A Chameleon Grape: Chardonnay
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Showing Chardonnay so Love
A.B.C. can stand for a lot of things. For TV, it’s the American Broadcasting Company. For gum, it’s Already Been Chewed. From our parents, it could be Always Be Careful. For wine drinkers, A.B.C. most often stands for Anything But Chardonnay. Undoubtedly, Chardonnay can be a polarizing grape for wine consumers around the world, but here we want to show that this grape has a lot to offer for people who enjoy a variety of different white wines.
Often referred to as a ‘chameleon grape,’ Chardonnay can take on many different textures and flavor profiles depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made. We often associate California Chardonnays with big, round, oaky, and buttery descriptions, as if you were drinking the ambient smell of a movie theater: buttered popcorn! Many of us at the Wine Outlet love these round delicious Chardonnays, but, because this style is generally popular with certain wine drinkers in the United States, many consumers come to associate Chardonnay with solely this profile. Below we’re going to look at a few different styles of Chardonnays, and, if you are an ABC wine drinker, we hope you’ll give this ‘chameleon grape’ another try! Please see the end of the post for links to all of our featured wines!
While there are dozens of ways to describe Chardonnay, here, let’s focus on the body of the wine and fruit profile, as these can lend themselves to thinking about both winemaking techniques as well as climate. First, we have the ‘leaner’ style of Chardonnay. So, what do I mean by this? In general, this refers to the wine’s body, or, if it’s more helpful, the wine’s weight. How mouth-filling is it? Does the wine feel full, almost like whole milk, or does it seem angular and slim and a bit more like skim milk? Great examples of these more-lean styles can be found in Burgundy. Chablis is famous for making mostly un-oaked, crisp, and high acid Chardonnays that almost naturally want to be immediately swallowed. Chablis is one of the most northern areas for growing wine in France, and this has a direct effect on the fruit profiles of the wines. With regard to the fruit, apples are a common descriptor for Chardonnay, and in Chablis, the apple notes are a bit more tart, like green apples. While there are exceptions to many rules in wine, usually the cooler the climate, the higher the acid, and thus the tarter the fruit. These wines tend to be literally mouthwatering as their higher acid causes us to salivate, which makes these wines pair excellently with food or even just consumed as an aperitif.
To discuss the various other areas of Burgundy and the nuances of the wines that come out of certain appellations should definitely be saved for another post; however, let’s take a look at another great example of White Burgundy. Aside from the most northern parts of Burgundy (excluding Chablis), Chardonnay tends to thrive in the southern part of the Cote de Beaune and all throughout a region of Burgundy called the Maconnais. Within the Maconnais and slightly west of the city of Macon is the wine appellation Pouilly-Fuissé. The wines from Pouilly-Fuissé are 100% Chardonnay, and can vary in style, as the wine growing area is relatively large for Burgundy. While wines from this area usually see some noticeable oak influences, oak usage here tends to be much lower than in some areas of California, for example. The green apples notes shine through in Pouilly-Fuissé, and relative to other areas of the world, these wines can have a lean and crisp style. One example of this crisp style of Chardonnay from this area is Domaine Thierry Drouin’s 2018 “Plaisance” Pouilly-Fiussé. This Chardonnay is bright and refreshing, and the winemaker refers to this as an excellent aperitif. This wine would serve as a great start to your next meal or a great pairing with fresh seafood.
From Wine Folly: https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/guide-to-burgundy-wine-with-maps/
Moving across the pond and flying over the states that don’t like that reference, we end up in California where many medium-bodied Chardonnays reside. As described with wines from Burgundy, climate is extremely important in terms of how the fruit of the wines expresses itself in the glass. In warmer parts of California such as the Central Coast and even parts of Napa Valley, the apple characteristic of the wine begins to move from more tart green apples to more yellow apples and pear notes. This relationship between more tart fruits and those that are riper in flavor is one that is very dependent on acid levels in the wine, and malic acid is largely responsible for this tart green apple flavor. Actually, the word ‘malic’ is derived from the Latin ‘malum’ meaning apple, so I guess there’s one reason taking Latin in high school wasn’t a total waste of time!
