Chardonnay, Riesling, and the Death of Honest Experiences
Imagine you, a chef, have me to dinner.
You spend the afternoon making a beautiful marinara sauce to serve over pasta.
I sniff and pout and profess “well… I don’t eat tomatoes.”
There’s an uncomfortable moment, and you say “why don’t you eat tomatoes?”
My response: “Well, because I’ve had ketchup three times, and all three times I hated it, therefore I hate tomatoes.”
[pause for effect]
Imagine your partner, who happens to be an interior designer, brings home a new lamp.
Beautiful, stylish, and perfectly appropriate for the end table it’s aimed for.
You say “Oh, but it’s light blue. I hate light blue.”
Your partner gives you a long look and says “what? Why?”
You respond: “well, I have a shirt that’s light blue that looks weird on me, so I threw it out and now I hate light blue things.”
Your partner divorces you for being ridiculous.
But now, imagine you’re at a wine bar or fine restaurant.
The sommelier brings you a glass of something special to try - a fine Chardonnay.
Without even tasting it you sneer and say “oh. We hate Chardonnay.”
Your table-mates agree, all cheering on the skewering of their greatest enemy, Chardonnay, while the sommelier slinks away to drink the glass himself and think poorly of you.
Of these three situations, the first two seem obviously ridiculous - how on earth could someone with the slightest bit of mental fortitude write-off an entire category without a thought, due simply to a small group of negative experiences?
The third situation however, I’m willing to bet that a sizeable number of readers of this article know someone who’s done exactly that, (and a small number probably even did it themselves).
You know you did.
The two most abused grapes in the American market are definitely Chardonnay and Riesling. One, associated with milkshake-thick, overalcoholic, overpriced nonsense with cute branding, like “Mommy Time” and “Butter” and “Cake” and “Fatass” (ok maybe not the last one). The other, associated with limpid, sugar-sweet lemon-water that your elderly neighbor chugs by the teacupful, and her sorority-girl-granddaughter drinks straight out of the 3-liter box.
The problem is primarily market-related: the American wine market is, generally speaking, a market of quantity, not quality. Of course there’s a huge push for quality, and there’s a huge amount of fabulous wines made and sold in the U.S. But ultimately, the multi-billion dollar wine corporations don’t give a good goddamn about elegance or nuance if you’re willing to buy 100 million gallons of something. And if they can make it even cheaper, and you’ll still buy 100 million gallons? Awesome.
So, does that corporation care if you don’t like their Chardonnay because it’s cheap and clunky. They care that your neighbor’s granddaughter’s sorority has a dozen boxes of it in their closet (at 9.99/box) that each cost them about a dollar to make.
Therefore the “mass market” style gets defined by almost Jungian archetype (chardonnay = fat, riesling = sweet) because the sorority doesn’t care beyond that. And once that archetype can be made cheaply and sold, there’s no real reason to push anything else. It’s much more difficult to make “good” wine cheaply, so a lot of it is garbage, but it fits the “archetype” so who cares?
Now I want to be clear here when setting up my argument: cheap wine, buying cheap wine, or liking cheap wine are not what I’m soapboxing about. If Tiffany’s favorite wine is that 9.99 box in the closet, who am I to tell her she’s “not allowed to like it”?
My critique here is that because the cheap, ubiquitous stuff is everywhere, it becomes associated with something much larger than style…the archetype becomes the thing.
One of the things I personally love about both chardonnay and riesling is their mutability. One, so moderate that it can be molded into whatever the winemaker wants to display, the other, so subtle and clear that it demonstrates “place” better than any wine I know.
The above paragraph alone is my entire thesis scolding the table of philistines all jeering at the sommelier who dared bring them a chardonnay. Chardonnay is the beige of grapes, riesling, the light blue. Maybe you don’t love beige everywhere, but there are times when beige is what you need.
