How is Chardonnay like Tofu?

Courtesy of guest blogger, Sommelier Meghan Vandette
My mother in law is, admittedly, not a big wine drinker.  She will enjoy the occasional glass, but usually only when we are together. When I first met her I was in my early 20’s and it would be several years before I would begin my career in wine, so at the time I knew less about wine (and almost everything else) than she did.
Even though I drank wine with all of the enthusiasm and gusto of a 20-something semi adult, I was one of those people who purchased wine based on the attractiveness of the label. Which is fine- we all have to start somewhere.  My mother in law had travelled quite a bit, while I had never been out of the country at that point in my life, so I looked forward to learning tidbits of information from her about such worldly subject matter as travel, food and wine.

Her tastes in wine were and are very specific. She refused to drink most white wine because the acidity was too high, she absolutely hated Chardonnay, and was more likely to sip a glass of some holiday-themed Baileys concoction.  The one white wine that was always her go-to, the only white wine that she consistently enjoyed no matter what, was Pouilly Fuisse. (Badum-dum-ching!)

So either you get the joke, or you don’t. For those still learning about wine (aren’t we all, though?), Pouilly Fuisse is the name of a sub-region of Burgundy, France and white wines from this region are 100% Chardonnay, usually with a lean towards higher acidity. Imagine my glee upon this discovery! I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to visiting my in-laws as much as that year.  Finally, I knew more about something than she did!

This story is not to shame my mother in law for her lack of wine knowledge, but rather to highlight that with just a little exploration and research, you might discover that something you always thought you hated could, in fact, turn out to be just the thing you never knew you loved.  Like learning to love tofu as an adult because even though it can be bland it’s better for you than French fries, much to everyone’s dismay.

Enter the dark horse of the wine world: Chardonnay!  For many, the idea of drinking Chardonnay is something akin to sipping a glass of movie popcorn butter. Chardonnay is something that our mothers and grandmothers drink, usually out of huge bottles, while asking if we plan on getting married anytime soon, why don’t we ever visit and can we PLEASE give them some grandchildren already?!  In other words, not a pleasant experience.

There is good reason for this stereotype as the number of huge, oaky, buttery, unbalanced Chardonnays from California seem to outnumber the amount of Millennials still living at home.  Also, if you grew up only being exposed to this style of Chardonnay thanks to Mom and Grandma, it is understandable that you may think you don’t like any Chardonnay.

But here’s the thing about Chardonnay – it is the tofu of grapes. And yes, this is a good thing!  I know it can be hard to make the correlation between bland, dull tofu and Chardonnay, but stick with me here.

Chardonnay, like tofu, can be manipulated into a wide variety of flavor profiles & textures. It is versatile, bending to the whims and vision of the winemaker.  Unlike some other grape varietals, Chardonnay has the ability to morph itself like tofu does by adapting to the instructions of a chef, or winemaker as it were, into many different forms and expressions.

If ever you have tried Chablis, you will know that it is light, crisp, acidic and (you guessed it!) 100% Chardonnay. It is the polar opposite of that stereotypical Rombauer-style California Chardonnay.  Of course, there is a huge range between the two vastly different styles so if you don’t enjoy one Chardonnay, then by all means buck up and pick a different bottle!

So the next time you are purchasing a bottle of Chardonnay from a new winery, know that it will be different than any other Chardonnay you have had before. The wine in each bottle you open is not only a product of the winemaker’s vision, but also the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown. Terroir is the natural environment and unique features of a wine region that make it special. Temperature, soil, topography, wind and sun exposure are all aspects of terroir.

To stick with our two examples from earlier, Chablis and stereotypical California Chardonnay, terroir greatly effects why there is such a difference in the two styles. And yes, I will explain why I keep reiterating “stereotypical” when speaking about California Chardonnay.

Image courtesy of www.winefolly.com

Chablis is a relatively cooler wine region located in central- Northeast France with a semi continental climate. This means that while summer is usually flip flop weather, frost in the spring and too much rain in the fall can destroy the crop and, of course, affect the quality of the fruit produced. Cooler wine regions mean there is less sun and warmth, therefore the grapes are not able to ripen as fully as they would in a hot, sunny climate like California.  The resulting wine is therefore restrained, light and crisp. In Chablis, not only does the terroir of the region affect the style of wine, but tradition also decides style.  Traditionally, Chardonnay from Chablis is aged only in stainless steel so there is no oak influence whatsoever.

Given the current popularity of unoaked Chardonnay, it’s safe to think of Chablis as the hipster of wine regions. They were doing it before it was cool and probably have zero problem enjoying it with a nice tofu dish.

Now back to stereotypical California Chardonnay, easily one of the most polarizing styles of wine on the planet.  I would venture to say it is almost as controversial as politics can sometimes be. People tend to stand firmly in Camp Butter & Oak or in Camp ABC (Anything But Chardonnay). While the more commonly tasted version of this wine is big, rich and opulent, it is possible to have a lighter, less buttery/oaky Chardonnay from California.

Let’s revisit our discussion of terroir and throw in some Wine 101 basics. California is hot, sunny and arid. More sun and heat equal grapes that are more ripe and higher in sugar. Higher sugar levels equal a higher alcohol content. So the resulting wine is, inevitably, going to be a bigger, bolder, more fruit-forward wine than we would see from the cooler region of Chablis.

But this really only takes the wine into a more lush body, any additional flavor components come from the ageing process. Some winemakers will age this wine in stainless steel tanks and call it a day.  The resulting wine remains true to the grapes and express the terroir perfectly. Imagine Chablis, but with grapes grown in a hotter climate, because that is exactly what you will be getting.

Other winemakers want to create that stereotypical style of California Chardonnay and therefore will introduce processes to create those aspects of this flavor profile. The butter and oak components come from a chemical process called Malolactic Fermentation, or MLF.  Without getting too scientific, this basically means that the Malic acid (think Green apples) is converted into Lactic acid (think milk). Some winemakers will stop at this point, letting the wine shine on its own with rich butteriness.

And still other winemakers will take it one step further by ageing the wine in oak barrels, imparting some of those oak flavors.  For this style of wine balance is the most important thing. The reason why this style has had more bad press than Charlie Sheen is that, much like Mr. Sheen, balance is not in play. With these big, oaky wines don’t have acidity and elegance to balance them out, they become flabby, alcoholic and unpleasant (also like Charlie Sheen).

The moral of the story is that, even if you are sure that you don’t like a certain wine, it pays to give it a second (and maybe third) chance. Do a little research, ask questions, and be open to trying new wines. Chardonnay is such an adaptable grape which takes on the aspects of different influences subjected to it. Like tofu, it can begin very simply, but end up complex and delicious. Don’t underestimate it!  You may just discover that you loved it all along, just like my mother in law with her Pouilly Fuisse.

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