Are you a fan of buttery, oaky Chardonnays? Are you a fan of more subdued Chardonnays? Do you steer clear of Chardonnays altogether, because you don’t like the heavy butter, oak flavors?
Truth be told, Chardonnay comes in many shapes and sizes, from butter/oak bombs to crisp, clean, fruity wines. It’s helpful – and a lot of fun – to try a broad range of Chardonnays and decide which styles suit you best.
Why so many styles?
The Chardonnay grape is neutral. Think of it as the tofu of grapes. It gets a lot of its character from non-grape factors such as terroir (the environment where the grapes were grown), oak, and wine-making methods.
All wines are influenced by the grapes’ growing environment. Because Chardonnay is such a neutral grape, terroir probably plays a more significant role in this grape’s (and wine’s) ultimate character. For example, if the grapes are grown in sandy soil, where water retention is challenging, the fruit will struggle to find water and develop a lot of complexity. If the grapes are grown in clay soil, where water retention is better, the grapes will be less complex. If the soil has iron deposits, the grapes will have a lot of minerality.
Oak can be introduced during fermentation, during aging, or not at all. If wine makers use oak, they can choose new or neutral barrels, lightly charred or heavily charred barrels, and small or large barrels.
All of these decisions influence whether the wine has no, some or pronounced notes of vanilla, cream, caramel, smoke, butter and toastiness. These flavors come from the wood, not from the grape itself.
If the wine maker elects to use no oak (all stainless), the wine will have none of the oak-influenced notes. Unoaked Chardonnays will be crisper, lighter in body, fruitier and less complex than their oaked relatives.
Wine makers who want creaminess in their Chardonnay will make sure the juice goes through malolactic fermentation (or MLF), where the harder malic acid gets converted into softer lactic acid, producing creamy, buttery notes.
Wine makers will also choose whether to keep the aging wine on the lees, or dead yeast, and whether to stir the lees. These processes enhance the structure and mouthfeel of the wine, giving it extra body and complexity.
Wine makers also use fermentation temperatures to influence the ultimate wine’s character. Colder fermentation temperatures produce more tropical fruit flavors such as pineapple and mango.
Because Chardonnay is so malleable, you can end up with a wide array of styles. Please let us know what styles you prefer.