As a grape that is famously “neutral”, chardonnay has the ability to morph into a dozen different styles, all so different from each other than even skilled sommeliers very often miss chardonnays in blind tastings. Chardonnay is actually a fabulous lesson in winemaking, as it can so clearly show different aspects of the winemaking process.
A huge mistake with novices and chardonnay is the reflex to associate “winemaker” flavors with the grape. Vanilla, toast, and spice flavors make people think “Chardonnay” almost instantly, but chardonnay doesn’t taste like any of that. Oak barrels taste like vanilla/toast/spice. Don’t want your chardonnay to taste like vanilla/toast/spice? Don’t put it in an oak barrel. Easy. Chardonnay doesn’t taste “buttery” either - that’s a sign of secondary fermentation techniques (i.e. malolactic fermentation, which softens the acids, rounds out the palate, and adds diacetyl dairy flavors). Don’t want your chardonnay to taste buttery? Skip malolactic fermentation. Easy.
Riesling, on the other hand, I find to be fairly character-driven - much less “neutral/nondescript” than chardonnay. However, which side of its personality it shows you is entirely based on where and how it’s grown. Famously high-acid, the wines often had residual sweetness mostly to balance out the tartness. As the market grabbed hold, sellers realized that it’s much easier to sell sweet things (there are a lot more candy stores out there than vegetable stores…), and most sinisterly, it’s harder to notice how poor-quality a wine is when it’s sweet.
Think: we‘ve all secretly binged on cheap, terrible-quality-but-so-fulfilling cookies before, but when’s the last time you binged on a cheap, terrible-quality salad?
So assuming riesling is sweet just because it’s riesling is silly. That’s like assuming anything made with eggs is sweet because they tend to go in a lot of desserts. A wine’s sweetness is 100% related to the winemaker’s decisions in harvest and production. You could make a sweet version of anything if you wanted, you just tend not to.
Therefore riesling becomes a world of regional complexity, hidden under a blanket of stereotypical sugary jug-wine nonsense. Rieslings that are dry, earthy, savory, intense, fuller bodied, aged, etc. all exist, and are all fabulous opportunities for experience, but only if you get out there and experience them!
This leads me to my final point, and my most pedagogical:
Stop lying to yourself and to others about liking something.
Novices find buzz-words they don’t understand and latch on to them for comfort -
“I only drink they driest wines”
“I don’t like anything from California”
“for god’s sake if you bring me a chardonnay I will light myself on fire”
Cut to me, a wine professional, bringing a taste to a client that, unbeknownst to them, is a California chardonnay that’s not particularly dry, and they absolutely love it.
I can’t tell you how often, when I blind-taste a guest on a wine, they respond with “what?? This is riesling/chardonnay? This is the only one I’ve ever liked!”
It’s all I can to not to give them a slow, sardonic stare. I am not a magician, nor is this a miracle. This is just wine, and it’s just one of a hundred thousand others. I guarantee you’d like a LOT of them, you just refuse to let yourself like them, or refuse to try them.
You’re not extra-masculine because you only drink massive red wines with your sushi, nor are you more “down to earth” because you refuse to drink anything with more than five letters in its name, nor are you more “discerning” because you refuse to drink anything from America.
Instead of relying on buzzwords and mantras, I encourage people to communicate openly about what they like - get weird with the words, get fun, describe things in wild, outlandish ways. You’re not expected to know the “right words” - that’s my job. Like the doctor-analogy I’ve used before, you don’t need to tell the doctor about the subdermal hematoma on your inner blah-blah…. you just need to say “it hurts here when I poke it” and you trust the doctor to do her job.
Just tell me you want a wine that tastes like ringing bells and smells like a perfume Helen Mirren would wear, and I’ll work it out. That’s my job.
So, I promise to engage and have fun with your wild descriptions if you promise to be more honest with your palate, more open to the breadth of the world of wine, and to stop being so mean to chardonnay and riesling
They’re two of my best friends.
And I’ll keep tricking you into liking them.