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The Chardonnay That Changed My Mind

February 14, 2010

If I didn’t learn something invaluable on the Napa Valley Wine Train, I would say that the tourist trap was a phenomenal waste of money.

But it wasn’t even my money.  I was compelled to get on the train for some kind of business affair well over a decade ago.  My memory for these kinds of things is surprisingly long.  For example, I remember the salad was topped with a wedge of Cambozola, and that I ordered the filet mignon.  I also remember that after dinner I found myself in conversation with the inventor of the Clif Bar.

The food was passable.  I suppose for being made on a train it was remarkably good.  However, Napa isn’t just wine country, it’s food country as well.  And it’s a crime to have sub-par food while in the region.  Plus seeing the wineries from a passing train did nothing for me.  The point is not to just see the wineries.  The goal should be to experience them.  But we’ll save that for a later post.

The wine on the train however, was memorable.  Well, at least one of the wines was.  In fact, the one wine was so memorable it completely eclipsed the other.  That wine was Far Niente’s chardonnay.

You may not realize this, but chardonnay is a very divisive wine.

On one hand, it is the most popular white varietal by far.
On the other hand, many wine cognoscenti openly snub it.
Then again, some of the world’s best white wines are made with the grape.

So what gives?

A lot of chardonnay isn’t that special.  That does not mean it’s not tasty.  It just means that it just isn’t that interesting.  Most chardonnay from California tastes the same.  It’s full of oak, vanilla and butter with some tropical fruit flavors.  People like these flavors, which what makes it so popular.  But more critical wine drinkers might prefer something with better balance, more finesse and less manhandling.

Early in my wine journey, I never really saw the appeal of chardonnay.  But the one bottle on the train changed all that.

The Far Niente blew me away.  It was the wine’s complexity and depth of flavor that turned me around.  I realized that this is what chardonnay can be.  And after that realization I discovered that those exciting Far Niente flavors were present in lesser chardonnays.  Maybe not to the same extent or degree, but those wines could recall a bit of that Far Niente experience. In some ways the experience is similar to my first encounter with with great dim sum.

Many wine drinkers, when asked about which white wines they like, will respond with a jaunty “ABC.”  Which stands for “anything but chardonnay.”  And I can’t exactly blame them.  There are a lot better things to drink than most American chardonnays, so ABC is a pretty good strategy for avoiding a disappointing wine.

However, I’m guessing if you offered someone from the ABC club a glass of Montrachet or Meursault they would change their tune.  And if they didn’t, I would question their bona fides as a serious wine drinker.

The lesson: be open to new experiences, but unless someone else is paying (both for the meal and your time) avoid the wine train.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 14, 2010 11:05 am

    In general, I prefer Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre over Chardonnay.

  2. llcwine permalink
    February 15, 2010 9:24 am

    I’m a huge fan of the Chardonnays from the 90’s…those that were big, fat and buttery. The Far Niente is an incredible wine, but so is the Kistler, and there are quite a few others. I also like some of the California Viognier’s …but it’s such a quirky grape, that it’s hard to find a consistent vineyard. Oh, and another great white is the Caymus Conundrum, a blend, but it’s definitely a consistent winner.

    • February 15, 2010 10:25 am

      The Far Niente was just the first. Kistler was another stand-out. I can’t recall the specific bottling, but I do remember the experience and what it taught me. I learned from Kistler how the taste of tar in a white wine can be a very good thing indeed (as surprising as that may sound).

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