Chardonnay: Not All Butter & Toast

The commonly consumed Chardonnay from California is just not my “thing” and when asked for a recommendation for a buttery or oaky one, I am very honest with people. I tell them I prefer to actually taste the Chardonnay grape and not butter or toast. I do suggest wines that I know have those notes, but I cannot recommend them from experience. I, like a lot of people, had a very closed mind about Chardonnay, thinking they all tasted the same, until the classes I took led me to start tasting different wines and now it is a whole new (or should I say old) world for me. Let us explore the differences.

You may not realize this, but climate (different from weather) does affect grapes. Chardonnay grapes grown in warm regions like California will produce a wine fuller in body, less acidic, with tropical fruit notes. Whereas, grapes that are grown in cooler areas in the Burgundy region of France, will produce lighter, more acidic wines with citrus fruit notes. 

Before moving on, let me first explain the difference between New and Old World for those that may not know. New World wines are made in areas of the world that were developed during The Age of Exploration. They include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, the United States and Canada. Old World wines are made in areas where winemaking originated – basically in all of Europe.

To continue, Chardonnay is also one of the only white wines that truly benefits from aging in oak barrels by taking on the flavors of the oak. A lot of California Chardonnays are aged in new oak barrels. This imparts the vanilla, caramel and toasty notes. Chardonnays in France are aged in older barrels so you get very little oak flavor – these are considered unoaked. There are also others that are aged in stainless steel tanks.

To achieve the “buttery” aroma and mouth-feel, Chardonnay wine makers will sometimes take additional steps after fermentation and do a “secondary fermentation” or malolactic fermentation (MLF). This process converts the tart, green-apple components (which some of us like!) of malic acid into smoother, buttery attributes of lactic acid. This conversion is done with the use of a particular species of bacteria (yum!). Before you get grossed out and swear off your favorite California Chardonnay, please note that MLF is more often used in the production of red wines, since high acidity is something less desirable in reds. So you see, this makes total sense – most times. There is also another process wine makers can do to achieve the creamy texture, but it is an arduous technique, it has a French name and it will just confuse things.

One evening I brought a bottle of Chablis over to a friend’s house. Located in the most northern area of Burgundy, they are known for producing some of the tastiest Chardonnays, which is the only grape that region produces. Not a fan of Chardonnay, I asked my friend if she liked what we were drinking. After she told me she liked it, I confessed we were drinking a Chardonnay. She of course did not believe me at first and was amazed to realize that she, in fact, does like Chardonnay after all.

So if you too have avoided Chardonnay, try to find one that suits you – I am sure it is out there. If you like full-bodied whites with tropical fruit notes, but do not like oakiness, then try one that is aged in stainless steel. Or try an Old World Chardonnay from France so you can taste the bright flavors of the Chardonnay coming through. It is about trying different wines, educating yourself and learning it is not all butter and toast. Tell us about your favorite Chardonnay.

Cin Cin!