I am among the first to stand up for a grape for not getting the attention it deserves as well as for those grapes assigned an undeserved reputation.
It seems it is time for me to speak up for chardonnay.
Chardonnay continues to receive mixed reviews from those loving this enduring grape and from those self-professed ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) members.
Chardonnay is one of the most versatile grapes planted in the world. Growers love chardonnay’s easy-going ability to be grown in almost any conditions while marketers love this familiar grape’s almost universal appeal to consumers.
But not all chardonnay is alike.
Chardonnay grown in cool climates tend to be dry with a range of green fruits, citrus and refreshing bright acidity. Warmer regions produce richer wines that taste of peach, melon, tropical fruit. And there is a noticeable difference in higher alcohol styles. Aging in oak can impart a vanilla, toasty flavor while malolactic fermentation is used to soften the wine’s acidity and can result in flavors reminiscent of movie theater popcorn.
Now is a good time to re-group, re-taste and understand this grape has a world of styles to explore and savor.
France offers numerous styles of chardonnay usually identified by geography and not grape. Some of the most perfect expressions of chardonnay can be found in Chablis, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Macon and Pouilly-Fuisse.
California chardonnays are perhaps the most confusing. The range swings immensely depending on the location and winemaker style. Chardonnay from Sonoma, Napa, Russian River and Carneros can range from full bodied buttery bombs to lean, crisp savory styles depending on the producer.
Most Chilean chardonnays will taste of melon and banana with an added zest of acidity. Regions to explore are Central and Casablanca valleys.
- 2018 Cono Sur Chardonnay, Chile (about $13 retail)
- 2018 Louis Jadot Macon, France (about $17 retail)
Recently, a friend asked me to help her find a wine similar to one she drinks at her favorite restaurant. As always, I start by asking, “tell me what you like about the wine.” She began by saying it was chardonnay — but different from others she had tasted: “It wasn’t sweet, tangy or oaky. It was almost creamy and buttery.” This was an easy one to figure out because chances were she was describing a chardonnay that had undergone malolactic fermentation.
To understand malolactic fermentation, keep in mind the first step in transforming grape juice to wine happens as the sugar is converted to alcohol with the help of yeast. Eventually the step will end because there is no more sugar for the yeast to feed on. This is where “malo” begins. For centuries, it was regarded as one of wine’s unsolvable mysteries. Cellar masters noticed that their wines changed after fermentation into smoother, more full-bodied, supple styles. Because it was a mystery (and obviously technology had not yet caught up), there was no way to control this process.
In the mid-20th century Frenchman Pascal Ribereau-Gayon discovered it was not a mystery at all but the result of secondary fermentation when malic acid is converted to lactic acid. Malic acid is the tart acid in grapes also found in green apples, and lactic acid is the softer creamy acids found in milk, cheese and yogurt. Chardonnay is one of the classic examples of the presence of malolactic fermentation during barrel aging; fuller mouth-feel and creamy texture are a direct result from this method. The buttery taste in many chardonnays is from a component named “diacetyl” that occurs during this process.
A lot of crisp white wines, such as sauvignon blanc, Riesling and gewurztraminer will not benefit from malolactic fermentation. The process is prevented by chilling, filtering or adding fining agents or enzymes. And when a winemaker wants to produce a chardonnay in a crisp fruity style, the process is prevented using one of those methods. Occasionally the two styles are combined with a wine style that has crispness and nuances of butter and toasty oak.
Red wines are generally allowed to go through the malolactic fermentation because otherwise they tend to be harsh and astringent. After the malic acid is converted to lactic, red wines are softer and smoother.
Generally, the smell of vanilla, butter, dill and coconut are attributes from oak aging, but the textures of some chardonnays will be described as creamy, smooth, oily and even waxy. Today’s Value and Splurge are examples of wines benefiting from this process and a little help from barrel.
- 2016 La Crema Chardonnay, California (about $20 retail)
- 2016 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $41 retail)
It’s interesting, if you offer white Burgundy to most American wine drinkers they will be delighted to taste this French masterpiece. But offer chardonnay to the same American wine drinkers, you will most likely receive a different reaction. What makes this interesting is white Burgundy — considered one of the most revered wines in the world — is made exclusively with the chardonnay grape.
During the 1980s chardonnay went from a rare planting to one of the most planted grapes in U.S. vineyards. Americans are partly to blame for the countless confusing chardonnay styles and price points. During this growth in popularity Americans loved chardonnays in rich, creamy, high-alcohol and full-bodied styles.
