There are a few things in life I’d prefer not to live without. Obviously, wine is one of those things. Another is butter. I love butter and there was a time in my life when I buttered pretty much everything.
Then along came the dire news that butter was bad for you and butter substitutes started appearing on grocery shelves, my favorite being “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (I could). In fact, I think my adoration of butter is what initially drew me to chardonnay; I loved those big butter bombs of the late 1970s and ’80s my parents would serve at dinner parties and the not-so-empty glasses I would help myself to while offering to assist with the dishes.
Little did I know, however, that buttery chardonnay would soon fall out of fashion and what was once considered white gold was quickly becoming trashy. Critics of New World Chardonnay did little to save its fall from grace in the late ’80s and buttery chardonnay became synonymous with poor taste. I imagine it wasn’t uncommon to hear people in trendy bars say, “I’d love a glass of chardonnay — as long as it isn’t buttery.”
“Oh, you’ll love this new wine called ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Chardonnay.’ It’s actually made with margarine, which is so much better for you.”
Chardonnay is not inherently buttery. In fact, it’s a very neutral grape that gets its flavor predominantly from where it’s grown, with climate playing a major role. Almost all buttery goodness in chardonnay comes from the master manipulator behind the curtain and their use of oak and malolactic fermentation, a process akin to adding cream to coffee, softening the acids and creating a creamy texture.
Unoaked chardonnay rarely goes through malolactic fermentation and produces a wine that retains its natural fruit-forward character. Although my preference is unoaked chardonnay, I am still a butter fan at heart and occasionally I need to listen to my heart. The following are excellent examples of both styles.
The two unoaked chardonnays I thoroughly enjoyed were both from the Macon region of Burgundy, France, and finding the 2017 Nicolas Maillet Macon Verze (Vita’s, Lopez Island, $27) was like striking liquid gold. The slightly honeyed notes of toasted hazelnuts and hints of pineapple made this wine irresistible, and I immediately wished I had purchased the other two bottles at Vita’s.
By comparison, the 2018 Thevenet & Fils Macon Pierreclos (Compass Wines, Anacortes, $21.99) was leaner and more minerally than the Verze and a spot-on example of how different soil types can create such diverse wines in such a small wine-growing region. I highly recommend both wines and other chardonnays from the Macon. “The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia,” says “… although it never quite matches the heights of quality of the Cote d’Or, [the Macon] is easily the best-value pure chardonnay wine in the world.”
The two oaked chardonnays I had were both from California and the 2021 Cannonball Chardonnay ($14.99) was recommended to me at Compass Wines in Anacortes. The Cannonball, which sees some French oak, was loaded with expressive fruit flavors which are accented by toasty pastry notes and a touch of sweet vanilla. The bigger and more buttery of the two oaked wines was the 2021 Raeburn Sonoma County Chardonnay (Fred Meyer, $17.99). The Raeburn is classic California Chardonnay and a superb value with flavors of baked apple, butter, vanilla and perfectly balanced richness of fruit and complexity of oak.
As a side note, when shopping for domestic chardonnays, do yourself a favor and shop the top shelf — buying from below the belt is like buying margarine or something unbelievable.
While I have backed off on my heavy-handed use of butter, I still crave it and occasionally satisfy my craving with a buttery chardonnay; not cheap imitation butter, mind you, but the real deal, the stuff that melts in your mouth, the kind you can believe in — and nothing with “butter” in its name.
Katie Bechkowiak owned Vinostrology wine bar in downtown Bellingham from 2013–19. If you have wine suggestions for her monthly column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.