makes these wines not only exceptionally food friendly, but great aperitifs in the American style.

Some of my current favorites are:

- 2000 Macon Clesse, Les Acacias, Cave de Vire, a Christopher Cannan Selection
- 2001 Macon Chaintre, Domaine de Lalande, a Martine's Wines Selection
- 2001 Macon Village, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Jean Touzot
- 2000 Macon Village, Domaine de Roally, a Louis/Dressner Selection
- 2000 Macon Charnay Franclieu, Jean Manciat, a Louis/Dressner Selection

No, these wines are not Lafon Meursault, but for everyday drinking wines that offer real complexity, they kick oak chips in the face of those flabby new world chardonnays.
Come on gonna teach how to sing it out, sing it out, sing it
Oh oh oh, ABC
ABC? Not necessarily.