I love Chardonnay. There, I said it.
It’s out in the open. Chardonnay
gets a bad rap from novice
and expert alike. There are more
styles and expressions of it than
GlaxoSmithKline has pills. And,
for some strange reason, there
are winemakers who think they
can make Chard taste better
than the nice, fresh fruit that
it can be. Good winemakers
know the difference.
So, to the jug producers who pollute the shelves of your friendly neighborhood wine stores, I say, “A pox on thee. May the fleas of a thousand camels inhabit your pubic hair.” The world is awash in badly-made Chardonnay, and the smells of cheap popcorn butter emanating from it. These are the wines that merit all the slings and arrows of wine drinking outrage I can muster.
Understanding Chardonnay requires a little patience in wading through the ocean of buttery nonsense oozing forth from seemingly every corner of the globe. That “butter” smell is the result of a process called malolactic fermentation. The primary acid in wine grapes is malic, and when the bacterial conditions are “right” during fermentation, a second step takes place when lactobacillus bacteria eat the malic acid, converting it to the softer lactic form. Hence, the name malolactic—indicating a conversion of malic to lactic acid. If the fermentation is too “clean,” a winemaker adds the bacteria to help create that conversion.
The wine is then either allowed to rest in contact with the leftover dead yeast cells (lees), or it is stirred. Lees contact with stirring creates a soft, rich wine. Lees contact without stirring results in a brighter, sharper style. Then again, some winemakers forgo the second ferment stage altogether, producing a wine that’s sharper and crisper still. The palate feel is obvious: crisp, higher-acid wines cause a tingle on the sides of the mouth; softer, lower-acid wines create a more velvety feel down the center of the tongue.
The winemaker’s choice of fermentation
vessel—oak, stainless steel or
cement—also affects flavor and texture.
Oak imparts tannin (texture), richness and
spice flavors. Stainless steel and cement
are neutral and allow more natural acidity
to shine through. A winemaker may also
choose to do primary fermentation in those
vessels, which also, in the case of oak,
That’s all well and good, but how do I,
Joe or Josephina Six Pack, tell the difference?
Well, read the label. Alcohol is a good
indicator. Anything with 14 percent alcohol
or higher indicates ripe fruit that spent
more time on the vine developing higher
sugars and resulting in a wine with higher
alcohol. Fermentations from these highersugar
vintages are harder to keep “clean”
and will likely undergo some malolactic
fermentation, resulting in that buttery
softness. It’s not necessarily a bad thing;
it’s just bad when it’s done badly.
A good survey of Chardonnay styles
can be sampled for $15 a bottle or less.
Cooler-climate styles, those with more tingly
acids and bright vivid flavors, come
from more northerly regions: Oregon,
Sonoma, Mendocino, Burgundy (France)
and the Alto Adige (Italy). As a plus, many of
these region’s producers also abstain from
excessive use of oak, particularly Italy and
France. Warmer-climate styles, those with
more obvious plushness, come from warmer
areas: Santa Barbara, Central Coast,
Australia and South America, for example.
As you taste your way around the world,
pay close attention to the mouthfeel and
texture of each Chardonnay. The best of
the bunch will leave a strip of concentrated
flavors—or “finish”—down the dead
center of your tongue. Great Chardonnay
makers know when to get the hell out of