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From Femme Fatale to Ingénue: The Diversity of Chardonnay

Written By Sheri Varasdi On December 22, 2010

chehalem_chardAs the tropical Florida weather finally cools down and settles in for a crisp, refreshing winter, many of you may be tempted to reach for a toasty warm bottle of red.  But for those of you who prefer white and like your toasty in the form of oak notes, a chardonnay might be just what you’re thirsting for. 

As the primary grape in Champagne production and one of the world’s most commonly planted vines, chardonnay has earned the love and respect of drinkers and winemakers alike.  In fact, certain sources have been known to call it the world’s favorite white wine.  This is due largely in part to chardonnay’s adaptability, expressiveness and diversity.
Yes, diversity.  It is no secret that chardonnay has a bit of a misconception surrounding its flavor profile.  In fact, there are many people who won’t touch the stuff because all they think of when they hear the word chardonnay, is a wine that is over-oaked, with an obnoxious, movie-theater-butter nose and a big, creamy mouthfeel.  Almost every wine drinker has probably had a wine at one time or another that could fall into this category.  And many may have loved it, which is fine. (Snowflakes, remember?) But to think that all there is to chardonnay is Champagne and oaky butter bombs, is to sell the grape short.


Here’s where diversity comes in.  Chardonnay is particularly good at reflecting the terroir in which it is grown, and absorbing the elements and techniques of its vinification.  And it’s notoriously adaptable, meaning it will grow relatively well in a variety of places.  But that is not to say it is a hearty varietal in every aspect.  While the vine remains sustainable in different regions, the delicacy of the grape itself is what makes it so impressionable. Any fan of French chardonnays will tell you that California chardonnays can be a vastly different animal, and vice versa. So why is this?

In a word, winemakers.  Of course we all know that the craftsman (or woman) plays just as big a role as the wind, rain, sun and soil.  All of these things are hands which shape a grape’s oenological future.  And it is the varying techniques of the vintner that decides which type of chardonnay is going into–and coming out of–the bottle. Malolactic fermentation is responsible for the buttery components of many chardonnays, due to a conversion of malic acid (consisting of tart flavors like that of a Granny Smith apple,) to lactic acid (such as those found in dairy products like milk, cheese, and of course, butter.) A vintner has the option of partial, full or no malolactic fermentation, which affects the presence or absence of buttery components such as a creamy mouthfeel.

A vintner also has the option of storing chardonnay on its lees, or using oak or steel barrels.  A spell of storing and/or aging in oak will of course determine whether or not a wine is going to display notes of vanilla, coconut, hazelnut, toast, smoke or woodiness of any sort.  And new American oak is going to produce vastly different results than old French oak. The climate of where the grape was grown will determine whether the grape is highly acidic, lending it a tighter structure better able to stand up to oak, or whether it contains a lower acidity, rendering the wine more susceptible to oak influence. This is why a colder climate French chardonnay aged in oak and treated to malolactic fermentation will come out so differently than a chardonnay grown in a warmer Californian climate, which is shown the same type of oak and fermentation treatment.

And there are some winemakers who choose to let the exceptional fruit flavors of wine grab the spotlight, even when it comes to super-acidic examples of chardonnay.  Keeping consistent with its diversity, chardonnay has the ability to display aromas of citrus like lemon and tangerine, stone fruits like pears, peaches and apples, and tropical elements of pineapple, guava and banana.  Time in a steel barrel will help the wine retain a zippy acidity and keep the naturally occurring fruit flavors front and center.  In the past few years, French and American winemakers alike have been opting for un-oaked chardonnays as the palate of the consumer has changed, desiring dry, tart, and more food-driven wines like pinot grigio.

A great example of American un-oaked chardonnay is the Chehalem “Inox” from Willamette, Oregon.  Herbaceous flavors of tart, crisp apple and lime, combined with a noticeable minerality, are grounded by the lush body and spice characteristics inherent to chardonnay.  Give it a swirl at Eola Wine Company for $10 a glass/$40 a bottle and see why chardonnay can play the ingénue as well as the femme fatale.


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