Depending on where it\u2019s grown and how it\u2019s made, Chardonnay can be lean and flinty, or rich and buttery. In the last 20 years, however, Chardonnays made in the latter style have lost favor with many drinkers.\r\n\r\n\u201cYou have no idea how much I get criticized for being the only person at the restaurant table who drinks buttery Chardonnays, and considered an outcast,\u201d a wine lover named Greg wrote to The Wall Street Journal in 2006. He may have been dining with the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd, or people who consider full-bodied Chardonnays \u201cbutter bombs\u201d that mask any sense of place.\r\n\r\nEveryone is entitled to their opinions, of course, but Chardonnay sparks multitudes of them.\r\n\r\n\u201cAs a sommelier, I would always discourage guests from swearing off a whole varietal, and instead encourage them to explore producers and regions,\u201d says Dan O\u2019Brien, founder/winemaker of Gail Wines. He worked in restaurants for 10 years before becoming a winemaker, and believes that Chardonnay is often misunderstood.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nSome of the world\u2019s most highly regarded Chardonnays from Burgundy and beyond are made with malolactic fermentation. The process creates a creamier consistency and a buttery note in wines.\r\n\r\nHow did we get to this point? And is there any hope for a big, buttery redemption?\r\nA Rich History\r\nMalolactic fermentation, also known as \u201cMLF\u201d or \u201cmalo,\u201d is a process where winemakers use bacteria to lower a wine\u2019s acidity. During the months-long process, bacteria changes malic acid to softer, creamier lactic acid. Diacetyl, a byproduct of MLF, imparts a buttery taste.\r\n\r\nTo make a dry, crisp Chardonnay, winemakers use MLF sparingly or stop it altogether. They embrace MLF if they want to create a richer, rounder wine. The process changes the overall mouthfeel of the wine, producing a soft, creamy texture on the palate and notes of butter, sour cream and yogurt.\r\n\u201cAs a sommelier, I would always discourage guests from swearing off a whole varietal.\u201d\u2014Dan O\u2019Brien, founder/winemaker, Gail Wines\r\nWinemakers have understood the effects of MLF since the 19th century, but the practice became especially popular among U.S. winemakers near the start of the 21st century. Why? Because they wanted to sell wine.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe late 1990s specifically marked a style shift in wine for American consumers as they began to purchase wines based on critics' scores,\u201d says O\u2019Brien. At the time, critics like Robert Parker tended to favor wines that were bigger, richer and higher in alcohol. Consumer tastes developed in tandem, so winemakers gravitated to more oaky styles.\r\n\r\n\u201cThanks to high sugars at harvest, lots of new oak and [MLF], they were able to achieve this quality, which became the norm,\u201d says O\u2019Brien.\r\nPendulum Swing\r\nConsumer tastes are cyclical. And those big, oaky, buttery wines became less fashionable to a younger generation of wine drinkers raised on fresher fruit and crisp acidity.\r\n\r\n\u201cThere\u2019s no turning back once a Chardonnay has been over-oaked,\u201d says Dr. Dawna Darjean Jones, owner/winemaker of Darjean Jones Wines. \u201cBalance has always been key to winemaking. Overdo it or underdo it at any point, and you will end up with a simple wine versus a complex one.\u201d\r\n\r\nBut what some consumers don\u2019t realize, Jones adds, is that all sorts of wines undergo MLF, even highly acidic ones. The end result depends on how winemakers use the technique.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cMLF has the ability to deepen the body and complexity of a wine,\u201d she says. \u201cIt also helps to ensure stability after bottling. There are many desirable traits that oak has the ability to impart on both red and white wines. Mouthfeel is one, but aromatics and flavor profiles like vanilla, toast, charred wood, chocolate, coffee and butterscotch all come from barrel aging [as well].\u201d\r\n\r\nO\u2019Brien agrees. \u201cWinemakers have their reasons for embracing MLF. The acidity that comes from certain white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and even some Chardonnays might need it to help balance out the wine."\r\nBack to Burgundy\r\nIn Burgundy, Chardonnay is the main white grape variety. It\u2019s not uncommon for Burgundian winemakers to use oak to bring out secondary or tertiary flavors in their wines.\r\n\r\n\u201cConsumers who like old school-style California Chardonnay\u2014big, buttery and oaky\u2014should certainly explore Meursault, especially with some bottle age,\u201d says Kelly Mitchell, a wine consultant and sales representative. \u201cThey aren't the same, but they both represent bigger, more robust styles of Chardonnay.\u201d\r\n\r\nAs U.S. wine culture evolves, and drinkers become more confident in ordering whatever they like, there might be room for buttery-Chardonnay-loving Greg and his companions at the table. Trends change, but nothing is as valuable as an open mind.