Why Your Chardonnay Tastes the Way it Does

What's behind the wide variety of flavors, aromas and textures in Chardonnay? Find out how oak barrels, fermentation, acidity and vineyards play a part.
Illustration by Julia Lea

Oak. Butter. Minerals. How did these flavors get into your Chardonnay? If you don’t happen to be a master sommelier or a biochemist, it’s not a naive or trivial question.

Chardonnay is the most popular type of wine in America. It’s made in many different places by different methods, and comes with a wide array of flavors and price ranges.

You know how four-door sedans can vary from a tiny Nissan Versa to a massive Mercedes-Benz S Class? Well, Chardonnay is even more diverse than that. Thousands of brands are on sale around the country right now.

But let’s leave the confusion behind for a few minutes and discover why Chardonnay tastes the way it does.

Chardonnay is like a clump of high-quality clay that a winemaker can shape into something as simple as a saucer or as sublime as a porcelain vase.

First things first: To be labeled as Chardonnay, a wine must be made primarily from Chardonnay grapes. In California, a Chardonnay must be made from at least 75 percent of the variety’s grapes. In the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay’s homeland, 100 percent Chardonnay is the norm.

As a grape variety, Chardonnay is something of a blank canvas. Pluck a grape off the vine, and it may taste vaguely like apples or lemons. But if it’s from a good vineyard, it will also have crisp acidity and a sense of density or concentration.

Chardonnay can taste so different from brand to brand largely because of where it was grown and what techniques the winemaker used to ferment and age it. It’s like a clump of high-quality clay that a winemaker can shape into something as simple as a saucer or as sublime as a porcelain vase.

Oaky or toasty

“Oaky” is a very common way to describe a Chardonnay. Some really do smell like fresh-cut oak wood, and that’s because it was fermented and/or aged in an oak barrel. Matchbook’s The Arsonist Chardonnay from Dunnigan Hills is a great demonstration of this style.

An oaky wine also may have been made in a steel or plastic container to which oak chips, blocks or boards were added.

New oak barrels are almost always toasted over a fire. After the side boards or staves are assembled into a barrel shape, a cooper places the open-ended barrel over a small fire until the inside of the staves become at least lightly charred. It’s a lot like toasting bread, and it smells like it, too.

Traditional cooperage toasting and shaping barrels / Getty
Traditional cooperage toasting and shaping barrels / Getty

A wine review might describe that as “toasted oak” or “grilled baguette,” and it can be very attractive to wine drinkers. High-end white Burgundies and reserve-style California Chardonnays have long distinguished themselves by the use of high-quality barrels made from French, American and Hungarian oak. Try the bold, seductive Poseidon Vineyard’s Boon Fly’s Hill Chardonnay from Carneros to taste what new, heavily toasted Hungarian oak barrels can do.

An inexpensive Chardonnay from California and some other regions may be flavored with toasted oak chips. These, if used carelessly, can overwhelm the other attributes of the wine.

Only new, toasted barrels or chips give the prominent oak flavor, but previously used or “neutral” barrels will still shape the texture of Chardonnay. Subtle chemical interactions make the wine softer and creamier in mouthfeel than non-oak vats or tanks usually do. For example, try Covenant Wine’s The Tribe for a smooth and expansive Chardonnay from Lodi.

How Does Oak Really Affect Wine?

Butter

A yummy buttery aroma and flavor is a common trait of big California Chardonnays like Shannon Ridge Red Hills Ranch Reserve from Lake County. Although butter and toast go together in wine as well as they do during breakfast, the butter flavor doesn’t come from the same place as the oak. It comes from malolactic fermentation.

The malolactic, or ML as winemakers call it, takes place after the primary fermentation has converted the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. Malolactic bacteria are usually present in the new wine already, but can also be added by the winemaker. It converts the apple-tasting malic acid in the wine into lactic acid. Also present in dairy, lactic acid creates a buttery taste, as in the showy Josh Cellars Chardonnay from California.

However, if winemakers want a very crisp, clean, steely style of Chardonnay, they can stop malolactic fermentation from happening. This can be accomplished by adding a careful dose of sulfites or by sterile-filtering the wine, which with today’s gentle membrane filtration equipment is not as bad as it may sound.

Unoaked

Crisp, tangy characteristics are what you probably look for in an unoaked Chardonnay. Instead of barrels, these are typically fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. An unoaked version could also have buttery flavors, because the wine can still undergo malolactic fermentation in any type of container. Toad Hollow Vineyards has a perfect example of this in their Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay from Mendocino, which brings the butter without the oak.

Think of what fresh-squeezed lime does for a margarita. That’s acid balance.

