Uncorked: Winemaker's style defines chardonnay's elastic profile

A particular style for chardonnay is hard to define.

It is the most planted white wine grape in the country. California leads the way with over 93,000 acres, Washington is pushing 6,000 acres, and Oregon has 2,400, yet it is still impossible to nail down a particular style that defines the variety.

“With chardonnay, you could showcase the clone or you could showcase the terroir,” Chehalem winemaker Katie Santora said. “In Oregon, I don’t think we’ve figured it out yet. I think the winemaker’s style determines what the wine is.”

Fermentation has a big impact on flavor. At Chehalem, Santora uses stainless steel so there’s a focus on fruit. While other winemakers use oak barrels, the degree of how many are new or used has a great impact on the wine.

When it comes to Mi Sueño Los Carneros Chardonnay 2017 ($42), Rolando Herrera wanted a wine that showcased the vineyard. The wine had flavors of fleshy, ripe peaches, pineapple and flinty, wet rock.

“I wanted to do something unique and do it in a different style,” Herrera said. “I knew it could be good, but when people tasted it and loved it, I knew it was really good.”

The winemaker with vineyards in Napa Valley, Carneros and Coombsville used all native yeasts for fermentation; what goes in the bottle has come from the vineyard. Anecdotally, he’s noticed an increased number of chardonnay [styles] headed along his direction.

“I think a lot of wines are headed towards our style with Mi Sueño,” Herrera said. “I taste a lot of wines and have seen a move towards less oak and more fruit and acidity. I’ve understood the concept of understanding Mother Nature since day number one. I’m fascinated by what she does, and want to let the vineyard speak without too much oak or butter flavor in the wine.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chehalem Willamette Valley Inox Chardonnay 2018 ($20), which is fermented in 100% stainless steel. The result is a light-bodied white that had a tint of pale yellow in the glass with beautiful Bosc pear and lemon zest flavors. For food pairings, its perfect mates would be shellfish, where it contrasts with the fatty brininess, a melon salad where it plays off the off-sweet flavors, or thinly sliced prosciutto to further enhance the fatty, salty meat.

“I feel like this is a wine for people who are struggling to like chardonnay,” Santora said. “It changes people’s perception of what chardonnay can be.”

One of the best domestic values is the Stoller Dundee Hills Chardonnay 2019 ($25). My personal favorite, the flavors and aromas of ripe Michigan peaches jump from the glass. Hints of ginger and baking spice add complexity on winemaker Melissa Burr’s flagship white.

With an unctuous and smooth texture, William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($27) was a deep golden color in the glass, and had flavors of kiwi and lemon to go along with a little tasty marshmallow and oak on the finish.

Aromas and flavors of pineapple, banana and baked pears set the tone for J Russian River Valley “Strata” Chardonnay 2017 ($40), which turns oaky on the mid-palate before ushering in toasty vanilla notes on the finish.

From the Sta. Rita Hills, a cool climate haven for Burgundian varietals pinot noir and chardonnay, is the delicately fruit-driven Alma Rosa Chardonnay 2017 ($38). There are white flower blossom, orange rind, white peach and citrus flavors. There’s little oak impact and the result is a fresh, lithe wine.

A hedonistic wine that featured plenty of butter and oak flavors was the Harken Chardonnay 2019 ($15). The toasty, sweet flavors of crème brûlée, pineapple and baked pears were bold and tied in well with the FandangoNOW sweepstakes that offered a winner one year of free movie rentals.

Popcorn pairing

The wine paired perfectly with my homemade popcorn recipe, passed down from my father, tweaked over the years and shared for the first time ever outside the Nokes family here. Warm two tablespoons of canola oil in a medium-sized, copper-bottomed saucepan until shimmering. Add a cup of white popcorn kernels and cover, without peeking to check the progress. It’s done popping when there are more than three seconds between pops.

Meanwhile, melt three tablespoons of butter in a saute pan, don’t let it brown, just get it to golden. Toss the popcorn in the pan, this could be done more than once, and place the now buttered popcorn in a bowl.

Key are the goodies that go on top: half a teaspoon of kosher salt and pepper and a quarter teaspoon of paprika and garlic powder. Finally, shred cheddar cheese and mozzarella cheese and toss the popcorn in the bowl. Finish it with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese on top.

Lastly, sit on the couch, grab a chardonnay and start up movie night.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.