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What Makes a Chardonnay Taste Like It’s From California?

How Old World winemaking and New World flavors created a summertime classic.

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It’s hard to imagine now in the age of painfully cool wine trends — orange wines, sparkling reds, the entire, nebulous category of “natural wines” — but there was a time when trusty chardonnay was the height of sophistication. The white wine best known for its full body and rich, oaky-buttery flavors, was a well-kept secret in the United States until the 1950s, when it began making inroads among influential lovers of French food. Julia Child discovered her beloved “white Burgundy” — as chardonnay was then known, after the region in France where the grapes were commonly grown — while living abroad in France. After one meal in Marseilles of sea scallops on the shell cooked in wine and served seaside, she famously declared, “I would happily die with a bottle of white Burgundy in my mouth.” Guests at legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s home in Glen Ellen, California described her rustic spread of “bread, cheeses, sweet tiny cantaloupe, and slices of ham someone smoked for her” arrayed on chipped green plates from Provence and served with local chardonnay in Mexican goblets. Fisher proffered the wine with a characteristically plain-spoken endorsement: “It goes down easy.”

U.S. plantings soared in the 1970s when California vintners discovered that chardonnay grapes grew beautifully along the North and Central Coasts. By 1989, The New Basics Cookbook, the bible of urbane home cooks not yet known as foodies, advised readers to: “put a bottle of Chardonnay in the refrigerator as soon as the tips of spring asparagus poke through the ground.” Millions of wine-lovers followed suit.

Then, as they often do, wine snobs came to spoil the party. As lighter-bodied white wines like pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc came into fashion, critics declared chardonnays unsubtle, unbalanced, un-chic. By the mid-90s, wine-drinkers proudly claimed membership in the “ABC club” — Anything But Chardonnay — and the best-selling Bridget Jones’ Diary depicted its luckless heroine swilling fishbowl-sized glasses of chard. “Chardonnay should be one of the most exciting wines in California,” wrote Karen MacNeil in 2001’s The Wine Bible. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Many are simply oily, clumsy wines that taste like buttered toast soaked in alcohol. What about elegance?”

There was a grain of truth to the critique: According to the Wine Institute, California went from 13,000 acres of chardonnay grapes in 1978, to 93,000 acres in 1998. Chardonnay mania incentivized less scrupulous winemakers to plant in less-than-ideal climates, harvest too early, and cut corners in the cellar in their rush to market, speeding through steps like fermentation and aging that add complexity and refinement. Consumers were left to sift through a glut of chardonnays, some very good, some barely worth the table space.

But if sniffy critic types rejected chardonnay for its overproduction and less-than-subtle flavors, wine drinkers don’t seem to share their concern: Today, chardonnay is the most popular wine varietal in the United States, and the second most popular worldwide. Chardonnay is equally as appealing to winemakers — made with a neutral, malleable, easy-growing grape, chardonnays can show off its natural crisp fruitiness, or in a skilled winemaker’s hands, it can be coaxed into a lush, creamy concoction full of oak and vanilla.

“Chardonnay is definitely a winemaker’s grape,” says Adam Popp, lead winemaker at Harken Wines. “You can make it lean and restrained, or the classic, richer style chardonnay with notes of ripe pear, pineapple, caramel, and vanilla. It’s a lot of fun to play with getting that balance just right.”

So, what’s the difference between a beautifully balanced glass of chardonnay, and one that’s merely quaffable? Key decisions from the vineyard to the wine cellar, and an artful blend of science and winemaker’s magic.

From juice to wine

Despite its easy-growing reputation, factors like soil, climate, and level of ripeness at picking greatly influence the character of chardonnay grapes. Savvy winemakers sometimes grow grapes across several different regions so they can craft a balanced bottle. For Harken Wines, for example, Winemaker Adam Popp might combine chardonnay grapes grown in Monterey, where the climate’s long ripening season with warm days and cool nights produces bright, tropical-pineapple flavor notes, with grapes from Clarksburg, which have a richer, Bosc pear taste profile.

