Focus on Varietals: Chardonnay
Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine grape in the world (the first one: Airén is a white Spanish varietal many don’t even know exists outside of central Spain – crazy, huh?)
See chart below posted by Wine Folly.
In any case, Chardonnay is one of those, shall we say polarizing varietals.
You have those of us in the wine industry who rave about how amazing white Burgundies are. How each time we have oysters or sashimi, all we wish for is a glass of Chablis. How nothing compares to the liquid gold that is Montrachet when it comes to white wines of the world.
Then you have the A.B.C. crowd.
No, not Always Be Closing for those of you in sales, but the “Anything, But, Chardonnay” crowd.
Comments I’ve heard in my years on the floor range from “I hate how buttery all Chardonnays are” or “I don’t like white wines which have that vanilla and are heavy when it’s hot outside in the summer”.
Well, it turns out both sides of the above descriptions – from oysters and Chablis to Vanilla notes in a glass, are very much Chardonnay. So, let’s try to break down this multifaceted varietal, shall we?
First – when I mentioned above that wine industry folks LOVE white Burgundies, how many of you knew that white Burgundy is Chardonnay? Well, now you know!
Hint – Red Burgundy is another one of my all-time favorite varietals which often times pairs very well with turkey and is also grown on the west coast… but that’s a separate blog entry for a later day.
So back to white Burgundies. As is often the case in the wine world, most varietals originated and are best expressed in France.
When it comes to Chardonnay, Burgundy is the epicenter of this grape.
Below is a basic map of Burgundy – with the areas that produce white wine, Chardonnay, highlighted. Mainly – Chablis, Macon, and some Cote-Chalonnaise.
We could spend numerous entries on Burgundy alone, but for now let’s break it down the following way.
First off, contrary to popular belief not all Chardonnay is oaked. Most of the map above in fact uses no oak when vinifying this grape!
To think California, for years, got us used to smelling vanilla, coconut and other oak-induced scents in our glass and then realize the French only use it when they feel the wine needs it or they feel it would better express it is always mind blowing.
So back to not using oak. Macon and Chablis are two of these oak-free zones.
Most basic Chablis does not see oak (some of the Grand Cru wines do at times) Pouilly-Fuissé in the Macconais region uses oak, but for the most part you’re getting as I call it, Chardonnay without the makeup.
This pure expression of fruit, of a high-acid, crisp grape is something most of us would associate with other white wines like say, Pinot Grigio from Italy or Albariñofrom Spain.
Some white Burgundies may go through Malo-Lactic fermentation, which is essentially the conversion of a harsher acid-Malic, like say a tart green apple, into a softer acid, Lactic, say like, milk.
This gives these wines a softer even potentially buttery mouthfeel to them, the use of oak is still not present. Proving one can soften the acidity in this varietal without having to expose it to aggressive new American oak barrels.
Other oaked Burgundies include famous examples like Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé in the Macconais region.
Now on to American Chardonnay and what those “ABC” folks find so offensive in their white wines. Yes, for years California, in particular, got into the practice of oaking, some would even say, over-oaking Chardonnay. You see, making wine is fairly difficult. The murky juice we get from grapes looks nothing like the clear stable solution we drink and call wine. Making white wine is even more difficult due to filtration, cold stabilization and other fun chemical processes the grape juice must go through in order to become wine.
Somewhere along this learning curve, California wine makers figured out that oak can, well, shall we say hide flaws in wine making or even sourcing. Perhaps you’ve heard wine professionals say that certain wines are born in the vineyard versus born in the winery? Well, in the case of Chardonnay there is a quite a bit which can happen at the winery transforming this rather high acid, sharp-tasting white varietal.
Like with most varietals, picking too early results in very acidic wine which requires a good amount of manipulation to make it into a smooth-tasting glass.
Picking too late results in a fatter, riper, lacking enough acidity grape juice which would drink more like a juice pack vs a glass of wine.
Chardonnay has been a victim of both of these cases in the new world for years, so a great way to hide the chemical compounds which may show up on the nose of a wine, say, notes of rotting fruit, or hints of hazelnut or vinegar, is oak!
Somewhere post early 1970’s and until California was able to learn more about how those Burgundy wine makers made the iconic and delicious wine (can you tell I’m one of those Burgundy-loving wine people yet?) they had to put wine out that was drinkable and pleasant to the nose and palate.
What first started as a way to learn and fix mistakes, eventually became a stylistic choice. Sure, some areas such as Sonoma Coast and Russian River have abandoned this practice and some have frankly always produced Burgundian-fruit driven yes, but elegant and lean delicious Chardonnay (next time you’re in pull me aside – we happen to have 3 great examples of these on the list).
The good news is that more and more winemakers are going less heavy-handed on the use of new oak in the new world. Places like Chile take advantage of cool climate, high elevation conditions to produce some leaner Chardonnay. And my favorite future Chardonnay wine area (along with being one of my favorite areas for wine period) – the Willamette Valley in Oregon is making some stellar examples using their natural cool climate condition and French winemaking knowledge from the many French houses that own land in Oregon.
Below is a quick sneak peek at what’s currently out there. Wines rated well into the mid 90’s by multiple critics, sadly many are unavailable to us but this will change soon, so stay tuned.