If you're like me, black is a wardrobe staple. Your closet overflows with black purses in various shapes and sizes, pants and jackets from casual to upscale, and most important, that little black dress. Let's not forget shoes: black flats, heels, and boots in every imaginable style. And if you're like me, you keep buying more black. It's not that bright colors are bad. On the contrary, they're fabulous. But pulling off the cherry-red suit or floral-print pants can take a little doing. Nothing is as slimming, versatile, popular, or easy as black. Except for the slimming part (although there are only around 100 calories per glass), the same words can be used to describe Chardonnay, which I think of as the basic black of white wines. Chardonnay is simple to sip, goes with many kinds of food, and remains wildly popular.
The grape story
A classic grape variety that was not well known in this country until a few decades ago, Chardonnay has made a name for itself. Today it's the number-one-selling white in America, and "I'll have the Chardonnay" has become a national motto. Look at any restaurant wine list and count the Chardonnays. Better yet, walk into a retail store where Chardonnays are packed from floor to ceiling, dominating the wine aisles.
Chardonnay is familiar, and that familiarity inspires confidence and comfort. We know it; therefore we love it. But Chardonnay's popularity is due in large part to its versatility. Just like those black pants that come in many fabrics and styles -- from casual cotton to sleek silk -- Chardonnay can be everything from light and crisp to juicy and soft or buttery and full.
Why is Chardonnay so versatile? It has to do with the grape's personality. Chardonnay was at the head of the line when the grape god handed out easygoing personalities. Not naturally tart and aggressive like Sauvignon Blanc or floral and flirtatious like Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay's mild-mannered fruitiness lends itself to making all kinds of wine.
Chardonnay takes on character and complexity depending on where the grapes are grown and who turns them into wine. Many versions are successful; others are not. With an estimated seven hundred different Chardonnay bottlings on store shelves at any one time, though, how do you sift through the boring to get to the beautiful?