In other words, we wanted an oak influence for our chardonnay. This oak influence comes with a price tag when using oak barrels for the outcome of the style. (Wine barrels can cost up to $1,000 each and can only be used to impart oak nuances in wine one or twice.)
So, as the demand for chardonnay increased some winemakers sought out cost-cutting shortcuts to create the impression of an oaked wine. The techniques are numerous in the winemaking process — oak chips, artificially adding acidity and oak staves are the most used. Are these still quality wines? Of course, but they are not equal to French Burgundy.
Many wines made with these techniques will have very high alcohol content, an almost buttery popcorn taste and an abnormally high, searing acidity. The use of those pricey oak barrels creates more complexity that cannot be duplicated with shortcuts, but it comes at a much higher price.
Unoaked chardonnay, in contrast, is lighter bodied, lower in alcohol and offers a fruit forward profile at a much lower price.
- 2016 J. Lohr Riverstone Chardonnay, California (about $16 retail)
- 2017 Columbia Crest Grand Estate Unoaked Chardonnay, Washington (about $14 retail)
- 2016 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, California (about $40 retail)
- 2017 Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, California (about $20 retail)
Many of us have a long off-again, on-again love affair with chardonnay. It was once the only white wine we considered. We then shunned it for other trending white varietals but inevitably we’d come back to chardonnay.
Napa Valley’s Flora Springs Winery has stayed strong to its dedication and long love affair with chardonnay.
Flora Springs was one of the first wineries I visited during my first trip to Napa Valley more than 15 years ago. I was honored with a one-on-one tour, learning more about this 39-year-old icon. The estate’s history dates to the 1880s when Scottish immigrant brothers James and William Rennie planted 60 acres and built a stone wine cellar.
Calling Flora Springs Winery a family venture may be an understatement. Jerry and Flora Komes bought the estate in 1977. A year later, their children John and Carrie Komes and Julie and Pat Garvey established the winery and named it after John and Julie’s mother, Flora. Since its inception, almost every job — from proprietor and vineyard manager to general manager — has been helmed by a family member.
The character of its chardonnay has evolved over the years with many new introductions to winemaking and the world’s palate shifting in styles that involve a mix of stainless steel, oak barrels, concrete tanks, malolactic fermentation and lees stirring.
This past week I re-visited this chardonnay and once again relished in its splendor. It still offers everything we love in a chardonnay — bright minerality, refreshing fruit flavors and a simple balanced touch of oak.
Flora Springs’ Family Select Chardonnay is sourced entirely from the family’s sustainably farmed, estate-owned vineyards in Oakville and Carneros. It’s rare to find chardonnay in Oakville, but a few blocks in its Crossroads Vineyard offers a slightly cooler microclimate ideal to the varietal.
The Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay is a limited-production, one of a kind wine made in honor of Flora Komes. Every year this production involves the entire family, using the finest barrels of chardonnay in their cellar and gradually narrowing it down to a blend of the few barrels the family enjoys the most.
I hope a taste of these chardonnays brings you back to why you fell in love with it so many years ago.
- 2016 Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay, California (about $35 retail)
- 2016 Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay, California (about $70 retail)
While living in London one of my friends in the wine trade enjoyed playing a bit of a prank on wine drinkers. During tasting events, when a novice would arrive at his table asking for chardonnay he would instead pour them a Riesling.
It was a manipulative maneuver, but it wasn’t done maliciously. My friend was simply trying to promote a varietal we both deeply love by tricking people into giving it a chance.
As desired, when the newbie was told of the switch we almost always secured another Riesling follower to our side. Who would have thought this grape could taste so heavenly?
As chardonnay continues to grow in popularity as America’s white wine staple, so does the confusion surrounding Riesling. The irony in this situation is that 100 years ago German Rieslings were more expensive than even the rare and finest Bordeauxs. Today Riesling may be one of the most underrated wines in the market.
I blame bad marketing for the American wine consumers’ confusion regarding this grape.
First there’s the bottle. Many think of cheap, sweet German wines when they see the flute bottle style.
Making matters worse are the confusing labels. At times it feels likes one needs a dictionary to decipher the label and an interpreter just to ask for the wine on a wine list.
A few years ago, in an attempt to make Riesling more consumer-friendly, the trade introduced a taste profile graphic on the back of some Riesling labels. It’s a simple scale of dry, medium-dry, medium sweet and sweet, with an arrow marking a particular wine’s position on the scale. It put us one step closer to simplicity.
With any luck this scale will help alleviate some of the confusion surrounding this often overlooked and underappreciated wine. Fingers crossed. For now, drink more Riesling.
- 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, Washington (about $12 retail)
- 2012 Gunderloch Diva Riesling, Germany (about $26 retail)