It’s a very popular little grape. Golden and plump. Drenched in sunshine, from California, Oregon and New York to France, Spain, Italy and Australia…even in Moldova and New Zealand. It’s quite the cosmopolitan, this grape…pressed, aged, and bottled, it graces the covers of some of the world’s top wine publications.
But it’s also a well-rounded little grape. It’s neutral enough to absorb unique traits from its environment, growing a rich, honey and buttery finish in warmer climates—and a light, crisp, citrus finish in colder climates. And yet, it’s fragile enough to sustain ruinous damage to its delicate skin if not handled properly during harvest.
I guess that makes it a high maintenance little grape. But the magic it makes when maintained properly, poured into just the right piece of stemware, can turn a sailboat ride into a Mediterranean cruise, and a night on your sofa watching TV into a wintry mountain evening spent in front of a romantic fire.
I read an article this morning in the July 2016 issue of Bon Appétit magazine, and those darn grapes have been on my mind ever since. The article, written by Marissa A. Ross, was poignant, humorous, and informative; and it is the impetus for this little post on Chardonnays.
‘After running a savage smear campaign against California Chardonnay for most of my early twenties, I want to publicly say I am sorry. I am ashamed that I was a registered member of the ABC party (Anything But Chardonnay), and am embarrassed by my history of vicious varietal discrimination. Like most red-blooded 23 year olds, I was rabidly opinionated and woefully uninformed. I knew nothing about wine except I loved Cabernet, and that all California Chardonnays tasted like butter, they were all “oaky”, and I hated them all. They were for country-clubbers who loved listening to Kenny G and having a glass with lunch. And no one could tell me I was wrong.
I was totally wrong.‘
– Marissa A. Ross, “Chardonnay, the World’s Most Misunderstood Wine,” Bon Appétit, July 2016) (Photo also by Ross)
But aren’t white wines white wines, end of story? No. They’re not.
The Chardonnay is actually one of the most neutral grapes in the world. It is, in fact, the grape’s very neutrality that allows it to be so heavily influenced by region, soaking up unique flavors and other characteristics from what is in the soil, and from the nature of its surrounding environment—from overall climate and temperature, to moisture and altitude.
As the art of winemaking moves into the 21st century, we are seeing more creative and less limiting methods and tools being used. While rich oak aging/flavor was all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s, today, “unoaked fermentations” using steel and concrete vessels are being used to create new crisp, fruit-driven Chardonnays. (More on these methods below.)
Lesson Learned, then—according to Ross in her Bon Appétit article: Rather than write-off all Chardonnays; why not spend a little time to discover which is your Chardonnay?
Where Is Chardonnay Made?
Chardonnay is the world’s most planted white wine grape (surpassing Airén at 500,000 acres). The variety is very adaptable to different climates and can grow in hot and sunny regions (such as Spain and Central Valley, CA) as well as cool areas (such as Burgundy, France and New Zealand).
Of course, while the grape is very adaptable, you’ll find that the highest rated wines generally come from regions that have slightly cooler conditions. The reason for this has a lot to do with the grape’s ability to maintain precious acidity. In hot climates (especially those with hot night-time temperatures) Chardonnay will often lose too much acidity resulting in a fruity, yet “flabby” wine.
[In case you’re like me, and you just thought: How in the world can a wine be called “flabby”?…
*Fat: When the Rhône has an exceptionally hot year for its crop and the wines attain a super sort of maturity, they are often quite rich and concentrated, with low to average acidity. Often such wines are said to be fat, which is a prized commodity. If they become too fat, that is a flaw and they are then called flabby.
*Flabby: A wine that is too fat or obese is a flabby wine. Flabby wines lack structure and are heavy to taste.
(*Source: eRobertParker.com, Glossary of Wine Terms)
Since Chardonnay is made everywhere, you can begin to familiarize yourself with its regional differences. The climate plays a lot into these differences, although things like winemaking style and tradition can play a hand.
California Chardonnays are well known around the world for their quality. The grapes used to make these California masterpieces can be broken down into two simple categories: those grown in cooler climates; and those grown in warmer climates.
Cool Climate Chardonnays – Chardonnays from cooler climates such as California’s Sonoma Coast or Edna Valley are generally crisp and precise; they are the “apple-pear ballerinas dancing with citrus in a stage production called “High Acidity”. (Ross’s quote; not mine.)
