If I were to play the word association game with wine varietals, it would go something like this….
Cabernet Sauvignon: dark fruit.
Merlot: velvety tannins.
Cab Franc: spice.
Sauvignon Blanc: acidity.
In my opinion, Chardonnay has the broadest spectrum of styles and flavors. It can be oaky and buttery, floral and fruity, crisp and lean, rich and full-bodied, funky (i.e. barnyard or cat piss), spicy or sweet (or any combination of these descriptors).
How can one grape yield so many different wine styles? Whether or not the wine is aged in oak makes all the difference.
I’m not saying Chardonnay is a blank slate, but it’s a very malleable variety. If you blind-tasted an unoaked Chardonnay and a Chardonnay that was aged in oak barrels (or aged in large stainless steel tanks with oak chips added), you probably would not guess that the two wines were made from the same grape.
Aging wine in oak barrels adds specific flavoring, such as baking spices, caramel, or woody notes. The newer the barrels, the more flavor they impart on the wine. Sometimes, it’s too much and the natural fruity flavors of the wine are overpowered by the oak (it’s called Rombauer Chardonnay).
J Vineyards does an exceptional job of using just the right amount of oak for their cool-climate Russian River Valley Chardonnay. It is aged for six months in French oak barrels (35% of which were brand-new), which is just long enough for the wine to absorb some of the vanilla and baking spice notes but retain its unique freshness and fruit flavors.
The 2009 J Russian River Valley Chardonnay is elegant and expressive. Aromas of orange blossom, green apple and toast greet the nose. The palate offers flavors of Meyer lemon, vanilla, and nutmeg. This wine has bright acidity and a brilliant finish that leaves the taste of lemon lingering on the tongue until the next sip.
I paired this delicious Chardonnay with a summertime salad of little gems lettuces, cherry tomatoes, sweet white corn, feta, avocado and marcona almonds with a simple olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing. The wine was light enough to pair with this simple, healthy meal. I will definitely enjoy this pairing again, but it would also pair well with seafood risotto, butternut squash and farro salad, pesto pasta, or roast chicken and potatoes.