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Chardonnay, chastised

Merlot, this white wine feels your pain

Merlot, Chardonnay feels your pain.

A movement of wine aficionados has declared themselves ABC: Anything But Chardonnay. And “those voices just keep getting louder and louder,” according to Keith Mabry, chairman of the American Wine Society’s Los Angeles chapter.

Although the “queen of the white grapes” has yet to see the market collapse that dogged Merlot post-“Sideways,” since 1994 Chardonnay sales have dropped almost 50% in high-end restaurants across the U.S., according to a 2005 poll in Wine & Spirits magazine.

Why all the haters? As any pop star could tell you, there’s always a backlash.

National wine consumption is at an all-time high and, for the last two decades, Chardonnay has been the dominant white variety in the U.S.

However, the elements that made it attractive to wine novices — an accessible flavor profile, wide availability — are the ones inspiring disdain in oenophiles now intrigued by once-obscure varietals such as France’s Viognier and Vouvray, Italy’s Verdiccio, Austrian Rieslings and Spain’s Albarinos.

Chardonnay is the most malleable grape, one that makes it easy for a vintner to leave a stamp. Too often, however, that stamp is heavy oak and the buttery signature of malolactic fermentation.

There’s another side of Chardonnay, one that’s leaner and crisper. It’s a more subtle style — but according to Au Bon Climat vintner Jim Clendenen, subtlety doesn’t win contests.

In the early 1990s, he says major wine companies and “score whores” began tweaking Chardonnays to create tropical fruit bombs that were high in alcohol, residual sugar and attention-getting oak.

“There’s a sheep-like mentality to winemaking,” says Clendenen. “The critics aren’t tasting the wines in the context of a meal. It’s like a beauty contest or picking a mate online from 12 headshots — the only thing that can win is the biggest, richest, most outlandish style.” However, the ABC sentiment has also pushed the envelope in Chardonnay production.

“People are revisiting old-world styles from France,” Mabry says. “And the Australians (have) more of a sentiment toward unoaked styles called ‘virgin chards.’ ”

To find some of the better Chardonnays, Variety Weekend orchestrated a tasting in the sunken wine room at Sterling Steakhouse.

“For God’s sake, don’t thrash a whole race of grapes,” says Sterling sommelier Jonathan Mitchell. “It’s the wine equivalent of racism — grapeism.”

Wine: Lafon Meursault
Year: 2002
Price: $145
Notes: Standout. A drier Chardonnay with a floral, muscaty nose and hints of white pepper, celery and cucumber; crisp, light and clean on the palate.

Wine: Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay
Year: 2002
Price: $65
Notes: Standout. From the Margaret River region in Western Australia. Lush, clean, with an especially expressive nose – hints of pineapple, lime and toasted oats; light body and an acidic finish.

Wine: Hyde Vineyard Ramey Chardonnay
Year: 2002
Price: $55
Notes: Standout. Deep, complex and distinctly Californian. Viscous and palate-coating, a case study for good oak. Well balanced lemon-lime components; earthy, smoky undertones with traces of butter and caramel and a big popcorn-y finish.

Wine: Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
Year: 2003
Price: $18
Notes: A steal. Very complex and an excellent example of balance. Rich with a “whole quarry of minerality.” Light, lively and clean finish.

Wine: Peter Michael Chardonnay “Belle Fille”
Year: 2003
Price: $160
Notes: A fairly straightforward, balanced and elegant Chardonnay. Ripe, exotic fruit flavors – prickly pear, apricot, white melon, red apple, lime and traces of lemon oil. A nice amount of oak and butter.

Wine: Marc Colin Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru “Les Caillerets”
Year: 2003
Price: $60
Notes: Bold, complex and spicy, with hints of baked apple and lemon; a slightly more austere Chardonnay with good oak and an elegant nose.

Wine: Antinori “Cervaro” Chardonnay
Year: 2002
Price: $47
Notes: From Umbria. A low-key, Burgundian-style wine with terrific balance; a bright creamy, unobtrusive palate.

Wine: Frank Family Chardonnay
Year: 2004
Price: $30
Notes: A classic California Chardonnay. Concentrated fruit with hints of white melon, apple pie, pear, vanilla, clove and roasted almonds. Toasty and balanced with a spicy, citrusy finish.

Wine: O’Connor Chardonnay
Year: 2004
Price: $17
Notes: Produced by Spago’s sommelier, Kevin O’Connor. Lean and simple, with good acid and lots of spicy flavor; creamy and sweet but with a fresh and somewhat citrusy finish.

Tasters included Jonathan Mitchell, sommelier, Sterling Steakhouse; Sterling general manager Rob Harpest; Norman’s sommelier and general manager Peter Birmingham; Silver Lake Wine partner George Cossette; and Eric Lawrence Brown, Wally’s sales manager. All bottles were purchased at Wally’s and sampled blind.

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