CULT OF TASTE: Learn Your ABC’s

In recent years, an anything-but-chardonnay doctrine has emerged among wine drinkers in America. This ABC crowd writes off overwhelming, oaky chardonnays as too difficult to pair with many foods or to enjoy alone. In response, on March 22, in the piano room of Sag Harbor’s America Hotel, Edible East End’s rotating panel of local wine experts conducted a blind tasting of 14 Long Island chardonnays made with little or no oak.

In recent years, an anything-but-chardonnay doctrine has emerged among wine drinkers in America. This ABC crowd writes off overwhelming, oaky chardonnays as too difficult to pair with many foods or to enjoy alone. In response, on March 22, in the piano room of Sag Harbor’s America Hotel, Edible East End‘s rotating panel of local wine experts conducted a blind tasting of 14 Long Island chardonnays made with little or no oak.

Our panel was pleasantly surprised by the diversity and caliber of the wines and concluded that ABCC (anything-but-California chardonnay) would be a more fitting acronym. The sun-drenched growing conditions of California wine country tend to yield supersweet chardonnay grapes, which ferment to fat, alcoholic wines tempered with too much oak. This is the only sort of chardonnay that most Americans know. In contrast, cooler Long Island conditions allow the grapes to ripen leisurely and express a range of fruit flavors. Chardonnay also grows consistently well on Long Island.

“Here, we don’t just get concentration,” said Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack. “We also get elegance.” Chardonnay fermented in steel tanks, the focus of the tasting, is sometimes called “the winemaker’s grape,” Mr. Roth added, since it is unhindered by the tannins of wood barrels and the winemaker carries so much influence.

Steel-fermented chardonnay might also be the cook’s grape. “Stainless chardonnays offer lots of different pairings,” said David Loewenberg, owner of Red/Bar in Southampton, Fresno in East Hampton, and the Beacon in Sag Harbor. “Food pairings, setting pairings. Because they don’t hit you over the head with all this oak.” In fact, stainless chardonnays are a perfect match for the East End’s delicate summer cuisine. Combine lemony, flinty, or austere selections with raw seafood and vegetables. Save chardonnays with spicy, fruity, and caramel flavors for creamy sauces, nut-crusted fish, and Southeast Asian cuisine. (The panel threw out a handful of submissions that betrayed too much oak, often signaled by a two-tone flugelhorn sound emitted by Mr. Roth.)

“They really make a statement for the East End,” Barbara Shinn and David Page, owners of Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck and Home Restaurant in Manhattan, said of the wines tasted by the panel. “This is an opportunity to define a tradition and style.” In fact, the panel’s comments suggested it was time to pass up California chardonnay in favor of Long Island whites. Let the boycott begin.

Castello di Borghese Chardonnay 2001, $13.

RR. Great nose. Floral and flinty. Soft mouthfeel, medium-bodied, elegant finish, spicy. Good with chicken or veal.

BS & DP. Grassy, but ripe. Racy at the start and then falls open and breathes. Very layered and complex. Thyme and honey and sage. Great with grilled veggies and seafood kabobs.

Galluccio Point House Chardonnay 2001, $10.

RR. Fine nose, little neutral. Steely and yeasty with earthy qualities.

Pair with paella, spicy tomato dishes.

BS & DP. Huge perfume. A little flabby. Very round. Some oak, honey, burnt honey, light caramel. Anything with a nut crust, Thai or Vietnamese cuisine with peanuts and coconut milk.

Palmer 5 Acre Chardonnay 2003, $23.

DL. Citrus, lemons and white peaches. Nice layers of fruit.

Viognier-like.

BS & DP. Fruit basket. Long finish. Complex, rich mouthfeel.

Pairs well with aged cheeses, gouda, Parmesan, or melted raclette.

Channing Daughters Winery Scuttle Hole 2004, $14.

DL. Green apples. Almost Macoun-like. Nose almost like a sauvignon blanc. Nice balance. Great with shellfish, straightforward fish and chicken.

BS & DP. Good quaffing wine. Crisp, light, austere. Tastes like lead pencil, slate. Pair with raw oysters, clams, scallops, ceviche.

Paumanok Festival Chardonnay 2004, $12.

DL. Nice spice, yeasty, Champagne-like, flowers. Burgundian in style. Wonderful with seafoods and roasted chicken.

BS & DP. Hot and sweaty at the beach. Cuts any fat. Crisp. Perfect as an aperitif wine on a hot afternoon.

Martha Clara Glaciers End Chardonnay, $10.

RR. Rich, ripe, full. Golden fruit, buttery and yeasty, but well integrated and balanced. Elegant finish. Drink with crab cakes or lobster.

BS & DP. Rich nose. Very elegant. A little restrained. Tastes like it may have some age. Great with creamy chowder or softripening cheese.

Wölffer La Ferme Martin Chardonnay 2003, $13.50.

DL. Ripe, spice, citrus, Meyer lemons. Great mouthfeel. Easy to match to foods, chicken, pork, roasted fish.

BS & DP. Yeasty, rich mouthfeel. Round. Consider with chicken.

Lenz White Label Chardonnay 2002, $12.

RR. Sweet nose with hints of pear. Soft, well-balanced, rich and very versatile. Consider with creamy dishes and spicy curries.

BS & DP. Very rich mouthfeel. Round and lush. Chicken.

Lieb Bridge Lane Chardonnay, $10.

DL. Crisp, green apples. Nice balance. Again in the Macoun category. Match with raw and steamed shellfish, chicken, green salads, and all cheeses.

RR. Wonderful fruit, fine spices, citrus and kiwi. Elegant rich mouthfeel. Soft and long lasting.Enjoy with oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

Shinn Estate Vineyards Home Chardonnay 2003, $14.

DL. Hints of pinot gris. Slight minerals. Good, simple drinking wine. Consider as aperitif.

RR. Light, neutral aromas. Flinty and austere. Chablis-like. Goes well with fish or vegetable soups.

Palmer N41/W72 Chardonnay 2003, $12.

DL. Baked fruits. Apples and pears. Good with richer foods.

RR. Light aromas of fresh fruit, pears. Elegant and rich, finishing with baked apple. Long lasting. Pair with creamy dishes or lobster.

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