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Let’s get one thing straight: I love chardonnay.
I drink quite a bit of it, in fact. I’m rather fond of the chardonnays grown in the Burgundy region of France, but great chards are made around the world, and I’m grateful for that. I do not belong to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club.
Yet, I spend a disproportionate amount of space in these columns railing against chardonnay (and this week’s musings are not different, as you’ll see in a second). And I’m not alone. Many writers and wine industry professionals seemingly have it out for this grape.
Why is that?
It’s not the grape. It’s chardonnay’s ubiquity. There are not any wine lists I’ve ever seen without a chardonnay or 20 listed, and any shop is going to have its own chardonnay aisle. When someone says, “I’ll have the house white wine,” they clearly mean chardonnay, as if that was the world’s only white wine.
Chardonnay’s omnipresence becomes clear when you look at statistics of U.S. wine consumption.
Nearly one of every five glasses of wine consumed outside of a restaurant in 2014 was a chardonnay, according to the consumer-tracking company Nielsen. That’s equal to all the pinot grigio, moscato and sauvignon blanc — the second-, third- and fourth-place white wines — combined.
This puts me in a quandary. I’m emphatically all about people drinking what makes them happy — scores and scorns of critics be damned! But, golly, that’s a lot of chardonnay. Or, if taken at a different angle, that’s a lot of serious brand loyalty, especially when there are hundreds of other white grapes cultivated in Vineyard Earth.
And if chardonnay is your thing — and your one-and-only thing — read no more, because here I go again, recommending a grape (or, more fairly, a group of grapes) for no other reason than it is (or they are) not chardonnay.
Way, way on the other side of chardonnay on the wine consumption scale is a group of grapes called the Rhône varieties. They include, but are not limited to, viognier, marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc and picpoul. They are grown (surprise!) in France’s Rhône Valley, but are found in many growing regions. (I recently had an exceptional marsanne from Georgia’s Frogtown Cellars.)
It’s hard to categorize all these grapes. Each has its pluses and minuses, which is probably why they often are blended. Even when one variety is listed on the label, you’re likely to see other grapes playing minor, but important, roles.
What I can reasonably say is that, as a group, they are food-friendly. With the exception of viognier, they come with a solid dose of acidity. (That’s a good thing in the food-friendliness department.) Most winemakers are judicious with their use of oak barrels, especially new oak barrels, when handling Rhône Valley whites. Excessive oaky/vanilla flavors in a white wine make food pairings a little tricky.
Besides Frogtown, I’ve tried some other tasty domestic versions of Rhône whites recently. Among the standouts were: 2014 Halter Ranch Grenache Blanc ($29), 2014 Tablas Creek’s Côte de Tablas Blanc ($28) — these are both from Paso Robles, Calif., sort of the epicenter of all things Rhône Valley in the United States — and Bonny Doon’s 2013 Le Cigare Blanc ($29) from Monterey, Calif.
It may take a generation or two to gain a sense of equilibrium in our white wine (aka, chardonnay) consumption in this country … if ever. But, if you’re interested in splintering away from the chardonnay-or-nothing pack, the Rhône Valley is not a bad place to land.