What’s Wrong with Chardonnay? Nothing

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte Rosé)

jeff-smI read with interest Steve Heimoff’s recent blog post: “The problem(s) with Chardonnay” at:

http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2009/11/11/the-problems-with-chardonnay/

I have two reactions to Steve Heimoff’s article:

1.  I agree with everything he has to say.

2.  I disagree with everything he has to say.

So I guess I should say a word or two about what Heimoff said.  In Steve’s view, Chardonnays, or at least most of them, are overblown, overoaked, high in alcohol, and generally not very good.  In short, they are monstrosities (my word) that belie what a great wine the Chardonnay grape is capable of producing.

I agree with all that.  I find I like very few Chardonnays, though when I do find one I like, I usually like it a lot, because it really and truly is capable of making great wine.  But, sadly, the good ones, at least in my view, are few and far between.  More common are the ones that lack varietal distinction, or really any fruit at all, are low in acidity, and mask their vapidness with a veneer of oak and butter.  These wines don’t pair well with food, and, to me, substitute a manufactured quality (in the sense that the wine is made in the winery, not the vineyard) for the fruit quality that should be first and foremost in a great wine.

But I also disagree with everything Steve has to say, even if that does leave me a little schizophrenic.  My problem is that I can define what a good wine is in only one way, i.e., whether people like it.  Obviously, not everyone will like every wine, but as long as someone likes a wine, it’s a good wine for him.  Unless and until someone comes up with an objective formula that defines what are good wines and what are bad wines (putting aside the subject of flawed wines for the moment), I don’t see how anyone can declare any wine good or bad, except from his own subjective point of view.

Let’s take an example that Steve disliked (and I quote):

Geyser Peak’s 2007 (Alexander Valley), and here’s what I wrote: “Sugary sweet, simple and over-oaked, this Chard has one-dimensional flavors of pineapple candy, vanilla and smoke. 83 points.”

I’ve never tasted this wine, but I’m willing to take on faith that, based on the description, I wouldn’t like it very much.  But lots of people do. If wineries keep churning out this type of Chardonnay, they are doing it for a reason:  it sells.  And it sells because people like it.

I know if we have people over for a wine get-together, and put out a bunch of different wines, the over-oaked, buttery, fruit-challenged Chardonnays get drunk up.  Others types of wines more to my liking get drunk up as well, but so what?  The typical California Chardonnay was liked and appreciated by many of our guests, albeit not by me.

So, is Jeffrey Miller or Steve Heimoff or anyone else justified in anointing himself as the Supreme Court of wine appreciation? Aside from my declaring myself the final arbiter of wine quality, who am I to put my preferences ahead of those of others?  If someone values oak and butter and alcohol over powerful fruit flavors and bracing acidity, who am I to say they are wrong?

In the end, I think we need to realize that it’s a big world out there, with lots of different people with lots of different tastes.  And the lots of different wineries out there will cater to those multiple tastes.  Complicated, yes.  Messy, certainly.  But it’s the world we inhabit, and one that’s a lot more interesting than one where everyone liked the same thing.

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8 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Chardonnay? Nothing”

  1. cameron fox says:

    If you like great chardonnays then get yourself anything made by Blackwood Cayon Vintners…. http://www.blackwoodwine.com

    these are some of the most amazing chardonnays I have ever had.

  2. Hey there Jeff, I am curious to know what you think of the Santa Maria Valley chardonnays; like Volk, Cambria, Foxen, etc.

  3. Arthur says:

    Astroturfing is so tacky - especially when you are promoting one wine brand on the web site of another - without even feigning to attempt to add to the discussion.

    Bad form, Cameron.

  4. Andrea says:

    Chardonnay likes to be the prettiest girl at the table. So competition from a lot of the seasonings and spices that are popular today makes her unhappy and out of place.
    There is nothing wrong with new oak so much as Chardonnay is a wine that highlights imbalance more than many other varieties.
    So that new oak demands racing acidity and a lot of fruit to off set new oak as well as high %’s of ML.
    Balance is the key, and Chardonnay needs the right food to really come alive!

  5. winegod says:

    Blackwood Canyon….Really? hmmm scary, scary stuff! I have not tasted a good produced wine from there in 15 years

  6. admin says:

    Since I don’t normally drink alot of Chardonnay, my answer is going to be a little tentative. I remember liking a Cambria I had once. From its location, it seems like the valley should get the cooling influence from the Pacific, which should be good for Chardonnay growing. Obviously, how you make if from then on counts for alot. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

  7. Chris says:

    Foxen Chard is good stuff for sure…

  8. omg, thanks so much for posting this! It is going to aid me when I research pinot noir at the grocery store! So Beautiful!

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