No to Chardonnay? Don’t Be So Judgy!

This month the Winophiles are writing about Chardonnay. This is for good reason, there are two important events that occur in May that showcase this noble varietal. The first is the anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, an event that occurred on May 24th, 1976, and the second is the “wine holiday” of Chardonnay Day, celebrated on May 25th.

Also known as the Paris Wine Tasting, the event put California wines up against French wines in a blind tasting. Nine French judges scored each wine based on a 20 point system. California won first place for both white and red wines, which literally shocked not only the world but the Judges and attendees.

Arguably, the most significant event in American wine history, three of the top four white wines were from California. If you are not familiar with this event, you can read an overview here.

Focusing on Chardonnay in this article, the table below lists the Chardonnay wines, and their ranking based on score. It is interesting to me that the total score for Chardonnay – 132 – was higher than the total score for the winning Cabernet Sauvignon -127.5.

1.Chateau Montelena 1973
2.Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973
3.Chalone Vineyard 1974
4.Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973
5.Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973
6.Freemark Abbey Winery 1972
7.Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 1973
8.Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domain Leflaive 1972
9.Veedercrest Vineyards 1972

The California wines came from Napa, Santa Cruz, and the Central Coast. The French wines were all from regions within Burgundy. To this day, Burgundy is considered to be the benchmark region of the world for Chardonnay wines, despite the fact that very knowledgeable French wine industry professionals clearly thought California wines were superior in a blind tasting.

The outcome of the Judgment of Paris really put America on the world stage, proving beyond any doubt that California was producing world class wines. The whites wines in this competition were all Chardonnay. Chardonnay wines not only represent some of the most expensive wines in the world – think Burgundy and Champagne – it is the 5th most planted wine grape variety worldwide. How can it be that so many people claim to hate Chardonnay?

The disdain becoming so intense in the late 80’s, a movement called “ABC” – anything but Chardonnay – was born. Perhaps spurring this anti-Chardonnay movement was an era in which California Chardonnay – Napa in particular -was known for being overly oaky, too buttery, and too high in alcohol. To be fair, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon also was criticized for these things during this same period. I think it is important to realize that the negative taste profiles are not a reflection of the grapes, so much as the winemaking techniques used. In the 1990’s those styles were what the consumer wanted.

I still frequently hear people malign Chardonnay. There surely must be some closet Chardonnay drinkers out there when you consider that there are more than 500,000 acres of vines are planted worldwide. Annual sales of Chardonnay in the United States are virtually tied with Cabernet Sauvignon: $2.459 and $2.575 respectively. * Today, Napa Valley, offers much more elegant and nuanced wines, reflecting consumer demand. This is true of other regions as well, but Napa led the way in those oaky, buttery Chardonnays and I feel the need to point out that most Napa producers now offer much more balanced wines.

One more thing that must be noted about Chardonnay. It is a food wine. It is goes great with just about anything you can think of. This is where I tell you that Chardonnay is an excellent choice for a tender cut of beef – think filet mignon. If you think you have to drink red wine with beef, I urge you to try a Chardonnay.

Let’s take a closer look at two Chardonnays. One is the 2020 vintage of the wine that won the Judgment of Paris – Chateau Montelena, and the other is a favorite wine of mine, from the Pouilly-Fuisse region of Burgundy.

Chateau Montelena|Chardonnay|2020|13.8% ABV|$69.99

Chateau Montelena has a long Napa Valley history. The land was first purchased and planted with vines in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs. The current history of the began with the purchase of the property in 1986. One of the investors on that purchase was a man named James Barrett. Barrett replanted the vineyards, hired Mike Grigich and began producing wines in 1972. It was the 1973 bottle that won at the Judgment of Paris.

There is so much history through this winery that a few fun facts have to be shared. That first winemaker, Mike Grigch, you probably know went on to head his own winery in Napa, an icon in his own right. James Barrett’s son Bo Barrett took over the winery and is at the helm today. He married a woman named Heidi. Heidi Peterson Barrett is an acclaimed winemaker in own right, Screaming Eagle is probably her most notable claim to fame, but she has numerous credits to her name.

There is a fictional movie based on Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay called Bottleshock. There has been great artistic liberties taken, but is nevertheless an entertaining movie that roughly tells the story.

Chateau Montelena is located in Calistoga, Napa’s northern most region. There are many acres of vineyards at the estate, but back in 1973 those vineyards were newly planted. I think the single most interesting thing about the story of this wine is that the majority of grapes for that 1973 bottle of Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris came from Sonoma county vineyards.

According to the Bacigalupi Vineyards website, 34 of 40 tons came from Sonoma, from the Russian River Valley and the Alexander Valley. In 1976, the AVA’s had not yet been established – the Napa AVA designation came in 1981. By today’s standards, the Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris would have to be identified as a Sonoma wine and not Napa. Fascinating.

