Monday, January 20, 2014

2007 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Karia chardonnay

Karia. Pronounced KAH-ree-ah, from the Greek meaning grace. I might almost say "this gives me a new appreciation for chardonnay" except I fear the alert reader will answer with a sharp, three-word exclamation ending in " -- Sherlock." Which he will know how to pronounce.

Anyway, the wine: light. Elegant. Lots of acidity, juiciness. Only at the end of your mouthful, after you have happily swallowed, will you savor that bright and unique taste a chardonnay can give. It seems to be part flowers -- is this what wine writers mean when they talk "honeysuckle"? -- and part fresh melon dipped in caramel. With fine chardonnays like this one I often get a mental image of some sort of expensive and very delicate gourmet candy. Ordinary chardonnays remind me of a piece of Bit-o-Honey or banana taffy picked up off the basement floor.

Karia is of course not ordinary. The wine and the winery belong to the legend of Warren Winiarski, of Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon and "Judgment of Paris" fame. (The white wine which was ranked in first place at that Paris tasting in 1976 was neither Stag's Leap nor Karia, but a different Napa chardonnay, Chateau Montelena, whose owners, the Barrett family, still make fine wines there. If you have seen Bottle Shock, you know the outlines of the story.)

Somewhere in my wine-related reading I remember coming across the opinion that of all wines, it is white Burgundies which true gourmands most often want to drink with their meals. If Karia is anything like a traditional Burgundy -- and I think it is -- then I can see why. The lightness, acidity, and little scoop of caramel-dipped fruit at the end whet the appetite for more food and more wine, too. The wine is actually mentally interesting, if you will excuse the tautology, in a way that tasty but more commonplace glassfuls are not. You begin to see what aficionados (aficionadi?) mean when they say a wine "sings." It means there is no need to furrow the brow and concentrate hard on whether you taste apples or pears, vanilla or butterscotch. A song just is, and you want to hear more of it.

As to developing new appreciations, these may be necessary because your early reading on wine may have persuaded you chardonnay is overrated. All writers carefully explain the phenomenon. This queen of grapes was planted all over the world in the last forty years or so because, bland in itself, it carried Burgundy's reputation with it, took well to the vaguely sweet flavors imparted by time spent in an oak barrel or simply steeping in a stainless steel tank along with a bag of oak chips, and so made "reliable" or "serviceable" wines practically anywhere. The newbie palate loved them. The newbie winery cashed in.

Which led to the aficionadi reaction, the attempted flogging of riesling in wine books as the white wine world's true peeress (it never works), and to the creation and marketing of unoaked chardonnays, called variously "Tree-free," "nu," "naked" or "virgin." All for a good cause, I suppose -- let's learn more, and drink with more enjoyment. However you carry on your exploration of chardonnay, my advice is this: no, it's not overrated, but when you go shopping for it, do be prepared to grit your teeth and spend some money. It seems to me that of all wines, chardonnays respond startlingly best to the even slightly opened wallet. A ten dollar red and a thirty dollar red are usually somewhat different, but a ten dollar chardonnay and a thirty-five dollar chardonnay are alarmingly so. Alarming, in the sense that amid your enjoyment you begin to pull your chin and quote Mr. Broadbent -- "life is short, we do not waste our time on bland indifferent wines" -- and to draw up a budget.

Retail, about $35.

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