Steven Spurrier did not set out to send the wine world into a great upheaval. He was an advocate of French wine, and always looking for ways to further that belief. He was so confident of the superiority of his beloved wines that he arranged a blind tasting versus the wines of California to prove it. Paris was selected as the site (of course), and judges from all over the country were brought in for the event. The Paris Wine Tasting was going to prove once and for all that French wine was superior to all other comers. The year was 1976, the same year the United States was celebrating its bicentennial. Little did anyone know at the time that the U.S. was going to cause another major upheaval in a major European power during that anniversary.
Chardonnay was the white wine of choice for both countries; the French brought in a Bordeaux for the red, and the U.S. offered a Cabernet Sauvignon. There was so little doubt in the outcome, France sent no media. TIME magazine was the only press that attended the event. In a decision that stunned everyone in the wine world, the wines in the United States were declared the best across the board.
The Judgment of Paris launched California wines into the spotlight, Chardonnay being thrust straight to the forefront. But Chardonnay had a well-deserved reputation in the wine industry for centuries before that. No one is sure when or how this flexible grape came into being. The most popular theory is that the Romans brought the Gouais blanc variety of grapes to Gaul as they marched through Europe. The grapes started to cross breed with the native Pinot grapes, and the Chardonnay grape was born. In its European home it was used to create white Burgundy wine, seen as one of the finest white wines in the world. There was a blend of the soil, the flexibility of the grape, and the oak it was kept in that develop rich and complex flavors. It is also one of the three grapes (with Pinot noir or Pinot Meunier) that are commonly used in champagne production. Chardonnay vines love chalk, clay, and limestone soils the best, one reason it flourished in the Burgundy region. The vine also travels well, making it the second most popular white wine grape in the world, and fifth of all wine grapes.
Planting Chardonnay grapes in your vineyard is almost a rite of passage; it is a relatively easy grape to grow. It also is not picky about where it grows, taking root all over the world. It buds early in the spring, but the right techniques can delay the budding for warmer weather to keep the grape’s acidity. The quick ripening does not have to be delayed, making it perfect for a short growing season. Cooler regions, like northern California and New York, are also ideal. The grapes do not ripen as quickly, allowing them to stay on the vine longer to develop some flavor. That is the one small drawback of this super grape. On its own, it does not have much flavor. It is completely dependent on two things: the soil it is grown in (or terroir) and oaking the wine (storing it in oak barrels). This means that the vintner has a big opportunity to implant their own mark on it. They have choices on if they want to put in oak (imparting vanilla and caramel flavors) and where to grow it. If they do not use oak barrels to mature the wine, they will use stainless steel columns. The stainless steel adds nothing, so the flavors of the soil are more pronounced. Cooler climates will impart fruit notes like apple or pear, while warmer climates can add tropical mango and pineapple flavors. The vintner can also choose to put the wine through malolactic fermentation. This changes malic acid to lactic acid, adding a butteriness to the wine. The charm and popularity of Chardonnay comes from the malleability of the flavor profile. This wide spectrum of flavors means that it can go well with any dish, from savory to sweet, if you select the proper wine.
It is not all sunshine and spring breezes for this widely loved wine. Talking about Chardonnay with some friends, one of them called it “the McDonalds of wines”. Much like McDonalds, and to the chagrin of many wine drinkers, Chardonnay is global. It is sturdy, easy to grow, and very profitable. With so much of it planted all over the world, it is very common as well. It lacks a distinction that a Chablis, made of the same grape, enjoys. The lack of flavor in the grape also means that it can be overpowered by strong flavors, especially when it is left in the oak too long. It has also been popular for a very long time, so it is associated with older wine drinkers. And no one wants to be drinking what their parents drank.
The Judgment of Paris opened the floodgates for Chardonnay all over the world. The tête-à-tête match in 1976 was not a random event; every competition between France and the United States afterwards has had similar results. The celebration and overall continued popularity of this dry, impressionable wine resulted in the creation of National Chardonnay Day in 2009. The actual day it is celebrated on, much like the wine it celebrates, is still malleable. It is near the last week of May, but various sites have it being honored on the 22nd or 23rd. It has also been enjoyed some years as late as May 26th. Of course, enjoying Chardonnay on all of those days is just as acceptable. Head to Arrow Wine, Rumbleseat Wine, The Wine Gallery, or any of the many wine merchants in Dayton and pick up a bottle or two to enjoy with friends. If you have any suggestions, we’d love to hear them in the comments below or on Facebook! Now, who has the wine key?