Chardonnay is a chameleon. More than those made from any of the other eight grapes my list, wines made from Chardonnay express the region in which they are grown and the style the winemaker wants to express. They can be lean and supple or rich and fat. As such, it’s one of the varietals that’s hardest to figure out from the label.
Chardonnay is grown in every major wine-producing region of the world. Its home, however, is the Burgundy region of France, where it is used to make that most seemly oxymoronic of wines, White Burgundy (Bourgogne Blanc). For most people, Burgundy is synonymous with red wine, but some of the finest and most expensive white wines in the world come from there. These wines are often very different from New World Chardonnay, in part because the grape is so expressive of the soil and the climate in which it is grown. Another big factor, however, is winemaking style.
Remember when I talked about how wine is made? For Chardonnay, there are two critical decisions a winemaker has to make. The first is whether or not to do a secondary fermentation, also called a malolactic fermentation. This is the process of adding bacteria to the wine that transform malic acid — the acid that gives Granny Smith apples their crisp bite — into lactic acid — the acid found in milk. Almost all red wine undergoes this process, but it’s optional for white wine. A malolactic fermentation softens the wine, makes it less crisp, and as a byproduct produces diacetyl, the compound added to margarine or popcorn to make it taste like butter. Ever had a buttery Chardonnay? It almost certainly underwent a malolactic fermentation.
The other choice the winemaker has to make is about cooperage. What barrels — if any — the wine is aged in will make a huge difference in the final character of a Chardonnay. Wines absorb flavor from the barrels they are aged in. If you’ve picked up oaky, toasty, or vanilla flavors from a wine, they probably came from the barrel. New barrels will impart more flavor than older barrels, so the longer the wine is in barrel and the higher the percentage of the wine aged in new oak, the stronger the oak flavor will be. In cheaper wines, this flavor is often added by soaking oak chips in the wine.
So when you’re looking at a bottle of Chardonnay, how do you know what you’re going to get? If it’s from outside of France, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Most New World Chardonnays undergo both malolactic fermentation and extended oak aging, particularly the more expensive ones. This trend is changing a little bit, as people get tired of drinking oak, buttery, two-by-fours. With wines from France, Chardonnays from Chablis tend to be more minerally and acidic than one from the rest of Burgundy. I find that like a lot of Chardonnays that undergo minimal malolactic or are aged in stainless steel (or minimal new oak), but that’s often hard to tell from the label, so I also make it a point to ask. My advice for learning about these wines? Get out there and taste them.
Despite not being huge Chardonnay fans, we’ve got two cases of it in the cellar, including: Bouchard Père & Fils Bourgogne (Burgundy), Alma Rosa Winery “El Jabali Vineyard” Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills), Foxen “Bien Nacido Block UU” and “Bien Nacido Steel Cut” Chardonnays (both Santa Maria Valley).
So, what do you think about Chardonnay? Do you love them? Or are you a member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club?
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