How to begin? Offering wine education can be a challenge. Frequently, when teaching in-person classes, I'll begin with a session called "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Wine But Were Afraid to Ask." That invitation never fails to show that most wine enthusiasts—regardless of their level of experience—have wine questions. Many people, however, are shy about asking because they feel they "ought" to know.
So let's start by eliminating any fear or embarrassment. The following comparison was suggested to me by another wine professional and I think it is a wonderful way to stop embarrassment before it can even start.
None of us are born knowing how to play the piano, or to appraise an antique, or to appreciate a complex symphony, or to explain a 20th century color field painting. A cultured person might acquire any of these skills, but she or he also would have no embarrassment about saying, "I have no idea how to do that but I'm interested. Teach me, if you would?"
Yet, somehow with wine we think we are expected to know—and that we will be viewed as less than sophisticated, or less than "a cultured person," if we don't.
My guess is that this fear arises because we are confronted by wine in more frequent, very public, situations: on a date, at a business dinner, or when meeting new friends. Small talk at dinner never begins with, "What do you think of the influence of Henri Matisse on Robert Motherwell's work in the early 1970s?" or "How many times do you think Shostakovich used the DSCH motif in his symphonies?" But we might well be asked, "What do you think of this Chardonnay?"
A Simple Question
So let's start this Wine 101 series with a very simple question: "What's the difference between Chardonnay and Merlot?" This is just one example of a question I've been asked by a very intelligent person, genuinely interested learning more about wine.
You may be thinking to yourself, “This Sojourning Somm guy cannot possibly know anything about wine, if he believes he has to explain the difference between Chardonnay and Merlot. Chardonnay is white and Merlot is red. What more could be said?” Well, quite a lot actually.
Back to Botany Class
To start, let’s pretend for just a minute that we’re in botany class. Don’t worry, this class will be quick and then we’ll get back to wine immediately! Both Chardonnay and Merlot are what wine enthusiasts call “varietals.” Varietals is a fancy word for “grape types.” But we can go one step farther (and this is the important part): both Chardonnay and Merlot are vitis vinifera. That Latin label describes the genus and species of almost all popular wine grapes. Wine is not made from the same kind of grapes that we use as table grapes or to make grape jelly.
So, when you hear the varietal names like “Merlot,” “Chardonnay,” “Pinot Noir,” “Malbec,” “Cabernet Sauvignon,” and so on, now you’ll be able to speak up and say, “Oh, yes. Those noble grapes, those vitis vinifera, that we all enjoy as wine.” But now let’s move on to fun wine facts with which you can amaze your friends next time you are having a glass of Chardonnay or Merlot.
What's Special About Merlot?
First, let’s talk about the differences between these two varietals. Merlot is the more popular of the two grapes. Did you know that Merlot ranks #2 in the world in terms of popularity, right after Cabernet Sauvignon? Surprisingly, that is still true even after the two guys in the film Sideways made fun of Merlot! What’s more, even with Malbec’s extraordinary rise in popularity over the past few years, Malbec doesn’t make the top ten. Pinot Noir just barely squeezes onto the list in the tenth spot.
Did you also know one reason for Merlot’s popularity is because it is widely used as a blending grape? In the Bordeaux region of France, Merlot is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape types to make red wines more drinkable. Merlot adds body and softness to the finished blend. Merlot also ripens before some other red grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a winemaker’s “insurance policy” against an early freeze that might damage the Cabernet Sauvignon before harvest.
Did You Know That Many Wines Are Blends? Why are some red wines a blend of varietals? Some of the most expensive wines of California and France are blends that include Merlot. Bordeaux wines established many of the standards that exist today for winemaking around the world. Wine from French estates in the Bordeaux region like Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Mouton, and Margaux cost hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars per bottle. In California, proprietary blends like Opus One, Insignia, and Isoceles, not to mention more expensive cult wines like Harlan and Colgin, can easily run into the hundreds and beyond. Many of these wines use Merlot in their blend.
“OK, OK. Enough about Merlot. What about Chardonnay? But be quick about whatever you say, because I don’t even drink white wine,” you might be thinking.
"I Only Drink Red"—Oh, Puhleeeze!
Let’s start with the fact that the “I only drink red” movement arose largely because 60 Minutes did a segment in the early 1990s about the so-called French Paradox. The French Paradox is a term coined to describe how the French can eat a diet high in saturated fat, but have a lower incidence of heart disease than much of the world. The basis for that statistic is still debated, but one possible reason is a substance called resveratrol, which is present to a much larger degree in red wine than white. Suddenly, everyone wanted to drink red wine!
Chardonnay Still Rules
Despite that, Chardonnay still ranks as the #5 most popular grape in the world. As you might expect, three red grapes rank above Chardonnay (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo from Spain). The spoiler varietal that knocks Chardonnay out of the top spot for white is Airén, a Spanish white grape most wine lovers have never tried. That said, Chardonnay is a more noble grape than Airén, or at least has a more noble history, having produced superb white wines in the Burgundy region of France for centuries.
Tough Days for Chardonnay
Still, Chardonnay had a “bad hair day” about ten years ago—maybe a bad hair decade? The grape is only now recovering. What happened? In simple terms, Chardonnay became too popular. Restaurant-goers learned that, rather than asking for “a glass of white wine” before dinner, they could say, “give me a glass of Chardonnay, please.” That sounds much more knowledgeable and romantic. The wine tasted OK, too, so Chardonnay became a hot item. In response to demand, the wine industry planted thousands of acres of Chardonnay. However, to differentiate one Chardonnay from another in a competitive market, winemakers began using various techniques to change the taste of Chardonnay.
The result was that too many Chardonnays became more oaky and more “buttery.” This didn’t turn out to be a good thing for many wine drinkers. Consumers rose up in protest to form the ABC movement— “I’ll drink Anything But Chardonnay.” The poor grape really didn’t deserve this, but Chardonnays became too big, too flavorful to be good food wines. You can’t have two divas competing with each other on an opera stage. In the same way, you can’t have your food and wine trying to out-shout each other on the table. Chardonnays sang too loudly for many wine drinkers.
Look for Unoaked
A number of Chardonnay producers today have stepped back from the brink and renounced their overly buttery, overly oaky Chardonnays. If you want to try a lighter, brighter version of Chardonnay, be sure to look for bottles labled “unoaked Chardonnay” or bottles that say “fermented and stored in stainless.”
A Wine for Every Palate
By the way, none of this means there is something wrong with the wine (or for heaven’s sake, something wrong with you) if you prefer the bigger, buttery style. A lot of folks do. One of the joys of wine is that, somewhere, some winery, produces a wine for every palate and every occasion. Your preferences matter! Chardonnay’s ABC days stemmed from winemakers focusing too much on just one style, rather than offering a variety of styles to consumers.
So tonight, enjoy a glass of Chardonnay or Merlot. Offer some to your friends and amaze them with how much you know about these two popular varietals! The Sojourning Somm will be back in Wine 101–Part 3 with some tips on what to look for in a good wine. What should we look for as we taste? What are some wine flaws we should avoid? Then Part 4 will outline a method for tasting that will help you say more about a glass of Chardonnay than, "I like it" or "I don't like it."
Until then, happy wine explorations and “Cheers!”
And by the way, you are always welcome to email or text me your wine questions you've always wanted answered . . . but were afraid to ask! You'll find my info on the "Contact" page.