Hello Prince Albert! Have you ever tasted a grape varietal and not been able to get into it? Some people feel this way about Chardonnay. You could call Chardonnay the “medium” wine since it usually has medium acidity, medium intensity to the smell and taste and an overall less-flashy style compared to Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.
If you happen to fall into the group of people who say, “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay), I’d like to point out that I consider Chardonnay a chameleon grape. In other words, there is a vast quantity of styles that arise from this simple grape varietal from silky smooth and gentle to intensely flavorful with bracing acidity and everything in between. This grape truly transforms based on how it is treated in the growing, vinification and storage stages.
The difference in style and taste is brilliantly displayed in the two Chardonnays I tried this week. Both are from California, USA; the Sea and Sun wine comes from 3 specific AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) within California while the Mer Soleil hails mainly from the Monterey AVA within California. If one AVA is stated on the bottle, the wine inside must be at least 80% from that region.
Francophone readers may have noticed that both wines share the same name; one in English and one in French. These are both in fact, made by the same producer famously known as the Wagner Family who also makes Caymus. Besides having similar yet different names, these wines do not taste the same. Some of this comes down to the growing regions but I would suggest that most of it is due to how the wine was treated during fermentation and storage.
One of the biggest clues that these wines will be dissimilar is the fact that Sea Sun has spent time in oak and Mer Soleil is an unoaked Chard. Oaked Chardonnay can have distinct notes of vanilla, caramel, toast or coconut while unoaked Chard is usually cleaner with crisp stone fruit, tropical fruit, apples and a floral character. The ripeness and intensity/concentration of the fruit flavors comes from the heat and general conditions of where it was grown while the acidity is dictated by the heat or cold of the growing region and also the levels of malic or lactic acids present in the juice after pressing.
The process known as malolactic fermentation has certainly been employed with Sea and Sun and can be detected by its creamier, softer acidity and round, buttery mouthfeel. Malolactic fermentation is the process where sharp/sour malic acids (found in apple skins and citrus fruit) are converted by bacteria into lactic acids (soft, mellow textures found in butter and cream). For this reason, Sea Sun is a full-bodied wine with lower acidity (finished in oak) and the Mer Soleil has less body (less heat in the growing region) and higher acidity (more malic acid present in the wine).
It can get complicated very quickly and there are so many methods that winemakers use to create their individual style of Chardonnay. This is why I find Chardonnay infinitely versatile and tricky to lock down in a blind taste test.
Chardonnay can also become light and steely with higher levels of acidity such as the wines found in Chablis, France. If we put the two wines from this week beside a Chablis and tasted all three, you would immediately notice the changes from wine to wine.
Which wine did I prefer? I enjoyed the Sea Sun the most. It has a soft, full body and creamy texture blended with a floral hint and ripe tropical fruit with a twist of citrus. Yum! The Mer Soleil was still very enjoyable and I liked the lighter body with a zip of acidity but the floral character overpowered the lovely pear/apple combo slightly.
Two great Chardonnays from one high-quality Californian producer! Which one sounds best to you? Here are my wine picks of the week!
Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2019: (Monterey, California). Off-dry white, medium lemon color. The aroma of this wine is medium in intensity with fresh green pineapple, citrus, apples, pears, jasmine and lily flower, herbal coriander seed and canned green peas. Medium-plus body on the palate with sweet fruit at first (apples, pears), followed by a crisp, dry finish of apple blossom and jasmine. There is a good balance of smooth fruity flavor with a zip of medium acidity and floral spice. Pepper comes in after the quick fruity mid-palate which is akin to coriander, not as spicy as black pepper. Some metallic flavors can be tasted which reminds me of stainless steel (possible storage vessel for the wine) but overall, the wine is quite clean with medium intensity and a medium-length finish. This Chard is sharper and more floral than the Sea Sun and the fruit flavors here are much less ripe and tropical. Very good! $30, 14.3% ABV
Sea Sun Chardonnay 2020: (California, USA). Dry to off-dry white, medium lemon color with minimal fading. The nose is full and rich with notes of fresh butter, buttered popcorn, field/meadow flowers, vanilla cream, banana, ripe pineapple, pina colada and Campino candies. On the palate, this Chard is full-bodied with creamy vanilla, tropical fruits and an excellent medium-plus concentration. The wine is nicely balanced with medium-minus acidity, meaning it is soft to the taste but carries enough zip to highlight the fruity, creamy flavors. Seaside ocean spray adds a slightly savory character which blends beautifully with melon, pineapple, kiwi and soft cheese (brie). Gentle, floral spice comes in on the long finish which mingles with vanilla, nutmeg and that decadent but mellow butter note. This wine was incredibly satisfying with its buttery sweetness underlying ripe tropical fruits. Pair with all types of whitefish or crab cakes with scallion. Excellent value for a high-quality Chardonnay. Very good! $18 (On Sale), 14.3% ABV
Cheers and thanks for reading!