I'm not sure if I will ever be able to enjoy or appreciate chardonnay, unless I grit my teeth and pay the $35 starting price for a true French chardonnay, one of those merely entry-level white Burgundies bearing some lovely and legendary name like Montrachet on its label. Maybe they are, indeed, sublime. In the meantime, I fear my mind has been hopelessly polluted against this, the queen of grapes, by what I've read of it. And what I've tasted. But who knows whether or not my tasting experiences have been completely skewed by my reading?
Wine writers speak of chardonnay being overtreated with oak. When I sniff a chardonnay, I smell only wood. They speak of its taste being intrinsically a bit bland. When I taste it, I taste little or nothing interesting. They speak of its high alcohol content. I, too, find it burns going down. They speak of its being, next to a glorious rielsing, "clunky." I drink a chardonnay, and it clunks right down my throat.
Two days ago, I tried a new bottle, Toasted Head 2007 from Woodbridge, California. The back label said it would remind me of vanilla and pears, and so of course when I sipped it I was reminded of vanilla and pears. I tried to do some independent observing and thinking, too, and so my notes say colorless -- fresh green wood -- pear -- acidic, bitter.
Then I tasted that flavor that I begin to recognize in chardonnays. It comes after I've swallowed, and it's not exactly wood or blandness or clunkiness, but something odd and unpleasant. It's unique and repeated, at least for me. Never yet having been able to put my finger on it, I sat down with my glass and sipped and, by golly, cogitated. A scent, a flavor, a texture all mixed up together ... stale -- old sugar -- stale caramel. And then I hit upon it.
What I don't like about chardonnay is the effect it leaves in the mouth, of burnt popcorn. I would love to have a chemist confirm that there is some chemical reason for this. But the effect I am talking about is almost emotional. Have you ever taken a mouthful of popcorn, expecting all that light hot buttery saltiness, and then found out too late that it's been burned? The shock to the tastebuds is physical, as if disappointment could have a flavor profile. There's a blackened, hollow nothingness. Before you can frown, your mind tells you: this is not popcorn.
That, to me, is chardonnay. Maybe that's just Toasted Head chardonnay, or just that bottle (although I think the wine was sound), or maybe that's what happens to California examples of it. If a French example in that $35 and up price range proves properly glorious, I'll be glad of it. But that's an experiment in cogitation which will have to wait until I'm gainfully employed.