All of this acid discussion must lead us to a brief description of what winemakers refer to as ‘malolactic fermentation’ or ‘malolactic conversion.’ Yes, I know you aren’t in chemistry class, but stick with me because this is crucial to understanding what Chardonnay might be right for you! The process of malolactic conversion is always a factor in crafting Chardonnay, and this process occurs in nearly all red wines. In short, the malic acid that is present in all wines is converted to lactic acid via a bacterial process that’s too long too explain. This is a naturally occurring process, and it is up to the winemakers to either halt the process or let fully play out. You can use the term ‘full malo’ for buttery Chardonnays that have gone through full malolactic conversion. As you might image, as more malic acid turns to lactic acid, some of the more tart green apple notes will give way to notes of butter, cream, or yogurt. This also increases the viscosity of the wine giving it a slight fuller mouthfeel. This doesn’t mean that all Chardonnays that have gone through full malolactic conversion are big round balls of wine butter, but it will add some fullness and weight to the wine. A perfect example of wine that has gone through full malolactic conversion but is also not too heavy is the 2015 “Opening Act” Timbre Chardonnay. This wine has only seen neutral oak aging (meaning the oak will not impart flavor into the wine), and it retains much of that Burgundian ‘slickness’ while have a slightly fuller body. As this wine has five years of bottle age on it, you may also find notes of honey and nuts that become present through time in bottle. This is a fantastic wine with layers of flavor, and I highly recommend it as a nice middle-weight Chardonnay from Santa Barbara.
Chardonnay vines near the Timbre winery. From: https://www.timbrewinery.com/
As we’ve seen, climate and winemaking choices directly impact both the flavors and the weight of Chardonnay, but we must discuss two more elements that can turn a lean Chardonnay into a round, buttery, and oaky one: lees and oak. So, what are lees? Without going into too much detail and hopefully without grossing anyone out, lees are essentially the dead yeast cells that died because they ran out of sugar to eat. When yeast eats sugar, you get CO2, heat, and, you guessed it, alcohol. Without yeast you have no fermentation, but what should winemakers do with this dead yeast that remains in fermentation vessels after that process is over? Many winemakers will choose to let their wine age on the lees. This is called sur lie aging, if you want to feel French and fancy. These yeast cells will not only impart more bread-like flavors, but they will also thicken the wine itself. These Chardonnays then can become plump and almost chewy, and they pair beautifully with a variety of fish, chicken, and cheeses.
Lees stirring and lees aging from Wine Folly: https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/what-are-wine-lees-sur-lie-explained/
The final component to a rounder and more full-bodied Chardonnay is oak aging. Unlike neutral oak, new oak is used when a winemaker wants to impart flavor into the wine. For white wines, like Chardonnay, this usually means that flavors of vanilla, baking spices, nutmeg, and allspice may become detectable in the wine. Some winemakers also choose to heavily char their barrels, which imparts more of a literal oak or charcoal flavor into the wine. Oak aging also allows for more oxygen to slowly get into the wine, creating nutty and honeyed flavors, all while furthering the process of making a Chardonnay that’s more full bodied. A wine that represents this more round style through a combination of oak aging, sur lie aging, and full malolactic conversion is the 2015 “Parr Vineyard” Maldonado Chardonnay from Sonoma County. What we love about this wine is that it does not take this buttery-oaky idea to the extreme, but it just hints at it. It gives you a sense of the layers of flavors that come from the oak, the lees, the lactic acid, and the place of Sonoma County. While full-bodied, it is refined and all of its components are very nicely integrated into some truly delicious grape juice.
A Quick Word on Champagne
If you are an A.B.C. wine drinker and you never want to touch Chardonnay, then you may need to extend the acronym to Anything But Champagne. Most traditional Champagne blends consist of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (an expressive red grape), and Chardonnay. In fact, you likely will have Chardonnay in your Champagne unless the label reads “Blanc de Noirs” or “White from black grapes.” You may even have Champagne that’s labeled “Blanc de Blancs,” which means it’s white from white grape, or 100% Chardonnay. Chardonnay out of Champagne is a bit closer in profile to the wines of Chablis due to their similar climates. There also tends to be less malolactic conversion as Champagne is tart and can be full of green apple notes. For a crisp Champagne that is made from 100% Chardonnay, we recommend Laherte Freres’s Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature. There is no added sugar (dosage) to the Champagne, so here you are truly getting a pure expression of Chardonnay from Champagne – and the bubbles are a nice bonus as well. See our Sparkling Wines 101 post for more information on Champagne as well as a number of other fun sparklers.
Chardonnay vines in Champagne. From Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomhyland/2018/10/18/blanc-de-blancs-the-soul-of-champagne/#457507741617
So we’ve gone from light and crisp with green apples to full and round like burnt movie theater popcorn. Not many other grapes have this versatility, so when thinking about Chardonnay, I like to think of it not only as a ‘chameleon grape,’ but a ‘canvass grape.’ Chardonnay can, in many ways, become what a climate and a winemaker demand. It is mailable to the extent that these factors will show themselves in the glass, and with tasting a number of Chardonnays like those mentioned above, one can start to see how Chardonnay can express the sense of place from which it came as well as the sense of style from which it’s made.
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