We were having dinner last night — cod, potato and chorizo stew — and drinking a bottle of the Silverado Vineyards “Vineburg” Chardonnay 2005, Carneros (about $30), an absolutely lovely, pure and eloquent expression of the grape. As we often do when we spend an hour or so with a bottle of wine, we talked about it, how it evolved in the glass, its virtues and defects (this had no defects) and about, in this case, how the chardonnays we love — balancing spicy fruity richness with minerally and acidic elegance — aren’t the ones that win top scores and prizes.

Then LL said, “As far as I’m concerned, this is white wine. This is what white wine should be. Chardonnay is the stake in the ground.”

I was stunned, not only because I wished I had thought of that phrase but because of the boldness of the assertion. Chardonnay is the stake in the ground! chard_01.jpg
“But what,” I said, “about riesling and sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc? They can make great wines.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know that. But there’s a greatness in the best chardonnays that’s better than anything else in other white wines. And it’s the same thing for cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet is the stake in the ground for red wine.”

“But — pinot noir! Isn’t pinot noir the Holy Grail of red wines? We love pinot noir!”

“How many pinots do we try that are really great, I mean, intense and pure and classic? Maybe one out of 20. And two out of three of those come from Burgundy. And they’re still pretty light. Why should we celebrate pinot noir just because it’s so finicky that making a great wine from it is some sort of miracle. Wait, I know, you’re going to mention syrah and merlot, yes, those are capable of being made into great wine. But the most consistently great red wine, the most dependably great red wines are based on cabernet sauvignon. It’s the — ”

“Right, I know, the stake in the ground.” cab_01.jpg
I thought all day about what LL said last night. Could it be true that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes possess a deeper, more dimensional quality of power and potential than other grapes? When I think of the greatest white and red wines I have tasted in my career as a wine-writer, I have to admit that most of them have been chardonnays and cabernets, or at least blends that contain cabernet sauvignon.

Yes, of course I can think of instances of wines made from other grapes that were sublime:a barrel-sample of Chateau Petrus 1998 (which will be immortal) in December 1999; it’s 100 percent merlot, the greatest merlot wine in the world. And on that same trip to France, in Burgundy now, standing in the cold damp cellar at Domaine Roumier tasting Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses” 1998 out of the barrel, a pinot noir that seemed lifted directly from the dirt and soil and sub-strata of the vineyard. A Barbaresco 1961 made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted at 30 years old. The Savennnieres-Coulee de Serrant 2000 of Nicholas Joly. A Hermitage La Chapelle 1949 tasted in 1989. But those are special instances and special wines.
So, I wonder, is there not dignity and nobility about the greatest wines made from chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes, not merely dignity and nobility but consistent dignity and nobility, a consistently historical living up to potential that other grapes and wines, however fine they may frequently (or rarely) be, cannot match with such an awe-inspiring combination of insouciance and confidence?
Perhaps so. Perhaps I’m waffling on this issue.
Let me know about where you would drive that stake in the ground.

The image of chardonnay grapes is copyright Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo, Italy.

The image of cabernet sauvignon grapes is from http://www.winegeeks.com.