All Hail the Queen of White Wine

Comtesse Thérèse is the only Long Island vineyard that also owns a restaurant, Comtesse Thérèse Bistro in Aquebogue. A resident of Manhattan and the North Fork, lawyer/vineyard owner/winemaker/restaurateur Theresa (Tree) Dilworth discusses chardonnay—growing it, making it into wine, aging it, and pairing food with it—eastern Long Island style.

The chardonnay-disdaining ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement really just proves the opposite—Chardonnay is the dominant white grape around. It’s by far the most widely-planted white grape on eastern Long Island since the industry began here four decades ago. Though sauvignon blanc, viognier, riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, pinot blanc, chenin blanc, muscat, tocai friulano, malvesia bianco and other white wine grapes are grown on Long Island, chardonnay production far outweighs all the others put together. [expand]

The grape, originating in the Burgundy region of France in the town of Chardonnay, Saône-et-Loire, is used in the French regions of Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne, as well as being in California, and is grown in both warm and cool climates in many countries from New Zealand to Italy to England. A grape that consumers are familiar with, it’s a safer marketing bet than the more esoteric varieties, especially in new, emerging wine regions.

Wooded or unwooded, chardonnay is a versatile production. It can be aged in stainless steel tanks for a lean, dry, citrusy, crisp, green and/or minerally style, or aged in a barrel for a more golden, smoother, mellower, rounder, fatter, and more powerful style, or many variations in between, including those using oak staves or chips, or made into a Methode Champenoise-type sparkling wine. Depending on the fruit ripeness, aromas and flavors can range from lean, crisp and lemony with high acidity, to green or fruity or ripe or with a touch of baked apples and pears, to a more honeyed and tropical fruit lushness or even a hint of baked bread nuttiness or yeastiness. The winemaker can influence the result by choosing to stir the lees or not (and how frequently if so), add sugar or acid, use new and/or used barrels and/or allow it to go through the acid-softening secondary (malolactic) fermentation, among other options.

For my own chardonnay, the Comtesse Thérèse Russian Oak Chardonnay, we grow the so-called “Dijon clones” (originally brought from France). I barrel-ferment and barrel-age in Russian oak barrels—the oak is the same species as French oak, but grown in the Caucasus Mountain region of Russia, near Georgia. While barrel-aged, the oak is not overpowering, and there is also a citrusiness to it. What I am trying to achieve is balance—neither too oaky, too fruity, too citrusy, too sweet, nor too sharp–with no single element dominating the flavor. If I had to pair chardonnay with food from my restaurant, Comtesse Thérèse Bistro in Aquebogue, this is what I’d pair it with and why:

North Fork Mesclun Salad with Herb-Encrusted Goat Cheese—the creaminess of the goat cheese goes well with the slight creaminess of the barrel-aged chardonnay, while the chopped nuts in the salad dressing complement the hint of toasted hazelnut emanating from the oak barrels.

North Fork Asparagus Soup, in the spring—like the goat cheese suggestion, the cream in this soup, combined with the green of the asparagus, complements the elements in the wine.

Pumpkin Chardonnay Soup from local North Fork pumpkins, in the fall—if a dish has wine in it, ‘tis often a good idea to pair the food with the same wine. While I don’t have his exact recipe, my chef Arie Pavlou puts a little chardonnay into the pumpkin soup.

Local Long Island Fluke, Scallops, or Cod, served almost any style—for example, freshly-caught fluke would be great either á la Grenobloise (with lemon, butter, and capers), like Chef Arie sometimes makes it, or with a different, creamier and mellower sauce. Actually, it’s not worth worrying—you can’t go wrong with chardonnay paired with any fish. Bon appétit! [/expand]

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