Chardonnay — the decision of whether or not it’s one of your go-to varietals or if you’ve opted into the ABC club (Anything But Chard), is based on a certain stereotype. Oaky? (over-oaked?) Buttery? (butter-bomb?) Popcorn? (is that a good thing?) But the truth is that this green-skinned grape provides a whole spectrum of flavor profiles determined, predominantly, by the winemaker. But let’s back up a bit and learn a bit more about this (too?) popular varietal.
Chardonnay, like many grapes, has its roots in France. You may be familiar with the crisp, acid-driven wines of Chablis or the rounder, smoother white Burgundies. Chardonnay is also one of the primary ingredients — along with Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier — in traditional Champagne, and also makes a single varietal sparkling wine, Blanc de Blanc. It is the second most planted wine grape in France and the most widely planted wine grape in the world.
Why? One reason is that grape growers find it is one of the easiest varieties to grow. It’s vigorous, yields well, adapts to most soil types, and can acclimate to both warmer and cooler temperatures. And thought the warmer climates will yield more citrus and tropical notes while the cooler climates are known more for the pomme-fruit flavor profiles, the Chardonnay grape itself is quite neutral, even malleable, lending itself to a wide range of different winemaking techniques that ultimately affect the palate of the wine.
“Most of this sort of wine is far more a product made in the cellar than in the vineyard,” says Jancis Robinson. The two most affecting decisions made by the winemaker is whether to use malolactic fermentation and the the use of oak — or not — when aging Chardonnay.
Malolactic fermentation (ML) is a chemical conversion process in which the harder malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid and diacetyl. You’re not wrong in thinking about milk when you read these words. Indeed, the resulting scent is sometimes reminiscent of buttermilk (or sometimes even sour milk), while the palate reveals that stereotypical “buttery-ness” that folks seem to either love or hate. But winemakers can choose to not take their wine through full ML or can split batches between those that do and those that don’t, blending the two before bottling. How much or how little ML is used in the final blend, in either situation, will ultimately affect that butter-like flavor and the often viscous mouthfeel. This process can take place in or out of barrel and that, too, will determine the extremity to which the wine will have that full, round, indulgent taste and texture.
Oak barrels can be introduced either during initial fermentation or after, during the aging process. Without going into all the different types of barrels, cooperages, etc, I will say that the two most common barrels used to age Chardonnay– at least here in the US — are American and French. American oak barrels tend to infuse stronger flavors, most often described as cream, vanilla, even coconut and are associated with creamier textured wines. French oak barrels, on the other hand, tend to offer more spice-filled aromatics like cinnamon, cloves, smoke and lends a more subtle, satin-like texture to the wine. In either case, younger wines will give more of a presence in the wine, while older oak will have little noticeable affect. (This is why I often include the percentage of new, old, or neutral oak in my wine notes).
The last, not-so-secret ingredient used in making Chardonnay is the time spent, if any, aging on the lees (or skin-contact) and whether or not the winemaker opts to occasionally agitate the wine during this process. The most common kind of agitation is “stirring up” the lees, a process referred to as battonage. But any agitation (some winemakers keep their barrels on wheels to simply rotate the liquid) will increase the influence the lees have on both flavor and texture: think more earthy aromatics and a touch of dryness (akin to tannins) on the tongue.
Chardonnay in California
The first notable production of California Chardonnay was from Wente Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley AVA. The winery developed a clone (you may have heard of the Wente clone) used in vineyard plantings throughout California back in 1940s. Of course, the Chardonnay that put California on the world’s winemaking map was produced by Chateau Montelena, whose 1973 bottle won the 1976 Judgement of Paris.
What was it about that bottle? Chardonnay in California seems to prosper best in our cooler climates. In fact, Jancis Robinson says, “The key to serious quality in a California Chardonnay is climate. Wherever coastal fogs reliably slow down the ripening process, extending the growing season.” She specifically calls out Carneros and the Sonoma Coast as some of the most Burgundian-like. But, I’d like to also make a nod toward the Santa Lucia Highlands.
For a round up of some of my recommended Chardonnays to try, see my post from National Chardonnay Day. This week, I’ll be adding to that library, featuring a different Chardonnay each day — from grocery-store-grabbers to single-vineyard exclusives — each with their own unique winemaking expression.
Hahn SLH 2015 Chardonnay
Flora Springs 2016 Estate Chardonnay
Balletto 2015 Russian River Valley Chardonnay
Testarossa 2014 Cuvée Los Gatos Chardonnay
Ramey Wine Cellars 2014 Platt Vineyard Chardonnay