Which Winery

Rediscovering Chardonnay

by Christie Kiley

Chardonnay happens to be the world’s most popular white wines.  Now I know there are some of you out there who might be shaking your heads as you fall in the category of being an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) drinker.  I have to admit, I was once one of those as well,  but with time comes change and as such, I recommend a revisit.  If you have shunned Chardonnay, allow me to list the possible reasons why: too oaky, too fruit driven, too buttery, too all-of-the-above.  Am I right?  Well, it is time for you to have a second look and taste, because Chardonnay no longer only falls into the stereotypical categories described above, and is among some of the loveliest white wines the world has to offer. 

As I am here to educate you on the varietal of each wine, I am going to first discuss the grape and its elaborate process of evolving into wine, so that I might be able to explain why the wine is the way it is. 

Traditionally, Chardonnay was only found in the cooler regions of the world and is originally from Burgundy, France.  Here you will find a system of river valleys from the city of Dijon in the north all the way to Lyon in the south.  These rivers keep the land cooler in the valleys and likewise keep a steady range of temperatures throughout the days.  As Chardonnay became more popular and spread throughout the world, there were many regions who tried in keeping with the tradition of growing it in a cool climate and it was planted in regions such as Victoria, Australia, New Zealand and the Sonoma Valley in California.  However, a new style of wine has emerged for Chardonnay for a few generations and you can find it cultivated in warmer climates of Australia, the Napa Valley, South Africa and many other places.  Though it might be considered a classic in the cooler climates, it does quite well in the warmer regions as well. 

The Chardonnay grape is one of the last of the white wine grapes to be harvested each year.  Thicker skins allow for more time on the vine as concentrated sugars, flavors and aromatics can be developed.  Once the grapes are harvested, typically in the early morning hours so as to keep them cool, they are brought to the winery, where they are sent to a press to extract the juice.  As with most white wines, Chardonnay is fermented without any skin contact.  The juice is then sent to the fermentation vat where it will be later inoculated with yeast and the fun begins.  In order for a white wine to be kept in balance, the fermentation must be kept cool, cooler than most red wine fermentations and it is much longer, typically around or up to three weeks.  This ensures keeping delicate fruit flavors and creating a well-rounded and balanced wine. 

Chardonnay’s new style…

For those of you who are not fond of the oaky Chardonnay wines, there is plenty of hope for all of you out there.  Following fermentation, Chardonnay may instead be aged in stainless steel, whether it be smaller barrels or a larger tank.  Once the wine has been fined, it is sent to its desired holding or aging vessel.  This is done to allow the wine to rest on its lees.  Lees are the solids of wine that contain color pigment, dead yeast cells and many other proteins which can add to a Chardonnay’s structure, texture and aroma.  In French, this aging is called ‘sur lie’ and it gives a wine a creamier mouth-feel and adds to softer, creamier aromas in the wine.  This is something you might be familiar with if you have ever had a Champagne or Sparkling wine of Chardonnay that had extended aging. 

The size of the vessel in which sur lie aging takes place will determine the concentration of such characteristics.  The smaller the tank, the smaller amount of wine has with a greater contact with the lees and in a larger tank, it has less contact.  However, in general, these are not going to be your ‘buttery’ wines.  I will explain how those work next.  These wines are typically cold filtered to remove any of the bacteria which will take the wine through a secondary fermentation changing tart or brighter acids into softer ones, or more scientifically malic acid into lactic acid.  This style of wine is meant to be consumed young, typically 2 to 3 years post the vintage year and are refreshing with bright and young white fruits and floral notes.

Oaked/Buttery Chard…

These are going to be the wines which, once the juice of the Chardonnay grapes have been fermented, are sent to be aged in oak.  Some of this oak may be new barrels, used or a mix of the two.  These do not necessarily have to be over-oaked or too buttery, and recognizing the markets falling enthusiasm of such characteristics, many wineries have changed their recipes.  Thus, older oak will be used to impart less of the characteristics or only partial batches will be oak aged to be blended later on with the remainder of the batch in stainless steel or other material, perhaps concrete.  Most of the batches in oak will go through a secondary fermentation which will transform the tart malic acid into softer lactic acid, which impart buttery and even more mature fruit notes into the wine.  In these wines you will notice baked apples and pears or uber-ripe orchard fruits alongside some characteristics as cream, buttermilk, crème brulee and so forth.  These wines you too can drink young, but they can even age nicely up to five or eight years following the vintage, depending on where it comes from. 

Though you may try the first mentioned style, I would recommend giving the second another try.  You might find you enjoy them both or at least you may just be able to appreciate them as the individual wines that they are, just as I have.  Here’s to re-discovering Chardonnay!

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