Chardonnay is one of the topics about which I am the most passionate. For some reason I feel extremely adamant about getting the word out that Chardonnay is not all movie theater butter and heavy, heavy mouthfeels. It can actually be light and floral and dance on your palate like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc (but better). Unfortunately, California has cultivated the narrative that Chardonnay is synonymous with oak and butter when in fact, the French have been using oak in their Chardonnay winemaking for centuries.
So why is it that these oaky and buttery Chards came to be? At its core, Chardonnay is actually a cool climate grape that originated from Burgundy, France. If you ever hear someone offer you a “White Burgundy,” it’s going to be Chardonnay. It’s the dominant white grape of the region, as is Pinot Noir the dominant red. The growing conditions in Burgundy can be more harsh than those of California, with much more frost events possible and lower temperatures during the growing season on average.
Chardonnay, as we’ve seen, can grow in California and it can be quite beautiful. But it gets so hot in California during the growing season that sometimes a lot of new oak gets used in the aging process to wrangle the rich, ripe flavors of the grape. Chardonnay can stand up to a lot of new oak aging which is why this style of winemaking has become so popular over the years.
In Lettie Teague’s “Must a Chardonnay be Bombastically Oaky?” she discussed the topic with former Beringer head winemaker and Chardonnay legend Ed Sbragia. He suggested that maybe the winemakers back in the day who hopped on the oaky bandwagon didn’t understand oak as well as we do now, and they also had much fewer options in terms of toast and brands. Yes many descendants of European families with winemaking backgrounds settled to start the industry here in Napa. But that doesn’t mean there was constant communication between the old world and the new world when it came to winemaking, and the growing conditions here are so different from those of France and the old world. For the most part, it was winemaking in the wild wild west. Winemaking has advanced so much since Chardonnay was first planted in Napa, so why should this grape be unrightfully shackled to the reputation it had in the 80’s when none other is? Besides Merlot, but that’s a whole other issue to tackle.
A common association with oaky is the term buttery. While there isn’t actual butter in the wine (sigh) the chemical compound that creates the movie theater butter flavor, diacetyl, is produced by malolactic fermentation. This secondary “fermentation” is really a conversion of malic acid to lactic acid (malic acid is naturally produced in the wine during primary fermentation). Malic acid is tart and edgy while lactic is creamy and soft. This creamy mouthfeel and other complexities derived from MLF are desirable in a wine and why many winemakers encourage MLF in their Chardonnays. However, malolactic fermentation is not synonymous with heavy and buttery Chardonnays. It is possible for a wine to have gone through 100% malolactic fermentation but still be light and fruit-forward, just like you can have a heavy, oaky Chardonnay with no malolactic fermentation in it. The key is the aging process – if the wine’s been aged in neutral oak, a very small percentage of new French oak or none at all, it can still be incredibly bright. I’ve had delicious, bright and fruity Chards that underwent 100% malolactic but were aged in 100% neutral oak.
I understand it can be risky to buy a bottle or even a glass of wine at a restaurant if you know you don’t like heavily oaked Chardonnays. However, it might be worth the risk to find a new wine that you actually love. The wait staff and sommeliers are there to help you find the right wine, so be sure to describe what you do want with words like “light, crisp, fruit-forward, mineral, and Chablis-like” if that’s what you want. Chablis is basically Rombauer’s alter ego – it’s light, crisp and high in minerality (which is quintessential of its growing site). If you do like a heavy, oaky Chardonnay you should communicate that as well so whoever’s helping you knows not to stray from those options.
Key terms to look for if you prefer a Chardonnay that is light, fruity, crisp, floral and high in minerality:
Bourgogne Blanc (White Burgundy)
Chardonnays from Australia (specifically Margaret River)
Keep in mind that Chardonnay from Bourgogne might still be aged in oak, but it will probably be less intense than the Kendall-Jacksons and Rombauers of California. Pay attention to if the wine was aged in new French oak or neutral French oak (anything older than new).
All wines are beautiful (if made well and from good grapes). Stay wary of people who say all Chardonnays are bad – maybe they just haven’t found the right one and you can take it upon yourself to introduce them to one they might love. I even got my mom to start drinking Chardonnay (after she had avoided them for years because of the oaky and buttery trend) just by finding the right ones. Happy Chard hunting!