For decades, consumers and critics have complained about the overbearing oak in many New World chardonnays. I share their irritation. The flavour is cloying and hollow, like biting into a caramel apple only to find there is no apple inside.
A product of extended barrel aging, it is most commonly associated with producers in warm climates, such as California, South Australia and Chile. Sun and heat yield ripeness, and the luscious fruit character of most New World chardonnay practically begs for oak, like a juicy peach in search of a pie crust. When applied judiciously, oak softens rough edges, adds complexity through slow exposure to oxygen and imparts complementary vanilla, caramel and toasty flavours from the wood grains. When done wrong, it obscures the fruit.
But it's obvious to me that many producers have been scaling back the timber. Among other things, they are putting more used – rather than new – barrels into play. Older oak carries a more neutral flavour, delivering complexity without the splinters.
While I am no fan of big oak (unwooded Chablis is my desert-island chardonnay), often I feel the greater evil is a surfeit of sweetness. All wines, even "dry" ones, contain traces of residual sugar not consumed by yeast in the fermenting vat. How much to leave in is a judgment call because one can stop fermentation at any point; sooner means sweeter (hello, Yellow Tail), later means drier.
I developed yet another case of sugar shock while tasting an array of chardonnays recently. The good ones were models of balance, lively with acidity and layered with nuances, even though they carried substantial oak on their backs. The inferior ones, while not what I would call offensive, could have been better with less sugar or, at least, with more acidity to balance the sweetness.
Let me start with a few winners, none of them cheap. Forman Chardonnay 2010 from Napa Valley ($52.95; score 94) wears its wood in a manner that reminded me of Sophia Loren's description of a good dress – "serving its purpose without obstructing the view." Ripe with tropical fruit flavour, it manages to deliver floral perfume and bright acidity.
Ridge Estate Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains ($49.95; 95 points), aged a full year in both new and used barrels, integrates just enough toasty-oak flavour into a creamy but crisp core of tropical fruit. And Sol De Andes Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2009 from Chile ($17.94, 90 points) is a model of the balanced big-body style at a reasonable price.
On the less successful side, there is Clos du Bois Calcaire Chardonnay 2010 from California's Russian River Valley ($24.95; 85 points). It clearly has seen time in the barrel, with enough caramel to evoke 12-year-old Scotch, but it might have found its mark with more acidity to underscore the ample fruit that seemed to be hiding behind the logs. Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2009 from Sonoma ($20.95; 86 points) is more demurely oaked, but it's just too sweet to go with most food. I could go on.
It's not as simple as turning down the sugar dial in the cellar, of course. Good balance depends on a host of variables, including weather, soil, yeast and the choice of when to harvest. But I suspect that most sweet chardonnays are saccharine by design rather than because of error or the vagaries of nature.
Most Americans – Canadians too – judge wine without regard to food. That's where sugar comes in. Though we may pay lip service to food-and-wine pairing, generally we treat wine as a cocktail, talking dry while craving sweet. Whether it's got the structure and acidity to cleanse the palate and bring lift to a dish matters little in the end. Otherwise, we would be buying a lot more crisp Chablis, which generally offers good value compared with $18-and-up hot-climate chardonnay. We would also seek out more lively chardonnays from cool-climate regions in New Zealand (Kumeu River is outstanding) and Canada (Tawse and Painted Rock are impressive).
If there's a poster wine for the Kool-Aid style, it's Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. Created in the early 1980s by the late Jess Jackson, who made a vast fortune as a property-rights lawyer and computer-services entrepreneur, it went on to become one of the most popular wines in the United States, the first premium juggernaut. Its poorly kept secret? Just enough residual sugar to technically qualify as dry while delivering what the mass market really wanted. Over the years, I have heard high-minded winemakers lambaste the product for its chemistry-set sleight of hand. Commercial success breeds derision in the land of wine snobbery.
As I tasted the 2010 vintage of Vintner's Reserve the other week (priced at $19.95 in Ontario; 88 points), I was surprised. Next to the Clos du Bois and Rodney Strong, sampled side by side, it seemed well-balanced, with firmer acid backbone than in its early vintages. A little too engineered to rank as excellent in my mind, like a slickly produced Auto-Tune vocal, but balanced. Kool-Aid it's not. Thank goodness.