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Duke's Food Obsession

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The ABCs of Wine

In the wine world, you can sometimes find snobs. Hard to believe, I know, since when you talk wine, you normally associate it with NASCAR, fraternity parties, and cookouts. But no, snobs do exist in the wine world.

In most cases these oenophiles (I had to look that one up) tend to spout off about the more esoteric, boutique wines and first-growth Bordeauxs. But there also exists a reverse snobbery.

About 20 years ago, (it could have been longer, but wine has killed too many of my memory cells) the noble varietal chardonnay took off in popularity and sales. Trying to seize on this popularity, many winemakers and wineries churned out less than spectacular wines, in some cases adding wood chips to bump up the oak factor, overusing malolactic fermentation to promote the buttery attributes and ignoring chardonnay’s natural fruit and acidity. In the past few years, as a way to combat this over-manipulation of chardonnay, many wineries have introduced “naked” or un-oaked wines. I think they’re fine, but as a student of the California school, they are not my type. But more on that later.

So, many winos politely hopped off the chardonnay bandwagon and preferred to drink ABC: anything but chardonnay. Well, I am not afraid to buck the trend and look like an uncultured hillbilly.I proclaim loudly that I am a huge chardonnay fan. It is my preferred drink. I like it often and often in large quantities. Sure, there are some lousy chards out there, but I am going to offer my two cents on what makes a good and even great chardonnay, and even offer a few suggestions—for what that’s worth.

Chardonnay, like all wines, should have balance. In the case of chardonnay, this amounts to the proper proportions of oak, butter, fruit and acidity. Too much oak and nothing else, and it’s like sucking on wood chips. Too much butter and no acidity to brighten up the wine, and the wine is pronounced flabby. A great chardonnay has just enough oak, butter and acid in balance and the last crucial factor—exceptional fruit that throws off powerful flavor and lingers on the tongue without going watery.

As with most things, in the world of wine, you get what you pay for. More money, in most cases, means special vineyards that have been nurtured by the vineyard owner for specific attributes. It also means special care taken by the winery. And finally, it might mean special oak barrels that may be only used for a specific amount of time.

Now for some recommendations. I think I mentioned above that I come from the California school of wine. Indeed, it was a great weekend day when we could blow off midterms and drive up to Napa or Sonoma, well before they started charging for tastes, and be drunk by noon. Helpful hint: bring along plenty of water and slam some in between spots. So, for me, a chardonnay, in classic California style, should be big and bold with very pronounced flavors.

In the bargain- to medium-priced range, I have learned to trust labels like Beringer ( one of the best chardonnay producers year in and year out for my money) Bogle, La Crema, Barnard Griffin from Washington, Columbia Crest Grand Estates and Yalumba from Australia. If you are a fan of unabashed oak, try the chardonnay from those zinfandel experts: Ravenswood. It is an oak bomb. A recent mid-priced Aussie chardonnay that I really like for its balance is Sticks. Ask for it.

Now for the pricey stuff. I am a bit hesitant here as if you take my advice and buy one of these, you might hunt me down if you don’t like it. So I’ll only recommend a few. The ’04 Mer Soleil from the son of Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards is tremendous. The ’05, while not as good is still very good. The Beringer Private Reserve ’05 is also extremely good—no, great—with balance and fruit that lingers forever in the finish. If you can find the Newton unfiltered, it is almost always great. The Franciscan Sauvage is a classic example of a big California Chardonnay. Cakebread is a bit overrated for my taste, but still very good, and if your host ever offers a Kistler, or Peter Jacobs, you must kiss him. The only piece of advice I have is to please not serve any of these too cold— it kills the fruit and flavor.


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Duke Diercks Duke Diercks is the owner of Duke’s Cowboy Grill in Ponderay. Visit his blog at www.bbq-recipes-for-foodies.com

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