Big, fat chardonnays make a splash with food

In a 1999 issue of Decanter – the UK publication that bills itself as "The World's Best Wine Magazine" – there was an interesting story done on two separate tastings involving the exact same lineup of California and French grown chardonnays. One tasting took place in New York City with a panel of American experts, and the other in London with some well known British experts.

The two panels met at the exact same time (although the Brits tasted five hours earlier due to the time difference), but the results were, not surprisingly, divergent. The British experts, who are accustomed to the taste of French wines, rated a 1996 Beaune Clos des Mouches by Joseph Drouhin – a full, refined, smoky, minerally, lemony edged wine – first. The American experts, who are more accustomed to the taste of California wines, rated the Beaune Clos des Mouches ninth out of ten.

The Americans’ top choice, on the other hand, was a 1997 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch from Napa Valley -- a big, thick, opulent chardonnay, with almost a tropical fruit intensity. The British experts rated the Shafer a mere seventh out of ten. One American judge described the Shafer as "exotic, but not over the top," whereas a Brit described it as having "no subtlety, too much of everything... a Pamela Anderson wine.”

That two groups of people should have different tastes in wine comes as no surprise. But as an observer on the sideline, what I found surprising was the somewhat narrow perspective evident in comments from both sides, which I always find disappointing when it comes to "experts.”

One of the British judges, for instance, commented that he'd hoped to find a range of California chardonnays that “have moved on since the old days of no acidity or zip." Acidity, schmidity – who cares? Everyone knows that California chardonnays – even ones from cooler climate regions like Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara – have never really been about acidity; but rather, about rich, round, textured, even opulent fruitiness. What about more catholic, simpler, meaningful standards, like: does the wine taste good? Is it pleasingly smooth, impressively flavorful? This is, after all, how people who actually drink chardonnay would rate them -- how much they taste like California chard, not French or anything else.

In another instance, one American taster, reflecting on the British opinion that these full sized California chardonnays are not particularly food-friendly, exclaimed: "Hey, I don't think any of us want to go home and drink these either!" Of course, if I was going home to eat spaghetti and meatballs, I wouldn’t want to drink chardonnay; and neither would I care for a fine, crisp white Burgundy. Come to think of it, tart edged New Zealand sauvignon blancs do not go with every dish; and neither do Germany's rieslings, grand crus Bordeaux, Italy’s Supertuscans, or any other “great” wines of the world.

The point being: like it or not, great California chardonnay has now long been, almost by definition, something very full in alcohol (at least 13% or even 14%), and filled out with enormously intense, juicy apple or pineapple-like fruitiness. Neither are they shy in the creamy, vanillin, toasted and/or smoky oak department. This may be hard for judges of continental taste to swallow, but it certainly isn’t for the huge number of California chardonnay drinkers around the world!

So let’s talk chardonnay for what it is, not what we wish it were. Like the perception, according to many wine geeks today, that it is not much of a “food wine.” Nonsense.

I’m sorry, but anyone who says chardonnay doesn’t match food just doesn’t understand food or wine. Sure, unlike other varietal type wines – like sauvignon blanc, riesling and grüner veltliner – chardonnay tends to be bigger, fatter, oakier, and lower in acidity. But there are plenty of dishes that actually taste better with wines that are bigger, oakier and lower in acidity. Dishes that make a French Chablis, sauvignon blanc, riesling and grüner veltliner taste weak and puny, lean and mean.

Let’s cut to the chase and share some guidelines when cooking to match chardonnays:
  • Look for fleshier white meats (from deep sea fish and lobster to game birds, pork, veal and sweetbreads); and if the meat isn’t replete with its own natural fats and juices, prepare it with sensations of similarity with the use of butters, oils (ever try it with truffled popcorn?), creams or mild aiolis.
  • It’s also a good idea to balance these meats with moderate use of contrasting ingredients such as lemon (acidity), mustards, garlic, and all varieties of mushroom (earth tones), and fresh vegetables (like corn and carrot), fruit (peach and apple), or caramelized onions (touches of sweetness) and perhaps smoked white sausages or bacon.
  • Playing up smoky oak qualities by wood grilling, smoking or slow roasting, and use of toasted nuts (like pistachio, sesame seeds and pine nuts) is not such a bad idea.
  • Accenting chardonnay fruitiness with flatteringly scented herbs (especially chives, sweet basil, parsley, and more moderately, dill, sage, tarragon and rosemary) also does the trick.
  • Moderately soft, milky cheeses like Havarti, young Goudas, most Mozzarellas, Bricks and crèmes are delicious with the biggest, fattiest, oakiest chardonnays; and so incorporating such ingredients into dishes is another crafty thing to do.
What shouldn’t you do when cooking for chardonnay? Just as a glass of orange juice or a dollop of ketchup is not ideal on a scoop of sweet, creamy ice cream, use of sharp ingredients like vinegars, sauerkraut or raw tomato, more lethally scented seasonings like ginger, cilantro, kaffir lime or raw garlic, salty tastes like shoyu and salted fish, and hot tastes like curries and chili pastes, are all likely to take the stuffing right out of an intense chardonnay’s generously oaked, high alcohol fruitiness, making the wine taste flabby, paper-dry or bitter, and the dishes themselves too acidic, salty, fiery, or just plain weird.

In other words, aggressive fusion style dishes, or even traditionally soured, salted or chili spiced foods, are not chardonnay’s forte, and you shouldn’t ask it to be. The same when it comes to pastas in zesty tomato sauce, vinegary salads and seviches, hot sour soups and barbecues – don't expect chardonnay to go where it doesn't belong.

Finally, although ideal chardonnay matches fall fabulously into the realm of “other white meats,” I see nothing wrong with the enjoyment of this wine with leaner cuts of beef (like filet sizzling rare in a heart stopping pool of butter); or with use of thin strips of beef or even lamb in the Asian tradition (like classic tataki with cucumbers and chiso), providing the use of excessively salty, sour or hot ingredients is restrained. Especially if that is what you like.

Over the years I have compiled a list of favorite, tried-and-true matches for chardonnay; dishes that harness the wine’s gleeful girth of fruit, smoke, and creamy or buttery textures to delicious effect. Not surprisingly, many of these dishes involve butter. If only for that reason, you gotta love’em even if you don’t normally drink chardonnay.


Chardonnay matches we have known and loved


Listed along with their original sources or inspirations, the following ideas should give you plenty enough ammunition to do your own thing in the kitchen:
  • Julia Child’s veal with mushrooms and cream
  • Julia Child’s sweetbreads sautéed in butter
  • Harvey Steiman’s veal osso buco in dill chardonnay jus
  • John Ash’s wild mushrooms sautéed in fennel butter sauce
  • Chris Gesualdi’s herb crusted moonfish with summer vegetables in lobster coral butter
  • Roy Yamaguchi’s seared mahi mahi in roasted macadamia nut lobster butter sauce
  • Richard Olney’s truffled white sausage sausage with pistachios and court-bouillon
  • Cory Schreiber’s seared salmon in sweet corn broth with leeks and chanterelles
  • David Rosengarten’s grilled snapper with roasted sweet pepper, tropical fruit and cilantro salsa
  • My own homemade burrito with smoked mozzarella and kalua pig (woodsmoked Hawaiian style pulled pork) and lomi lomi style pico de gallo ("chop chop" tomato/green onion salsa)

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