The bill of sale for the 1973 Chardonnay grapes from Bacigalupi Vineyards. Photo from Bacigalupi Vineyards website.

The grapes for this 2020 bottle were harvested in late August. Current winemaker, Matt Crafton, aged the wine in French oak for 10 months, but the oak is definitely not overpowering. I got notes of apple, peach and lemon zest on the nose. These notes carried over to the palate with a lush mouthfeel. I think this wine is an excellent example of a modern Napa Valley Chardonnay, beautifully balanced. There is some vanilla and tiny hint of spice from the oak but it is sublte and plays it part without overpowering.

This is a wine I would enjoy sipping all by itself, but would be great with any number of dishes as well. I tasted it side by side with the Burgundy wine we are about to discuss and the most noticeable difference was slightly less acidity. I saved this bottle for after dinner and drank the Burgundy with dinner.

Louis Latour|Pouilly-Fuissé|2020|13% ABV|$25.99

This wine is one of the first times I realized I might have a slight preference for un-oaked Chardonnay, and any time I have a wine epiphany, the wine involved will always hold a special place in my heart. I do not want to imply that Burgundy doesn’t use oak in its production of white wines, it absolutely does, but this wine in particular does not.

This is a wine that is in rotation at all times at my house, which is why I chose it, even though it is technically not a great representation for the French wines that were part of the Judgment of Paris. This wine is indeed a Burgundian white and 100% Chardonnay, however, the reason for the very reasonable price is that it comes from the southernmost region of Burgundy, the Mâconnais region. I think it’s fair to say that the Mâconnais has not received the prestige that the rest of Burgundy has enjoyed.

I knew that the Mâconnais produces nearly all white wine – something like 85% – the vast majority of which is Chardonnay, but I was surprised to learn that Chardonnay dominates vine plantings for the entire Burgundy region (51.4%), and that white wine represents the majority of wines produced (60%). *

The Mâconnais has recently gained some recognition, with Premier Cru designations for some areas in 2020. To date there are no Grand Cru designations, but Premier Cru is a huge step in the right direction. The most prestigious area of the Mâconnais, receiving that Premier Cru status, is the Pouilly-Fuissé region.

Pouilly-Fuissé produces only Chardonnay wine, and I think of this AOC as the Goldilocks of Burgundy white wines, delicious and reasonably priced.

The image below, on the left, shows the Burgundy region as a whole and it’s location within France (graphic from Vins de Bourgogne website). On the right is a detailed image of the Mâconnais region, where you can see Pouilly-Fuissé clearly (image from Wine Folly website).

The maker of this bottle, Domaine Louis Latour, is a prolific producer, making wines from nearly every region in Burgundy, and several other regions in France. The family’s history in Burgundy dates back to the mid 18th century and the Domaine boasts the largest grand cru vineyard holdings in Burgundy.

I don’t know how many cases of this particular wine are produced but there’s no denying it comes from a large production situation. This bottle came from Costco and my local Total Wine carries it as well. There are quality indications here, beyond the fact that the wine is delicious. The grapes are hand picked and the wine spends 8-10 months in stainless steel prior to bottling. The average age of vines for this wine is 30 years.

I got aromas of apple and citrus with some minerality and herby-ness. On the palate this all carried over with the subtle addition of a pie crust – perhaps partially coming from the decadent mouthfeel of this wine, malolactic fermentation is evident. The acidity on this wine is noticeably more than the Chateau Montelena and perhaps that is what makes this wine so amazing – the creamy mouthfeel with the great acidity. We had this bottle with a pesto pasta and we thought was a delicious pairing.

Thanks to Deanna of Wineovore for hosting this month’s Winophiles theme. Whether Chardonnay is your favorite grape or not, you should definitely read these articles from other very talented #winophiles writers:

“A Tale of Two Chardonnays: From France’s Pays d’Oc and California’s Russian River Valley” from Camilla at Culinary Cam

“Chardonnay; Old World vs New World in Today’s World” from Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm

“Chardonnay Unites Us More than it Divides” from Susannah at Avinnare

“How to Think About the 1976 Judgement of Paris in 2023” from Jeff at Food Wine Click

Gwendolyn is sharing a food and wine pairing at Wine Predator

“Chardonnay Day with Domaine Charton-Vachet Montagny Cuvee” from Deanna at Wineivore


USA Wine Ratings

Vins de Bourgogne

Passport to Burgundy Wines

Making My Way Through the Mâconnais – Side Hustle Wino

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post! Yes, I, too, am a fan of the unoaked Chardonnays.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lynn says:

    Loved reading this bit of history about the majority of grapes in the winning Chard bottle (and your spin this month). Any idea whether Bacigalupi vineyards still exist? I learned this month with my last minute post this month, and your article just added to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. they do Lynn! They are in Healdsburg.

      Liked by 1 person

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