You do not dislike chardonnay. You dislike a story about chardonnay that you have told yourself or been persuaded to tell. That story is really about the use of oak in the fermentation and maturation of wine made from chardonnay grapes.

It’s easy to get chardonnay and oak confused, since they take so readily to each other and have therefore developed a long, intricate relationship. You may dislike the way that relationship plays out, but you do not dislike chardonnay.

And I’m pretty sure you don’t dislike oak, either. Oak barrels play a pivotal role in the development of almost all red wines, and can – when judiciously used – tease out the subtlety and nobility of white wines that are too shy about the greatness they have buried inside.

Oak supports a wine so that it can build structure, and helps it both develop and diffuse the inner strength required for long-term aging. Not all white wines require oak to become great, but many of the world’s greatest wines – and also some of the really goodest – depend on oak’s assistance.

Chardonnay, pressed into a must that is fermented into wine in sealed, neutral tanks (stainless steel or concrete) is usually rather bland. A generous appraisal of the taste of “unoaked” chardonnay would call it clean, unadorned. A skeptic would call it boring. I, somewhere in the middle, call it pleasant. Chardonnay is a blank slate: impressionable, ready to record wisdom. Or maybe it’s a well-polished window, holding little to linger over but providing access to splendor.

Thousands of vintners through history have found that oak-based vinification can make evident the complex and resonant characteristics that, in its fresh-pressed youth, chardonnay’s poker face barely betrays. Something, from nothing! How? Science has explicated somewhat, though mystery remains.

Most oak-based vinification throughout history relied on barrels that had already been tempered by at least a year or two’s work in the cellar. By the time the chardonnay hit the wood, the woodiness was gone; the barrel could act as a tool for tempering, and for the controlled, minuscule flow of oxygen from the cellar into the wine. Oak is not tasted in such a wine, just sensed texturally.

Wines made from juice fermented in new-oak barrels, on the other hand, absorb and transmit the taste of wood itself. Historically, new oak was rarely used for whites; when it was, the point was to get wines into bottles to age for several years before being released to the market. In that time, the taste imprint of new oak – most of it recognizable as a vinous version of French toast: butter, brioche, vanilla – would dissipate, leaving a grand, mellifluous wine that had magically unfurled.

Somewhere along the way, though, some of the new-oak wines got opened before Orson Welles predicted they’d be spot on. Lo and behold, people liked them! They liked the actual French-toast taste of wines fermented in new oak, as well as the creamy mouthfeel derived from the second “malolactic” fermentation in cask. This was the 1980s. Remember? Delicious! Elegant! There was a lot of buttery chardonnay to sip at the bar.

The premature flavors of classic barrel-fermented Burgundies from Meursault and Montrachet had been fetishized, co-opted and brilliantly marketed by the Barnums of Napa. At some point, someone realized that using expensive barrels to produce oak-flavored rather than oak-assisted wines was not cost-efficient. Thus ensued the widespread use of oak chips, or even oak extracts, to flavor the wine, allowing these ersatz Burgundies to trickle down to mass-market price points.

You’re aghast, right? That story you tell about not liking chardonnay, or oak, or both, just increased in righteousness. But let’s not act as if flavoring wine with tools besides grapes is a recent innovation. For most of wine’s history, wine has been flavored or aromatized with herbs, roots, other fruits, pine resin and more. Those who would call “natural” or “minimal-intervention” wines a return to enological tradition haven’t followed the timeline back far enough.

Still, The Story of How You Don’t Like Chardonnay holds some legitimacy, since overly manipulated and overtly flavored wines grow exhausting at some point. What was fun for a while at those bars in the 1980s and 1990s turns out to have a shelf life. So you moved on to other things: pinot grigio, Sancerre, grüner veltliner, cocktails, beer.

Let us add, however, to that list. Let us add chardonnay. Yes, let us use chardonnay to combat the bad story of chardonnay. Let us at least try to understand chardonnay, since its tabula rasa personality can be so slippery and misleading. In this weekly column I write, I am going to commit to a biweekly exploration, over the next couple of months, of chardonnay in its many guises. Each installment will focus on a subcategory of the varietal, with related excursions into oak, geology, geography and winemaking practices.

I hope we’ll emerge better informed. I hope we’ll emerge with more understanding, more stories, more appreciation. Chardonnay is a dignified grape with a fascinating history. It ought to be in the canon of what anyone with even a casual interest in wine knows. It has become either a laughingstock or an idol, neither role deserved.

To my mind, an investigation of chardonnay has but one starting point, and that is Chablis. Chablis is in a part of France so northern and cold that winemaking can barely take place there. It is the northernmost corner of Burgundy, closer to southern Champagne in both distance and character than the most prestigious vineyards of Burgundy. Yet the Romans planted vines there, and chardonnay became the primary grape in the 12th century thanks to Cistercian monks.

Chablis yields the clearest, purest, most ethereal and beautiful expressions of chardonnay that I know. Whichever stories we end up liking, and interpreting, and telling, I want this to be the first chapter. Some of Chablis wines’ directness is due to winemaking technique, which is by regional consensus quite hands-off.

But hands-off winemaking produces a successful wine only in a land that can support it. The unique geology of Chablis is that land.

Chablis is composed mostly of calcareous soil from the famous Kimmeridgean ridge, a mixture of limestone, clay and the fossils of millions of oysters. All of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are on this soil. Others in Chablis and all in the Petit Chablis appellation lie on the somewhat younger (but geologically similar) Portlandian (!) ridge.

Cold, unpredictable weather in vineyards covered in chalky soil, on hard limestone formed through epochs by the death and pulverization of oysters. If there’s a better foreword to a white wine’s biography, I haven’t read it. The wines taste flinty, steely, maybe a bit smoky, with hints of richness when young, but hints only. They almost crunch in the mouth. As they age, they mellow and deepen, lose some of the assertive acidity but gain a honeyed grace.

The compacted tectonic power of Chablis uncoils as it loses its cork, its chill, its youth. Something of the chardonnay itself begins to reveal, though the real drama remains that performance seen through the window. With Chablis you watch the soil, the climate, the grape, as if in hand-drawn animation slides laid on top of each other. The winemaking culture of Chablis seems to exist merely to polish the glass.

Sometimes oak is used in Chablis, sometimes not. Everything is subtle, delicate, friendly, almost Japanese in its precise, quiet, focused loveliness. In fact, Chablis shares with sake a sort of rarefied expression of water: soft, saline, enveloping, primal.

It’s not the cheapest way to enjoy chardonnay, for sure, but nor is it close to the most expensive. There will be a time for the Cru wines, but for now please buy a bottle or two of the more basic bottlings.

Domaine Desvignes Chablis AC 2012 ($20) is a very good basic starting point, on the crisp/clean end. So is the Joseph Drouhin Vaudon 2012 ($24), precise and elegant. Roland Lavantureux’s 2011 Chablis ($27) is nervy, pinpoint, electrified. Christian Moreau’s Chablis 2013 ($27) is, while a year younger than those others, elaborate and richer, touched by used oak and hinting at the softest, cleanest butter.

The wines are wonderful with all sorts of food, from the elegant usual suspects such as oysters and simple fish preparations to surprisingly basic snacks: I love Chablis with popcorn or potato chips.

Drink some Chablis over the next two weeks, and take some notes. The next chardonnay column I write will pick up where we’ve left off.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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