A word often used by winemakers when describing Chardonnay is “malleable.” Perhaps more than any other variety, Chardonnay enables a vintner to lend his or her own stamp to the finished product.
That’s good on one hand, because it gives a winery an opportunity to develop a “house style,” or to introduce various aromas and flavors to the cuvee in years when the fruitfulness of the grapes may not be particularly pronounced.
But it also can lead to confusion among wine drinkers, because there is no single, clear “vision” of what Chardonnay is. “Do you like Chardonnay?” is a question that may require much more than a “yes” or “no” answer. With that in mind, it can be very helpful to get to know the various styles of Chardonnay, and how they differ from one another. Following are the most common traits of Chardonnay wines from various winegrowing regions…
- Burgundy, France—Rich and minerally, with vanilla shadings from oak barrel aging. Apple and lemon flavors are evident in the wine’s youth, morphing into impressions of hazelnuts and truffles with extending aging.
- Chablis, France—This area of northern Burgundy produces Chardonnay that is higher in acid and often more minerally, with less evident oak influence.
- Sonoma Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands of California—These cooler growing areas can produce Chardonnay that mimics Burgundy in style. Malolactic fermentation typically is avoided so that the wine’s fruit flavors can shine.
- Napa Valley and Other Inland Regions of California—These warmer growing areas produce richer, “warmer” (i.e., somewhat higher in alcohol) wines, with fruit flavors complemented by buttery notes from malolactic fermentation.
Barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation and oak barrel aging are among the “wild cards” that vintners have at their disposal. Each can significantly impact the aromas, mouthfeel, flavors and finish of Chardonnay.
So, while it’s very helpful to know about the general traits of a given region, ultimately, a wine lover will want to get to know the style of a given winemaker.