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.
Readers also found a lot to like in the 2019s.
“Relatively new to Chablis, but I love the crisp mineral taste that the wine has,” said Fred from NW Indiana. “I assumed this is from storing in stainless versus oak.”
He would be correct in one regard. Each of these three village wines was fermented and aged in stainless steel vats. But the container does very little to impart the flavor he cited. Rather, I would say those mineral qualities are very much the product of the Chablis terroir and the nurturing of the winemaker.
In other words, good Chablis has the potential in many years to produce those flavors, although they can be obliterated by bad farming and winemaking, or uncharacteristic weather. The 2018 vintage is one example in which many wines lacked that distinctive Chablis character.
However, Fred would be incorrect in painting oak barrels as the villain here. It’s important to distinguish between older oak barrels, which are often used to enhance texture and age-worthiness, and those that are used as flavoring agents, in which new oak can impart woody, vanilla, chocolate, toasty flavors as well as oak tannins.
New oak barrels are pretty rare in Chablis nowadays, though they might have had a brief vogue 25 years ago. But many producers use older oak barrels for their wines, mostly for the more ambitious premier and grand crus, but sometimes for village wines like these. For the most part, it’s hard to discern a flavor.
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.
The post Among Chardonnays, Chablis Is Not Better, Just Different appeared first on New York Times.