For years, I found myself scoffing at California Chardonnay: too oaky, too buttery, too over the top. Even as I became interested in whites, the Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs drew me in, but I always passed on the most popular of the white grapes. Perhaps it was the need to be different, ordering Petite Sirah when everyone else at the table ordered Merlot or Chardonnay. It certainly wasn't that I didn't have access. Every restaurant has a Chardonnay on its wine list. Trust me—I served plenty of it at the two where I worked, especially to women eating salads.
However, that pairing is not where the variety shines. While there seems to have been a recent backlash against overly oaked versions (witness the rash of "unoaked," "unwooded," and "naked" bottles), there's a time and place for buttery Chardonnay. Last November I sampled it with freshly caught Dungeness crab for the first time. Close your eyes and picture the steamed meat, sweet and succulent, dipped into a ramekin of drawn butter. Now imagine washing it down with a rich, creamy Chardonnay that matches its fullness. "Oh, damn" is right.
The Chardonnay grape is quite malleable, capable of taking on many characteristics and, therefore, putty in the winemaker's hands. Often aged in barrels of varying degrees of newness (the older the oak, the less seasoning it adds) and levels of char, the wine can take on the taste of coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, toast, and other flavors and aromas.
Another technique that affects the final product is malolactic fermentation (ML). It's what changes the malic acids (think green apples) into softer lactic acids (more like milk) and occurs as the result of bacteria—either natural strains or added ones—consuming the malic acids. The result is usually the same, though, and wines that go through the process exhibit a rounder mouth feel and often taste like butter or microwave popcorn.
The risotto recipe is my rendition of a deceptively rich dish. While you might think it is full of heavy cream or cheese, it is actually the method, not the ingredients, that makes the dish decadent. That cooking technique also makes it a good match for Chardonnay with a fair amount of oak treatment and ML, such as La Crema (~$18) or the J.Lohr Riverstone (~$15).
Then again, maybe you would rather have that salad (and Sauvignon Blanc) I mentioned earlier. The salad shows the versatility of the lump crabmeat, as well as how big a role preparation plays in food-and-wine pairings. Due to the prominent grapefruit flavors in the dressing and salad itself, a Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal choice, as it often displays sharp citrus notes and usually has no oak or ML. Stay away from Fumé Blanc, though. It's the same grape, but it often gets oak treatment. New Zealand wines are a safe bet, such as Kim Crawford (~$18) or Spy Valley (~$16), as these wines often exhibit grassy, grapefruit notes.
If you're feeling quite the wine geek, serve both dishes on the same night, but with three wines: an oaky Chardonnay, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and an unoaked Chard for a point of comparison between the other two.
Crab, Pepper and Corn Risotto (serves 4)
2 cups Arborio rice
6 cups chicken/vegetable stock
1 tbsp butter
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup red, yellow and/or orange bell pepper, chopped
1/2 can sweet corn
6 oz. of lump crabmeat
Grated Parmesan as garnish, optional
Heat stock to boiling. Meanwhile, melt butter in a deep skillet over medium heat. Sauté shallots in the butter. Add peppers and cook for a couple minutes. Add rice and stir.
This part is the hardest because it requires patience, so go ahead and fill your glass. A half cup at a time, add the hot stock to rice and stir until it's absorbed. Repeat and repeat again. Altogether, it will take about 30 minutes. When you have about 5 minutes left, add the corn. Then fold in the crabmeat. If it is fresh, fantastic. Sadly, with the Bay Bridge collision and subsequent oil spill, I've been relying on the frozen version myself, and it works just fine.
Crab, Grapefruit and Avocado Salad
Half a ruby red grapefruit in cubes
Juice from the other grapefruit half
2 tbsp Sauvignon Blanc
1 clove minced garlic
1/8 tsp thyme
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
One avocado, thinly sliced
4 oz. goat cheese
8 oz. lump crabmeat
Whisk garlic and thyme with the grapefruit juice and wine, then slowly drizzle in oil, with a pinch of salt and pepper. Dress the greens then arrange on four plates, portioning out the grapefruit chunks and avocado slices. For each salad, finish with a fourth of the goat cheese crumbles and a quarter of the crabmeat in the center. Serve with the same wine used in the dressing.