Wine with Food: Aged California Chardonnay
By Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. | September 1983
The deep golden hues of well-aged California Chardonnays are tantalizing suggestions of the fragrant tastes that follow. This varietal of grape, and the wine our California vintners have produced from it in the last 15 years has begun to threaten the foundations of the traditional source of Chardonnay. The winemakers of Burgundy are sitting up and taking notice.
The creations of the Barons of Burgundy are being matched and surpassed by California labels such as: Chateau Montelena, Stony Hill, Joseph Phelps, Raymond, Villa Mount Eden, Guenoc, Stags Leap, Hanzell, Heitz, Bacigalupi, Chappellet, Firestone, Alexander Valley, Chateau St. Jean, Spring Mountain, Far Niente, Gundlach Bundschu, Freemark Abbey, and many others.
Unlike many other white grapes, the Chardonnay grape can produce a wine that has ageing potential. When vinified with that objective in mind, and aged in oak, it produces a wine that changes dramatically in a period of five years. In fact, the difference between young and aged Chardonnay is much wider than most other grape varieties that have ageing ability. The cellaring conditions should be optimum, and the wine should be tracked.
So what do you do with a bottle of fine California Chardonnay that you have watched over closely, aged, and feel is ready? (Or maybe somebody has given you a bottle with that pedigree.)
“Drink it of course!” is the obvious answer. The clue to this decision is the word “ready”. Despite the fact that a few people like to age their Chardonnays similar to their red wines, the optimum time for most California Chardonnays is somewhere between the fifth and eighth year after the vintage date. Anything over that, the wine is on its way over the hill (unless the ageing has been at the lower end of the temperature scale. constant, and undisturbed. With the latter conditions, a longer ageing time is possible).
When a bottle of aged California Chardonnay is “ready” it is a treat. To bring out the best in taste sensations, it should be accompanied with special food to complement it. Here is one suggestion: Serve it at a late snack, or supper type event. Maybe an after show repast. Some mild cheese and french bread, or cold roast chicken (not fried or barbecued). Avoid dominant flavors that might overshadow the wine. You will experience the best flavors from the wine tempered with the food. Serve the wine slightly chilled, but not too cold. Otherwise you will loose the delicate nuances.
Another suggestion is to serve it with your fish course at a multi-course dinner, or with a fish entree at a simpler dinner. In either case I suggest a poached white fish, red snapper or turbot, and maybe use some of the wine for poaching! In my opinion, this is the ultimate accompaniment for that great aged Chardonnay fragrance and balsamic, incense-like complexity that some develop. The light fish tends to take and balance that bold wine, trim it down a little, and add a dimension that says “I am made for you!”
I do get carried away, when I think of some of the glorious aged Chardonnays I have been served.
For those who want to be purists, and serve an aged Chardonnay alone, as an apperitif or as an afternoon wine, I say: “Reconsider! If any one wine is made to go with food, it is an aged Chardonnay. Use a young Chardonnay to serve solo.” I find an aged Chardonnay too overpowering alone, and in fact I feel that way about a young or unoaked Chardonnay. I think they are all just much better with food.
The question of “ready” should be addressed. What is ready? How do you determine it? Pages can be written on this. A wine is ready when it has developed its optimum flavor and complexity changes, and when more ageing will cause it to start going downhill in these attributes. This is a subjective decision on your part, and an objective decision on the part of an educated consensus. You determine this by tracking the wine. You taste a bottle every so often (usually every six months) and keep some cellar notes.
Were you ready for this? If you were not, just follow the Kalemkiarian First Maxim on Wine: drink what wine you enjoy, the way you enjoy, even if you have to mix it as a spritzer!