Chardonnay ranks No. 5 in wine grape plantings worldwide and No. 1 in the U.S. It is planted in more winemaking areas of the world than any other varietal and is produced in diverse styles. Some are more representative of the growing area (terroir) while others are more expressive of the winemaker’s hand and influence. So what is the true character of chardonnay, and is it easily identifiable?
Many in the winemaking industry would agree that chardonnay is one of the most malleable of all wine grapes as its aromatic and flavor characteristics are neutral and can be easily molded. Due to its chameleon nature chardonnay can either be left alone or “coaxed” by the winemaker in several directions to display a range of styles from truly sublime elegance to overpowering and unbalanced.
In the mid-1980s, a trend developed both here and in other New World countries centered upon the overuse of oak (vanilla and toast) and later extended malolactic fermentation (buttery) that lent a manipulated character to the wine while gaining consumer and critical support. Many consumers even today associate these created elements as the true flavor and aroma of chardonnay. The proliferation of these wines at many different prices generated a consumer backlash and eventually led to the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement. An unfortunate development for this esteemed varietal that has reversed itself in recent years as the pendulum continues swinging back.
In its true terroir-driven sense, chardonnay shows focused green apple notes when grown in cooler climates such as Carneros or the Sonoma Coast. In warmer areas such as the Central Coast, more pear and melon are observed. And in even warmer (but still relatively cool) areas such as the mid-Napa Valley and parts of the Russian River Valley, we can easily observe a more tropical fruit profile.
Careful and judicious winemaking and barrel selection will preserve these characteristics bringing out the true personality of the grape in the finished wine.
France is the original home of chardonnay and remains the focal point of its stylistic model. Chardonnay is the only grape grown in Chablis to Burgundy’s far north and presents a distinctive “steely” mineral quality due to cool temperatures, unique soils and minimal if any oak treatment.
Farther south in the Côte du Beaune the wines are rich and lush with layers of complexity and at best expressive of their specific vineyard sites. In Champagne, chardonnay is the most revered white grape grown and adds a feminine expression to the wine either on its own (Blanc de Blancs) or when more typically blended with pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
Chardonnay is widely planted in California with its finest examples coming from cooler growing areas and many with chalk or limestone soils as seen in Burgundy and Champagne. These stellar wines are not necessarily inexpensive given the value of the land, meticulous farming and winemaking practices along with the use of French oak barrels costing well over $1,000 each for fermentation and aging.
High-quality barrels (both new and used) are a necessary factor in the production of world-class chardonnay not only for delicate flavor and aromatic enhancement but more importantly for textural development by the gentle passage of air through the finely grained pores of the wood.
At the other end of the price spectrum we can find many chardonnays from the warm to hot Central Valley and other unfavorable growing areas. Quality French oak barrels are not affordable for these wines but the producers say the need to maintain the flavor and aroma of the wood so closely related by many consumers to chardonnay.
Solution? Given the accepted malleability of the grape, the use of oak staves in steel tanks, oak chips or powder soaking in the juice or simply the addition of oak extract will impart the expected aromatic and flavor components. Of course, these treatments artificially effect only the flavor and aromatics but not the textural element imparted by the barrel itself.
The overuse of oak and malolactic fermentation is not limited to the lower priced chardonnays and remains a stylistic model for others at higher prices and critical appeal. I also became an ABC advocate when wines of this overbearing style proliferated the market, but with the swing back to a more traditional Old World style I find myself reaching for chardonnay more often and greatly enjoying the experience.