But in terms of flavor and texture, an unoaked wine like the bright and refreshing Chatham Vineyards Church Creek Steel Chardonnay, from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, might have more in common with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling than an oaked Chardonnay. These make appetizing drinks at cocktail time, especially on hot days, or pair well with seafood like fresh-shucked Kumamoto oysters.

On the lees

Some winemakers don’t settle for a simple, clean and bracing Chardonnay, even unoaked. They use the wine’s natural lees. These are leftover dead yeast cells and grape skin in a wine that form fine silt. They can add a creamy texture that mimics the effect of barrels. It’s called aging on the lees, or sur lies in French. Bergström Sigrid Chardonnay, from the Willamette Valley, aged 18 months on the lees, is a fine example.

The conventional practice is to separate a white wine from its lees immediately after fermentation. But to leave the lees in the bottom of the tank (and even stir them) enhances richness and sometimes adds a baked bread aroma. The wine is separated from the lees before bottling.

Concrete

Wine vats made out of concrete, whether cylindrical, cuboid or egg-shaped, are all the rage now. Some winemakers use them to ferment and age Chardonnay, which adds another twist to the idea of unoaked. A good representation is Gary Farrell’s Rochioli Allen Vineyards Chardonnay, from the Russian River Valley.

Concrete fermentation tanks by Italian manufacturer Nico Velo, in use at Okanagan Crush Pad / Photo by Sarah Lionel Trudel
Concrete fermentation tanks by Italian manufacturer Nico Velo, in use at Okanagan Crush Pad / Photo by Sarah Lionel Trudel

The main advantage of concrete, besides its lack of oak flavor, is its insulation. Concrete tanks have thick walls that stay cool and provide a good, steady temperature for high-quality fermentation. While some winemakers say that concrete adds mineral flavors and others say it “breathes” very slowly like oak to soften a wine’s texture, the jury is still out on concrete’s sensory impacts.

Balance

Basically, balance is about acid. In Chardonnay, good balance should mean that the wine has enough crisp, natural fruit acidity to taste lively, rather than soft and fat—a common fault in lower-priced Chardonnay. A fantastic example of balance done right would be Domaine Ferret’s Pouilly-Fuissé offerings from Burgundy.

Even a superripe, full-bodied Chardonnay that’s fermented in barrels needs sufficient acidity to keep from being too rich. Think of what fresh-squeezed lime does for a margarita. That’s acid balance. The wines of Chablis in Burgundy are classic in this regard.

Picking decisions

Wine starts in the vineyard. One key factor that determines taste is when the grapes are picked. To harvest the grapes early will give Chardonnay more acidity, lighter body and fruit flavors like green apple and lemon-lime. Harvest later, and the wine will have lower acidity, fuller body and flavors more like pears, almonds or even honey.

A winemaker can go with one of these two styles, or pick grapes at different times in different places to make a harmonious blend that combines the best traits of each. Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve is a classic California representation of a consistent wine blended from component parts.

Vintage

Grape-growing conditions in California rarely vary enough to significantly affect the quality of Chardonnay. This is especially true for the under-$12 wines that are usually blended with grapes from various regions. If one spot has rainy conditions that dilute the grapes’ flavors, the winemaker will blend in wine from a sunnier spot.

However, with high-end wines made from single vineyards or single counties, the years sometimes vary enough to taste it. Examples include Northern California in 2011, and 2015 for certain areas along the Central Coast and North Coast.

Site

The exact location, elevation, tilt of the land and microclimate of a vineyard makes a big difference with luxury-priced Chardonnay. Monks in Burgundy mastered this during medieval times and classified their vineyard plots. Vines in Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne have been renowned sites for Chardonnay grapes for centuries.

You can taste the difference between sites if you choose a brand that makes multiple single-vineyard wines. Try the densely packed Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley against Patz & Hall’s butterscotch-scented Alder Springs Vineyard offering from Mendocino for a great contrast.

Buyer declare

It’s not a geeky thing to try and grasp which of the above descriptors and factors you appreciate in your Chardonnay. Declare a few of these terms to any good wine-shop clerk, sommelier or search engine, and you’ll multiply your chances of getting a wine that you’ll really enjoy.

Published on September 14, 2017
Topics: White Wine
About the Author
Jim Gordon
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Jim Gordon has been covering the wine industry as an editor and reporter for more than 30 years. In 2006 he became editor of Wines & Vines, the media company for North American winemakers and grape growers. He directs the editorial content of Wines & Vines in the monthly print magazine, digital and social media. Gordon is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and past director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. He was editor in chief for two books by publisher Dorling Kindersley of London: Opus Vino, and 1000 Great Everyday Wines. Gordon was managing editor of Wine Spectator for 12 years, and editor in chief of Wine Country Living magazine for four, during which time he helped create Wine Country Living TV for NBC station KNTV in San Jose. He lives in Napa, California. Email: jgordon@wineenthusiast.net.



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