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Wine and Food Wednesday
The End of “Anything But Chardonnay” Talk

By Stephen Eliot

Those who like to talk about wine do not talk about Chardonnay. It is not a word that will get them excited and is not likely to be the catalyst to animated discussion. It will, in fact, too often earn a sideways look of derision for the one who brings it up at all, and, I for one just don’t get it. I happen to like the stuff, even if I admit to not drinking a great deal of it.

Ah, you say, it’s that absence no doubt makes the heart grow fonder, but I simply tend cook dishes that are more comfortable with something red. When the menu calls for a rich white, I do not subscribe to the mindless “Anything But Chardonnay” mantra offered up by those well-meaning souls who would protect us from ourselves. Yes, I do like Chardonnay, and what is more, I like it made in a great many styles. And, if the recipe is warrants, I even like it when (gasp!) big, ripe and oaky. Now my heresy is complete.

I do not consider myself a crusader for the varietal. I am usually content to quietly find my own pleasures in a glass or two, and its place in the market proves that it does not need my help -- that it is immune from the barbs of its too many detractors. I do not make it a habit of standing up and singing its praise, but I enjoyed a particularly good meal on Valentine’s day at Albany’s Nizza la Bella that was made downright memorable thanks to a couple of very good Chardonnays. Fire-Roasted Mussels with Pastis and a deeply flavored, intensely aromatic Herb-Basted Chicken took the lead at the table, and the 2007 Alysian Cresta Ridge Vineyard Taurin Block from winemaker Gary Farrell and the 2008 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley were the two Chardonnays.

These two wines head off in dramatically different directions, and each found its special place in the night. The sleek, firmly structured, still youthful Alysian was a fine foil to the savory roasted mussels, and, if it seemed a bit taut when matched with the chicken, the full-throated, big-bodied Pahlmeyer did the trick with the main course. In fact, the richly seasoned roasted chicken could have easily handled a red wine, and any lesser white wine would have withered when paired with so savory a dish. A real revelation came as the Pahlmeyer found amazing affintity to the roasted, not-too-sweet acorn squash that accompanied our poulet. Hand-cut, double-fried frites mounded over a silky aioli proved a fine match to both bottlings, as was the La Bianca al Quattro Fromagio Funghis, fire-roasted mushrooms and meld of cheeses.

There are no perfect, one-of-a-kind wine and food pairings to be sure, but the ones that we enjoyed with Nizza la Bella’s southern French food were remarkably good. A few of the longing looks meant solely for my valentine over pre-dinner cocktails were later shared with the wines at the table, and the evening turned out to be all that Valentine’s Day should be.

91 ALYSIAN Cresta Ridge Vineyard Taurin Block Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2007 $38.00
From the very first sniff through to its long, crisply balanced finish, this vital, carefully structured young wine exhibits a particularly fine sense of proportion as regards its mix of perfectly ripened apples, toast and creamy oak. As rich as it may be, however, it possesses a real sense of refinement and grace, and, while there should be no absolutely doubts about its ability to grow into better with time, we admit that it will be tempting to pull a few corks early on.
Reviewed: November 2009

90 PAHLMEYER Chardonnay Napa Valley 2008 $70.00
There is no mistaking the Pahlmeyer hand here as ripeness, rich oak and very deep fruit come together in a wine with a big, full-throated Chardonnay voice. It is not long on manners just now, and it is bothered by a bit of finishing coarseness, but with this kind of sheer fruity substance, it leaves no doubt whatsoever as to its ability to improve significantly with age. In fact, we would lobby for twelve months of patience and let it settle down just a bit before pouring it as a partner to rich and savory dishes such as duck and quail.
Reviewed: October 2010

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