I’ve been sipping more Chardonnay lately. It wasn’t like I was boycotting it or anything like that, but my taste buds were wandering into different varietals. True, there seemed to be too much “typical” Chardonnay being made – you know, the rounded, buttery and oaky style that was dominating those from California and Australia. There were also delightfully more acidic and less woody ones too, especially from France. But Chardonnay just fell off of my radar. Since I was actually missing it I’ve set about to remedy that!
I’m delighted that the trend has been away from the big style and back to capturing more nuance. And I am becoming particularly fond of the “unoaked” styles. Unoaked Chardonnay are fermented and aged in either older, neutral oak barrels that don’t impart any of the woodiness or in stainless steel. The reason I’m fond of these is that I think they are more versatile with food. Unless the food has a lot of butter or cream, or is a richly flavored seafood like lobster or scallops, the unoaked Chardonnay are an easier complement to chicken or fish for me – typically they are higher in acid and have not undergone malolactic fermentation.
Wine Geek Alert: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary process where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid. It’s a common practice for red wines but Chardonnay is usually the only white treated this way. This results in the “buttery” taste description. It gives it that big, more full bodied feel in your mouth.
Back to oak – don’t get me wrong, I don’t think oak barrel aging is bad for Chardonnay. To me it’s just a question of degree. The amount of flavor added by oak can vary greatly depending on the type of oak, the toast of the barrel and its age. So winemakers have lots of room to play. Oak generally adds flavors of vanilla, caramel or a toasty, woody quality. Newer barrels add more; older less. French oak is finer grained and adds less than American or Eastern European barrels. But let’s get back to sipping.
In general there is often a noticeable flavor of peach or pear common to Chardonnay. However, Chardonnay from the warmer growing areas in the US, like Sonoma and Napa Valley appellations such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga, Dry Creek and others, as well as Australia, tend to be more tropical fruit forward – think pineapple and melon. Those from cooler areas like Monterey and Carneros, the Sonoma Coast and France tend more to apple or citrusy flavors and are usually more acidic.
There are magnificent Chardonnay’s from Burgundy – arguably the best in the world. These are nuanced and many are age-worthy and will increase in complexity over time. Chablis, which is the northern-most area of Burgundy, brings us terrific Chardonnay which also have a flinty minerality to them due to the very cool growing conditions and the unique clay soil of the vineyards there.
Chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the world and can suit every taste. I’m making it a point to sample and sip my way through as many as possible! Why don’t you join me?
Talbot 2013 Kali Hart Chardonnay, Estate Grown $16
Medium bodied and lively with melon. A little bit of oak.
2013 Yalumba Series Y South Australia Unwooded Chardonnay $10
Fresh and peachy. Simple and easy to drink.
2012 Mer Soliel Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands Monterey $20
Chablis-like with crispiness and minerality.
2012 Miner Chardonnay Napa Valley $30
Yum. Great balance between weight, fruit and oak.
2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Apple and citrus with classic Chablis minerality.
2011 Domaine Louis Latour Meursault Charmes $55
Lovely white peach. I’ve loved Meursault since visiting ages ago and enjoying this wine with garlicy frogs legs!
2012 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay Napa $65
Tropical and intense. A mouthful that has many layers.