About 6 years ago, I swore off chardonnay and declared myself an ABC drinker (anything but chardonnay). I was sick of drinking a glass of wine that tasted like melted butter, caramel sauce, and a 2x4. So I sought greener pastures in the world of white and fell in love with sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, albarino, gruner veltliner, dry riesling -- anything that wasn't chardonnay.
The thing that I didn't realize about chardonnay is that it is the most malleable of grapes. It grows with vigor in nearly every wine region of the world and off the vine is fairly neutral. Never to take lemons and enjoy them at face value, being human means we must make lemonade, so over the centuries winemakers have figured out some ways to take this boring grape and give it a little sex appeal. Put it in oak -- it gets butterscotch, nut, wood, burnt caramel flavors with time. Motivate a secondary (malo-lactic) fermentation and tart green apple flavors turn into buttery cream.
In Chablis they don't generally use oak nor do the winemakers seek creaminess from malo-lactic fermentation, but further south in Burgundy they do both, and the results are luscious (try a wine from Chassagne-Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet to see what I mean). The difference between these wines and the ones that I banned from my wine rotation is a little thing called acid.
I'd been drinking $15 wines from California. These wines were oaky, creamy, and flabby -- there was no kick of mouthwatering, tongue puckering acid. To me, simply put, this sucked.
What I learned later on, and I thought I'd share here, is that growing chardonnay in hot places essentially bakes the acid out of the grape and leaves you with a vat of flabby juice that, as a winemaker, you better oak and make creamy. Otherwise who the hell is going to drink it? It's more like flat Mountain Dew than wine. If you buy a chardonnay from a cooler climate (Chablis, other parts of Burgundy, New Zealand, the Casablanca Valley of Chile, Santa Maria Valley and the Carneros region of California), you can get a wine with a backbone and still enjoy some of the creamy or oaky.
In shopping for wines I always seek out cooler regions for Chardonnay, and the Russian River Valley of Sonoma is often a good bet. It's near the Pacific and it gets a ton of fog hanging out over it, so the hot Cali sun is tempered by this curtain of cool. If you've been there, you know that it's freaking freezing in the AM and the PM and pretty darn warm in the middle of the day. You have bring 5 layers just to be prepared. This is great for ripening grapes and often creates chardonnays that have a good balance of acid, fruit, oak, and cream.
That's why it's a shame that the Martin Ray Chardonnay was so unpleasant for me and M.C. Ice. It really made me want to reinstate my ban, although this time just against Russian River. Let's examine why this wine went off the rails:
The Wine: Martin Ray
Where It's From: Russian River Valley, Sonoma, CA
The Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Color: Ah...it all started out innocent enough. A nice yellow color, kind of like a Duncan Hines cake (we just made cupcakes for the hell of it and those I haven't devoured are sitting in my fridge, hence the reference).
Smell: Let's see...um, not good would be the first thing that comes to mind. In addition to the caramel-oak that overpowered everything else, there were secondary smells. Chemicals, dirty socks, sour and bruised fruit, and some indescribable foot-like smell wafted out of the glass.
Taste: The wine tasted only slightly better than it smelled. In a refreshing twist, we actually tasted a little of the cooked apple and caramel that should probably be there. Still, the chemical taste, the over-oaked flavor, and the complete lack of acid pervaded. And there was just this FUNK. I can't even tell you what it was like (toes?). I wish I could say that the bottle was flawed but it wasn't corked or turned or overheated, it was just gross wine. I couldn't finish my glass, and neither could M.C. Ice (which is shocking since he'll drink 2 Buck Chuck).
For a standard bearer of the Russian River Valley, this wine does not represent. Sonoma can be a great place for chard, but I would steer clear of this one.