Warm Climate Chardonnays – Chardonnay from warmer climates such as Calicornia’s famous Napa Valley or Paso Robles are boisterous and tropical; they are more like pineapples and peaches “sashaying in billowy sundresses to a calypso band of figs”. (ibid.)
And there are differences…in color, bouquet, finish…so, you can take your pick.
“The thing with California Chardonnay, and with all wine, is that you can’t judge it by a single style. Disavowing a varietal because you don’t like a version of it is like swearing off jazz because you don’t like Kenny G. Smooth saxophones may not be your thing, but who’s to say you won’t dig Miles Davis? You’ll never know unless you try, so always keep an open mind.”
– Marissa A. Ross, “Chardonnay, the World’s Most Mysterious Wind”, Bon Appétit, July 2016
What’s New in the Biz?
As technology has moved us into a new century, a number of new ideas have been put into place in the winemaking business. Among these, are new ways you ferment wine.
Today, Chardonnay, most commonly aged in oak barrels, is fermented in some new ways. I’ll touch briefly here on a few of the primary fermentation processes. But for more details…
[Note: The following wine recommendations were made by Marissa A. Ross in her article “Chardonnay, the World’s Most Misunderstood Wine,” Bon AppétitJuly 2016]
Oak Fermentation – This is the most common way to ferment Chardonnay. While there are some producers that definitely OD on oak, there are plenty of producers who use it much more subtly. Aging Chardonnay in oak creates full-bodied wines with those buttery, toasty, vanilla-nut flavors, producing a strike of savory to balance the wine’s fruit flavors.
(Try: Matthiasson Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $55; or Smith Story, $34)
Stainless Steel Fermentation – If you are currently a card-holding member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) party, stainless steel Chardonnays may change your mind. Completely stripped of all the “butter” that puts many of us off, the stainless steel fermentation of Chardonnay spotlights the wine’s pure fruit notes and also allows subtle “terroir” driven notes, like clay and volcanic rock, to shine. Lighter and zippier, consider these day-drinking Chardonnays. Many bottles will mention that they are stainless steel, but not all of them will; so make sure you talk to your local wine merchant.
(Try: Camp Chardonnay, $14.99; Wind Gap Woodruff Chardonnay, $45)
Concrete Egg Fermentation – If you like crisp fruit and are also into heavier bodied wines, you should try concrete egg Chardonnays. These oval-shaped concrete fermentation tanks are still on the obscure side, but winemakers are using them all over California (and the world). They are totally neutral in flavor like wines fermented in stainless steel, but because concrete is porous, the wine gets a little air while fermenting, creating more body and texture. This fermentation is common especially with funky orange wines, like skin-fermented Chardonnay.
(Try: Scribe Skin-Fermented Carneros Chardonnay, $38)
The History of a Grape
The History of Chardonnay has been extensively researched using DNA profiling, through which it was discovered that Chardonnay is a member of the Pinot grape family. In fact, Chardonnay grapes are a cross between the Pinot family (right, below) and a very old and nearly extinct grape variety called Gouais Blanc (left below). The Gouais Blanc grape originated in Croatia and is believed to have arrived in France with the Romans.
Many believe that this DNA footprint began when ancient vineyards began cross-pollinating Pinot grapevines and Gouais Blanc grapevines. (This was apparently not uncommon. There are actually many other varieties of wine grapes that can be traced back to the Gouais Blanc vine and the Pinot vine.)
Whether the first Chardonnay grapes were created by accident or design, no one is quite sure but the seeds that were produced became to be known as Chardonnay grapes.
It is believed that the Chardonnay grapes originated in a village of the same name in Maconnais, which lies in France’s world-famous Burgundy region.
It is believed that Chardonnay wine was distributed throughout France by Cistercian monks. (The earliest known reference to Chardonnay wine was written by monks in the year 1330.) The Cistercian monks were most likely the first group of people to plant the Chardonnay grape in their vineyards for the purpose of mass production and distribution of wine.
Throughout their history, the charastics of Chardonnay grapes have remained remarkably consistent. Its vines are vigorous and produce medium sized bunches of grapes that are tightly packed together. When ripe, the grapes turn a brilliant golden color. ♢