When we released our first Underwood Mountain Chardonnay back in 2017, we heard a lot of comments to the effect of, “I don’t like Chardonnay.” This was especially true amongst younger drinkers and considering how diverse and plentiful Chardonnay is around the world, this surprised us. Perhaps Chardonnay was too mainstream to the younger generation, who wanted to explore wines that were more expressive and obscure? There is certainly a trend (or at least more acceptance) toward natural wines and wines that would be considered in more snobby circles, “flawed.”
Over the course of several vintages of our Chardonnay, we began hearing more “I USUALLY don’t like Chardonnay, but I like this one.” We ascertained that American taste buds have been exposed to a very limited style of Chardonnay. In fact, ever since Chateau Montelena won the prestigious Judgement of Paris back in 1973, California has dominated sales of Chardonnay in the US. The particular style of Chardonnay that befits its warm, marine climate was higher alcohol, low acidity, ample use of new barrels, and full completion of the secondary (or malolactic) fermentation that gives the wine a creamy flavor and voluminous mouthfeel. This is what most Americans consider Chardonnay, and so it is no wonder that Millennials and younger drinkers in general have rejected this Chardonnay as “mommy juice.”
Unbeknownst to many of them, there is a whole world of Chardonnay out there to explore, and we are here to set the record straight. In fact, we would argue that, of all the places where Chardonnay is widely planted, California’s climate is LEAST suited to making high quality Chardonnay. Yet that’s what the consumer has been drinking, decade after decade. We believe the tyranny of the buttery Chardonnay is at its end, and we have some mouthwatering alternatives for you to explore.
As we explore this world of Chardonnay, we imagine the grape as a blank canvas, ready to absorb the influences of various regional terroirs, akin to the palette of famous painters, allowing for a vibrant exploration of the diverse expressions found in each wine-growing region.
Burgundy, France: Chardonnay’s Birthplace
When I visited Burgundy in 2015, I was fairly certain that I had no interest in making Chardonnay. By the time I had left Burgundy a week later, my opinion of Chardonnay was completely transformed, and I was determined to make a Chardonnay from Underwood fruit that could compare on some level to what I had been tasting in Burgundy.
Often regarded as the birthplace of Chardonnay, Burgundy epitomizes the grape’s elegance and complexity. Here, Chardonnay thrives in limestone-rich soils, producing wines that are often described as refined, nuanced, and expressive. The cooler climate imparts high acidity, allowing for a balance of flavors ranging from citrus and green apple in youth to richer notes of hazelnut and butter with age. Sub-regions like Chablis offer lean, mineral-driven Chardonnays, while those from Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet showcase greater richness and depth.
The canvas inspired by Burgundy’s terroir portrays a delicate yet intricate masterpiece. Imagine a canvas painted with soft strokes of pale gold and hints of green. The strokes represent the elegant acidity, mineral undertones, and layers of flavors—subtle citrus hues merging seamlessly with whispers of hazelnut and buttery richness. The overall painting exudes refinement and sophistication, akin to a Monet masterpiece.
California: New World Elegance
Alright, enough with the Cali bashing. There are millions of Americans who still love a lush and fruit-forward style Chardonnay. So let’s give Napa and Sonoma their due. And give me a top-notch Russian River Chardonnay any day and I’m happy. It is true that California crafts Chardonnays that embrace a fruit-forward style. The warmer climate results in riper grapes, yielding wines with flavors of tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, and ripe peach. These Chardonnays often undergo malolactic fermentation and oak aging, contributing to a creamy texture and notes of vanilla and toast, adding complexity to the fruit-forward profile.
In painterly terms the Californian canvas is bold and vibrant, swathed in rich golden hues with splashes of tropical colors. Picture a canvas where ripe golden fruits like pineapple, mango, and peach intermingle, creating a vivid and expressive artwork. It’s textured with strokes of creamy vanilla and toasty oak, akin to a vibrant, impressionistic piece by Van Gogh.
Australia: Sunshine in a Glass
Australian Chardonnay, notably from regions like Margaret River and Adelaide Hills, displays a spectrum of styles. Cooler areas emphasize acidity and minerality, showcasing citrus and stone fruit flavors with a crisp, refreshing finish. Meanwhile, warmer regions yield fuller-bodied wines with ripe tropical fruit flavors, balanced by oak influences, creating rich, buttery textures.
The Australian canvas is diverse, capturing a range of styles within its frame. Imagine a canvas with dual personalities: one side showcasing bright, sun-soaked tropical colors—ripe pineapples and lush peaches; the other side featuring cooler, mineral-driven strokes of green apple and citrus. This canvas evokes a sense of duality, reminiscent of an abstract artwork by Picasso.
Chile: Emerging Chardonnay Players
Regions such as Casablanca Valley and Limarí Valley benefit from cooling influences, allowing for slower ripening and preservation of acidity. Chilean Chardonnays often exhibit vibrant acidity, accompanied by flavors of green apple, pear, and citrus. Some producers opt for stainless steel fermentation, resulting in fresher, fruit-focused wines, while others use oak to add layers of complexity and creaminess.
Chile’s Chardonnay canvas mirrors Frida Kahlo’s earthy palette. Imagine warm, terracotta hues representing the rich soils, overlaid with strokes of vibrant greens reflecting the lush vineyards. Subtle tones of azure blue signify the cooling influences from the ocean, while hints of gold and amber represent the sun’s influence on the ripe Chardonnay grapes.
Underwood, Washington | Columbia Gorge AVA: An Under the Radar Hotspot
And what to make of our own backyard? We can say without hesitation that our climate is cooler than any of the regions described above. So our Chardonnay has fruit profiles ranging from green apple to pear and citrus. The high acidity and minerality is similar in character to a Chablis, yet we ferment and age in oak to promote the softening of the acids and add some sweetness and texture to the wine.
Imagine the canvas for Columbia Gorge Chardonnay akin to Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic fusion. The canvas begins with sandy hues representing the arid landscapes, while strokes of pale greens and blues symbolize the cooling influence of the Columbia River and the higher altitude. The canvas is punctuated by bursts of golden yellows, akin to the sun-kissed Chardonnay grapes thriving in this unique terroir.
Similar to O’Keeffe’s ability to blend simplicity with vividness, Columbia Gorge Chardonnay captures both the elegance of a cooler climate and the vibrancy of ripe fruit. It’s a canvas that marries earthy subtleties with bursts of brightness, crafting wines that harmonize complexity with a crisp, refreshing nature.
Bottom line: Chardonnay exhibits remarkable versatility and adaptability to various terroirs around the world, yielding wines that showcase a spectrum of flavors, textures, and aromas. Its widespread cultivation in diverse regions across the globe has led to an intriguing array of Chardonnay styles, each expressing unique characteristics influenced by climate, soil, winemaking techniques, and regional nuances. Come taste our newly released 2022 Underwood Mountain Chardonnay and see where our wine fits in the broad landscape of Chardonnay.