For chardonnays, the magic really begins in the wine cellar, where grapes are pressed into juice and put into tanks for primary fermentation — the stage where yeast, those microscopic heroes, convert natural sugars to alcohol. Primary fermentation can last between two weeks and two months, depending on the type and amount of yeast used, fermenting tank material, and temperature.

Barrel fever

Next big decision: fermenting vessel material. For light-bodied white wines like riesling, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc, stainless steel tanks are ideal — with their neutral flavor impact and built-in cooling systems to keep things a chilly 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, they help preserve those varietals’ delicacy. But to bring out the best in chardonnays, fermenting in oak barrels is the preferred choice. It’s more time-consuming and more expensive than the alternative — fermenting in steel, then aging in oak, which many winemakers do — but winemakers like Popp say they value the added creaminess that only 100% barrel fermenting can impart. Oak barrels and winemaking go back a long way, as they’ve been used to transport and age wine for the last 2,000 years, give or take.

Pass the butter

Next comes malolactic fermentation. This process occurs when naturally-occurring bacteria convert the wines’ malic acid — the type of acid that makes an apple taste tart — into lactic acid, the compound found in milk that our palates sense as creamy. Malolactic fermentation also produces diacetyl, the chemical compound responsible for chardonnay’s buttery flavors.

Malolactic fermentation takes about a month, and is the key step that changes a chardonnay from acidic, crisp, and thirst-quenching (sometimes called “Old World-style”), to a richer, buttery-creamy “New World” style wine — the taste most associated with California chardonnays.

Better with age

Next, chardonnays are aged in oak for up to a year. It’s in this step that chardonnays pick up depth and complexity of flavor, thanks largely to the characteristics of the oak barrels they’re aged in. In addition to its flavor influence, winemakers love oak because it “breathes” better than other woods — that is, it allows minute amounts of oxygen into the wine, which helps marry and mellow the wine’s flavors.

Winemakers spend no small amount of time thinking about how their barrels interact with their wines, and carefully calibrating that combination to create the ideal chardonnay. Among the factors that affect the finished wines are provenance of the oak (American oak lends a more intense woody-vanilla flavor, while French oak’s effect is more subtle), grain size (tighter grain lends stronger oak flavor), and barrel size (smaller barrels impart stronger flavor).

Winemakers can further customize the aging process by selecting their barrels’ toasting level — having coopers apply more char to the wood brings out more toasty, vanilla-caramel flavors in the wine. Barrel age is another factor, with newer barrels imparting the most flavor, and barrels losing much of their flavor impact after five to six years. At Harken, they use 33 percent new oak for each vintage, and age in so-called “fusion barrels,” which alternate staves of American and French oak to get what Popp calls “the best of both worlds — you get the California-style bold oak impact with coconut and vanilla, balanced out by the French-style subtle spice notes: coffee and baking chocolate.” For winemakers, oak barrels are more than a vessel, they’re the key that unlocks a wine’s potential, almost as important as the grape itself.

Big little lies

During the aging process, better chardonnays are left sur lie — that is, in contact with the lees or spent yeast cells. “The lees release mannoproteins into the wine. That’s what gives chardonnay its richer texture and softer mouthfeel,” says Popp. Harken ages its chardonnays sur lie for between four and 12 months, in relatively small barrels — 59 gallon size — and employs a team of winemakers who carefully monitor the wines and hand-stir them every two weeks to increase contact between the wine and the lees.

It’s a labor-intensive process (one that some winemakers skip by removing the lees before aging), but, Popp says, “it’s a labor of love that really makes a difference to how refined the finished wine feels.”

Chardonnay can’t hide the time and care put into it, or the lack thereof. That’s its weakness and its strength. When winemakers cut corners to save time or money: say, by aging for weeks instead of months, or using stainless steel tanks with oak chips to replicate the flavor impact of an oak barrel, it really shows. And while the most common critiques of chardonnay (too oaky, too oily) tend to reflect the unbalanced taste of an improperly made chardonnay, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, working on a timeline of years not months, chardonnay remains a beautiful thing.

“People still love chardonnay,” Popp says. “Winemakers are doing interesting things with it, it pairs with so many different types of foods, it feels like summer — it just works.”

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