The Winemaker's Wine: Chardonnay
- by Anna Speer
Before we get started, a crash course in wine tasting (keep this information handy for future samplings):
When trying a new wine, pour it into a glass (or coffee mug, red solo cup, whatever the situation calls for) and allow it to sit. Swirl and observe the color. How’s the clarity? Next, smell it. Don’t be shy — lift the glass to your nose and really get in there. What aromas jump out at you?
Take a small sip and let it rest on your tongue, then inhale slowly over the wine. If you get a gurgly sound going on, you’re on the right track. Just don’t choke. This aerates the wine and helps bring out additional flavors. Make a note of the mouthfeel of the wine, as well as what you taste and smell. Swallow the wine and take note of how long the taste lingers and how the flavors change; this is called the finish.
Now, let’s imagine we’re at a dinner party. At the bar, there will be a red wine and a white. Nine times out of ten, that white will be a Chardonnay. In fact, Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the U.S. and the most widely planted white grape in the world.
Let’s go back to that bottle of Chardonnay at the dinner party. Chances are good that it’s a varietal from the central coast of California, as are most Chardonnays consumed in the U.S. While this famous wine state produces a variety of nuanced Chardonnays, many share a common tasting profile of pear, tropical fruit, mild spice, and a long, buttery finish. These last two characteristics are the product of exposure to oak and a secondary fermentation process called malolactic fermentation (MLF).
Allow me to get technical for a moment. The presence of oak during the winemaking process lends darker color, a rounder palate quality and toasty spice notes (most notably vanilla) to the wine. MLF lowers the acidity of the wine, creating a softer mouthfeel and a buttery aroma that has captivated many wine drinkers for years. However, not everyone loves sipping on a rich, creamy wine.
This column would be horribly remiss if it neglected to discuss the wines coming from Chardonnay’s region of origin: Burgundy. This area creates beautiful wines, some of which are considered to be the gold standard of Chardonnay. On the more approachable end of the Burgundy spectrum, these wines are primarily unoaked and feature textures ranging from earthy minerality to zippy citrus. As the price point rises, Burgundy Chardonnay becomes richer and more powerful. These upper-tier wines tend to be fully oaked and feature rounder flavor profiles such as ripe melon and luscious pineapple.
It’s an exciting time to be drinking Chardonnay. With the advent of new and wide-ranging winemaking styles in addition to time-honored practices, there is truly a Chardonnay for each of us. Go forth, taste bravely and savor slowly.
Steals, Deals and Splurges
Steal: Naked Grape Chardonnay, California US, Non-vintage. Ripe apple, pineapple, lemon. Non-oaked, no MLF.
Deals: Oyster Bay Chardonnay, Marlborough NZ, 2014. Bright citrus, stonefruit, green apple. Partially oaked, no MLF.
Louis Jadot Macon Villages, Burgundy FR, 2014. Green apple, ripe melon, lemon. Non-oaked, no MLF.
Splurge: Rombauer Chardonnay, Carneros CA, US, 2014. Ripe pear, creamy spice, rich butter. Fully oaked, MLF.