A Versatile Chardonnay


For the month of September the challenge was to discover the perfect food-friendly, tasty, refreshing Chardonnay. I was hoping to find a wine light enough for hot days yet robust enough for the rich foods that seamlessly meld with Chardonnay. Some traditional pairings with these creamy whites are butter, cream, seafood, nuts, potatoes, lemon, saffron and vanilla. But Chardonnays vary depending on their region of origin and can be completely different in style and complexity.

For one, not all Chardonnays are buttery and oaky. In fact, in a blind tasting, you could easily mistake a light Chardonnay for a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. I enjoy these lighter style Chardonnays in the summer (think Pouilly-Fuissé with oysters), but I prefer to drink heavier style Chards in the winter. (For example, a toasty California Chardonnay with a baked potato or creamy pasta). But what style of Chardonnay is versatile enough for different weather patterns but still complements these decadent dishes? I wanted to find out.

I grabbed a few bottles of Chardonnay, a couple wine-loving companions (who also happen to be great cooks), and put the wines to the test. On the menu was a simple baked ricotta appetizer with lemon zest, served with grilled crostini; grilled summer squash and garden potatoes; and a beautiful seafood platter that consisted of Alaskan crab legs, seared scallops and baked shrimp. We basted our seafood with a tangy tarragon, lemon, vinegar and butter mixture, then baked and served.

The three bottles were reasonably priced Chardonnays from Italy, France and California. First we tasted each wine by itself to really appreciate their differences. The Italian Chardonnay (Alois Lageder) was unoaked, aged in stainless and had tons of minerality. It was high in acid (made our mouths water) and had wonderful notes of lemon zest. It was a perfect summer Chardonnay. The French Chardonnay by Eric Chevalier was medium-bodied, but still refreshing. This was not an oaky Chardonnay, yet it had a creamy mouthfeel from its time aging on the lees (indigenous yeast and wine sediment). It had notes of grilled lemon with just a touch of acidity. It was extremely balanced and delicious without any food. Our last Chardonnay was from California (Joullian Vineyards), and although it was still light on the oak flavors, you could definitely taste notes of vanilla, butterscotch and toast. As far as oaky Chardonnays go, this one was definitely creamy and elegant.

Now the food. We tried all the wine with the appetizer (baked ricotta) and observed which Chardonnays were overwhelmed by the grilled bread and rich, creamy ricotta. Then we tried all three wines with the potatoes, squash and wonderful array of seafood.

Although all three wines were great alone, one wine completely stood out as a winning match with grilled bread, lemon zest ricotta, sweet crab, savory shrimp, seared scallops and grilled squash and potatoes… it was the wine from France. The lovely Chardonnay by Eric Chevalier. This wine never disappoints by itself, but was absolutely fabulous with all the Chardonnay-friendly food.

The first home Craig and I owned was in Topeka, Kansas. I was in law school, Craig was in culinary school and we had a small house with a great back yard. One beautiful summer day we invited friends from law school, culinary school, and the restaurant we worked at so we could have our first go at a clambake. We of course dug the hole, had tons of clams, ears of corn and several coolers of libations. I vividly remember a precarious watermelon on the kitchen counter, perched over a glass jar with a spicket that had been pierced through the top with an upside-down bottle of vodka slowly dripping through for two days prior. The watermelon-infused vodka was then used for that day’s creative watermelon cocktails. Since then, our choice of cocktails has somewhat evolved, but our love for sharing platters of seafood with friends and family remains unchanged. And although my typical summer pick to sip on is a dry, unoaked white, I will definitely reconsider my wine choice with the next clambake, crab boil, lobster dinner or any kind of seafood platter with lemon butter. And next to the smiling faces of those happy to partake with me, I hope there will always be a bottle of the versatile Eric Chevalier Chardonnay.

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