By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor
As I sip a glass of crisp, dry sauvignon blanc, I am writing this piece on chardonnay, a wine I used to love but will now forgo even if it means I drink water.
But this is not the case for most drinkers: Chardonnay is the best selling and most popular white wine in the United States. Twenty percent of all grapes crushed in California are chardonnay, according to Wine Institute statistics for 2000.
Chardonnay is the No. 1 selling varietal, with 18 percent of the total table wine volume, according to data from Information Resources Inc., a research firm that tracks store sales.
Order a glass of white wine and you'll more than likely be served a chardonnay even if you don't ask for it by name. "It's easy to say chardonnay," said Alan Suzuki, general sales manager for American Wine and Spirits. "It sounds chic and fashionable as opposed to saying white wine or house wine."
Chardonnay will be a featured wine, along with merlot, the most popular red wine, under the R. Field Wine Tasting tent at this weekend's Taste of Honolulu. So why chardonnay and not one of the many other white varietals, such as riesling, sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio?
Some wine experts argue that riesling produces the finest white wines. But chardonnay is the wine grape you'll find planted most extensively throughout the world. Its origins are somewhere in the Burgundy region of France, where the chardonnay grape is used to produce wines from Chablis, Corton Charlemagne, Macon, Meursault, Montrachet and Pouilly Fuisse.
Chardonnay also is important to Champagne, picked before it is fully ripe so that its acid and less-developed fruit flavors provide the perfect combination for sparkling wine.
"I like chardonnay because of the taste," said Scrappy Lipton of Honolulu. "It has a tendency to be on the drier side, it has full body and I like the oakiness."
Chardonnay is a chameleon and can be produced in a variety of different manners: crisp, buttery, creamy, nutty, smoky, steely with hints of apple, lemon, melon and pine-apple. Where the grapes are grown and the climate have an effect on the flavor profile as does the winemaker's hand in developing the flavor characteristics of this noble grape.
"When I started drinking wine, Pouilly Fuisse was my favorite; it was a winner and I stuck with it," Lipton said. "Chardonnay leans toward that Burgundy taste."
Indeed, there is a historical reason for chardonnay's popularity. Pouilly Fuisse, the appellation for white wines from five Burgundy villages, is made from the chardonnay grape. "Pouilly Fuisse was very popular in the 1970s," said Richard Field, founder of R. Field Wine Co. at Foodland Beretania. "It was big and imported, and it had panache. Panache sold wine, and white Burgundy chardonnay was logical because Americans were drinking the 'name' wines of France."
The popularity of Pouilly Fuisse was one factor in causing American wine growers to place their emphasis on chardonnay in white grape plantings. There was also the fact that, as grapes go, the chardonnay vine is easy to grow, adapting well to different climates and giving good yields.
"Back then, if you were trying to produce wine on a large scale, chardonnay lent itself to manipulation," Field said. "You could make it leaner, add flavors with oak, add more alcohol. American winemakers quickly learned that you could offer a broad range of style from one grape type, and consumers liked it."
Another reason for chardonnay's popularity is its availability. Survey the wine shelves in supermarkets and you'll find most of the white wine selections are chardonnays. Wine merchants say 60 to 70 percent of their white wine sales is chardonnay. Despite the interest in other varietals, such as sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and riesling, "chardonnay is still the queen," said Lyle Fujioka of Fujioka's Wine Merchant at Market City.
Kendall Jackson Wine Estates is given much of the credit for having popularized California chardonnay. With some of the greatest vineyard sites in the world, according to Field, "KJ," as it is referred to in the industry, blends grape juice from these various sites to develop a wine that suits the American palate. Site-specific chardonnay grapes can be sold at higher prices.
"The secret to Kendall Jackson chardonnay is residual sugar," said sommelier Kevin Toyama. "Kendall Jackson is a touch buttery and creamy; its flavor is tropical, like golden apples with nuances of pear. People like the sweetness."
"KJ is like having a Whirlpool," said Ivy Nagayama, general manager of Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar at Restaurant Row. "People know its name and it's reliable."
Despite chardonnay's undisputed popularity, there are some who have moved on to other varietals. "I'm just tired of it," said Jean Cornuelle of East Honolulu. "I like to try things that taste different. I find chardonnay kind of heavy sometimes. I tend to eat lightly, and I like a lighter wine like fume blanc (sauvignon blanc) and pinot grigio."
Leslie Brewster of 'Aiea considers chardonnay a cocktail wine. "I like a Guenoc or La Crema; they're not too sweet, on the dry side. I usually drink it before I eat."
Chardonnay is not the ideal food wine, according to wine experts. Its fruity character and buttery fullness can sometimes compete with the flavors of Asian-inspired dishes, for example; oakiness can overwhelm delicate preparations or turn bitter with Asian sauces; its alcohol can turn up the heat on spicy foods.
"Chardonnay does go with food, but there are other choices that go better with food," Field said.
Pinot gris or pinot grigio, for example, pairs well with rich spicy sauces and fresh sushi; the crispness of a sauvignon blanc marries well to raw and fresh seafood and cuts through rich buttery sauces; rieslings are especially nice with Asian dishes that are spicy and salty.
But perceptions of other varietals sometimes color people's choice of wine. Rieslings are perceived as being sweet, sauvignon blancs as acidic, grassy and sometimes flinty. "People are sometimes afraid to voice opinions on what they like," Toyama said. "Everyone orders chardonnay or merlot (the most popular red wine); it's 'comfort wine' for most people."
"Chardonnay will always be in; it's a comfort wine," Nagayama said. "It's big, fat, oaky. But people are a bit jaded. We like to experiment with different wines just like a chef does with spices. I like to give people options and introduce new wines that go with our style of cooking."
Event now has its own cookbook
Taste of Honolulu fans will want to pick up the new "Taste of Honolulu" cookbook, being released this weekend at the event.
The book is a compilation of recipes from more than 20 restaurants that have participated in the food extravaganza over the past decade.
You'll find recipes for Ciao Mein's Tirami Su, Eastern Garden's Honey Walnut Shrimp, Iva's Place Squid Luau, Kincaid's Burnt Cream and many more from top Hawai'i restaurants. There are also winning recipes from the 1998 Mango Mania recipe contest, 1999 and 2000 Ribs Cook off and the 2000 Fried Rice Competition.
The book sells for $10 with all of the proceeds from its sale going to Easter Seals because the book has been underwritten by Outrigger Hotels and Resorts.